In today’s Washington Post Jonathan Greenberg writes about how Donald Trump lied his way onto the Forbes’ 400 list of the wealthiest Americans back in the early 1980s. It’s an amazing story, which illustrates just how insecure, desperate and pathological Trump truly is. It reminds us that, then as now, he possessed no shame whatsoever and would stop at nothing to portray himself as wealthy and powerful, going so far as to disguise his voice and to pretend to be another person in order to appear as something he was not.
While most people are sharing and reacting to that story based on the bald-faced lies Trump told and the audacious things he did in order to make Forbes’ list, the story tells a larger and, in my mind, more significant story. It’s a story about journalism and American values and about how a certain failure and bankruptcy in both of those things led us to where we are today.
Malcolm Forbes came up with the idea of the Forbes 400 in 1982. The idea was to personalize wealth after decades in which faceless corporate conglomerates dominated the story of American business. Given the circles in which Malcolm Forbes traveled, his personal extravagance and his obvious love of fame and celebrity, it’s not surprising that there was more going on here than the mere reporting about powerful business figures.
The Forbes 400 was about elevating and celebrating the wealthy — many of whom were not, actually, business figures but, rather, heirs — simply because they were wealthy. It was a gossipy, clickbaity listicle for the pre-Internet age. We all know what MegaCorp Consolidated owns and what it does, but who is its biggest shareholder? How is he special? What makes him tick? More importantly, what does he own? What does he wear, eat, drink, drive and fly? The Forbes 400 constituted an implicit argument for the social value of wealth for its own sake. An argument which kicked off or, at the very least, worked in tandem with the greed-is-good, “Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous” social and cultural forces ascendent in 1980s America.
It was this culture which gave us Donald Trump. Donald Trump became president because he was famous. He became famous because he was portrayed as rich. He was portrayed as rich because, in the early 1980s, there was a big cultural push — much larger than Donald Trump — to celebrate the rich simply for their status of being rich. If that culture did not exist, there would have been no Forbes 400 for Trump to lie to get on to and if there was no Forbes 400, and the culture which surrounded it, it’s an open question whether anyone outside of the New York real estate world would’ve ever heard about Donald Trump. Donald Trump did not lie his way to the presidency on his own. He had a lot of help.
The elevation of the rich for their own sake in the 1980s was not new, of course. Back in the Gilded Age the robber barons were larger-than-life figures, permeating the culture far beyond the business pages. In the Great Depression the names of the wealthy could be found in song lyrics and constituted instantly recognizable references in movies, on stage and on the radio. This elevation of the rich likewise did not stop with the death of Malcolm Forbes and the end of the go-go 1980s. To see how this celebrity-style reporting on the rich and powerful still works, one only need look at the often uncritical coverage of figures like Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos, Mark Zuckerberg and, more broadly, the culture of Silicon Valley as something separate, apart and, somehow, more noble and visionary than the mere businessmen and women that they are.
All of which is to say that, however much fun it is to point and laugh at the prospect of a 36-year-old Donald Trump pretending to be something he wasn’t, that’s not really the big takeaway from today’s piece in the Washington Post. We know Trump is a pathological liar and those of us who paid attention to him before he got into politics have known this for years.
The more important questions raised by that article are how and why Trump was given the platform from which to tell his lies in the first place? Who will be the next to take advantage of America’s sick and misguided fascination with wealth for its own sake to ascend to a position for which he is clearly unqualified? Finally, when will the media, which utterly failed to push back against the idea that greed is good in the 1980s and has continued to fail in this regard each and every time that ethos has been repackaged for a new era, begin to ask itself why the wealthy are celebrated and considered newsworthy in and of themselves?