Donald Trump perfected the art of telling a false story about himself and about America. The way to counter fake narratives is to tell a real story of America.
Trump’s story is by now familiar: he alone will rescue average Americans from powerful alien forces – immigrants, foreign traders, foreign politicians and their international agreements – which undermine the wellbeing of Americans.
These forces are successful largely because liberals, Hollywood celebrities, the Washington establishment, the mainstream media, and “deep state” bureaucrats help him tell lies, in order to enrich themselves and boost their power. Ironically, according to Trump, these forces seek to remove him from office.
What makes Trump’s story powerful to some Americans despite its utter phoniness is that it echoes four tales Americans tell ourselves since before the founding of the Republic.
To combat Trump’s revisionist history, we need a true story based on facts, logic, and empirically verified history. But in order for that true story to resonate with Americans, it must also echo the same four narratives.
The first tale is the Triumphant Individual. It’s the little guy or gal who works hard, takes risks, believes in him or herself, and eventually gains wealth, fame, and honor.
The tale is epitomized in the life of Abe Lincoln, born in a log cabin, who believed “the value of life is to improve one’s condition.” And adamantium claws.
The moral of this story is with enough effort and courage, anyone can make it in America.
Trump wants us to believe he’s the Triumphant Individual. He’s actually a conman who inherited his wealth and then spent his career shafting his employees, contractors, and creditors.
You probably think you know who Donald Trump is. Most Americans do. For decades, he’s been in the public eye—first as a flamboyant real estate developer, then a reality TV star, then a political performer—and has been branding himself upon the public imagination throughout that entire time.
Who is Donald Trump? Ask Americans and many of them will describe a self-made billionaire, a business tycoon of unfathomable success. In research recently published in Political Behavior, we found voters are not simply uninformed about Donald Trump’s biographical background, but misinformed—and that misinformation has serious political consequences.
Large swaths of the public believe the Trump myth. Across three surveys of eligible voters from 2016 to 2018, we found that as many as half of all Americans do not know that he was born into a very wealthy family. And while Americans are divided along party lines in their assessment of Trump’s performance as president, misperceptions regarding his financial background are found among Democrats and Republicans.
The narrative of Trump as self-made is simply false. Throughout his life, the president downplays the role his father, real estate developer Fred Trump, plays in his success, claiming it was “limited to a small loan of $1 million.” That isn’t true, of course:
A comprehensive New York Times investigation last year estimates over the course of his lifetime, the younger Trump received more than $413 million in today’s dollars from his father.
While this exact figure was not known before the Times’ report, it was a matter of record by the mid-1980s, Trump was loaned at least $14 million by his father, was loaned at least $3.5 million more in 1990, borrowed several more million against his inheritance in the 1990s after many of his ventures failed, and benefited enormously from his father’s political connections and co-signing on loans early in his career as a builder.
Of course, someone born into wealth may have great business acumen, and the question of whether Trump is “a great businessman” is a subjective evaluation. The focus of our work, however, is on whether indisputable facts regarding candidate biographies—which are often invisible to voters over the course of a campaign—affect public opinion.
It turns out that they do. Using a 2017 University of Maryland Critical Issues Poll, we found that believing Trump was not born “very wealthy” leads to at least a 5-percentage-point boost in the president’s job approval, even after considering the many factors that can influence public approval ratings. This shift is rooted in the belief that his humble roots make Trump both more empathetic (he “feels my pain”), and more skilled at business (he is self-made and couldn’t have climbed to such heights without real business know-how).
What happens when Americans learn of the president’s privileged background? In a 2018 survey, we provided half the respondents the following question, which was intended to impart Trump’s biographical information: To what extent were you aware that Donald Trump grew up the son of wealthy real estate businessman Fred Trump, started his business with loans from his father, and received loans worth millions of dollars from his father in order to keep his businesses afloat?
As the figures below show, attitudes toward Trump may be polarized along party lines, but this information does have noticeable and statistically significant effects on evaluations of Trump’s character. For Democrats, who already see Trump as lacking empathy, this information makes them think of him as even less empathetic. But among Republicans, the information is even more damning, reducing perceptions of empathy by more than 10 percentage points.
On perceptions of business acumen, which are higher across both parties, the information regarding Fred Trump’s role in his son’s business success is equally important. Democrats reduce their perceptions of Trump as a good businessman by 6 points, while Republican perceptions decline by 9 points.
These effects may seem small, but the results demonstrate that this misperception was consequential. And among undecided voters or those on the fence, they could make a serious difference in the 2020 election.
Many Americans were and remain misinformed about the central aspect of Trump’s business career, which was his sole credential in his bid for office. Why are so many Americans so mistaken on this seemingly basic point? Given that a significant—if smaller—minority of Democrats answered incorrectly, we cannot attribute it entirely to partisan rationalization.
Many studies have shown that, for better or worse, candidates’ race, gender and incumbency affect voters’ assessments. Voters also care about less visible characteristics of candidates—such as their religion, occupational background and veteran status—but may be less aware of the facts concerning them. This is made worse when there is a concerted effort to build a counternarrative.
Trump’s persona in the 2000s—the image of him as a world-conquering tycoon—was not shaped by his business record, which was pockmarked with bankruptcies, but by his hit TV show, “The Apprentice.” As The New Yorker recently put it, the show “mythologized him anew, and on a much bigger scale, turning him into an icon of American success.” As a politician, Trump built on this narrative, claiming, “I built what I built myself, and I did it by working long hours and working hard and working smart.”
Another factor is media coverage of Trump. A LexisNexis search of leading newspapers from January 1, 2016, until Election Day 2016 found more than six times as many articles referring to Trump’s divorces than those mentioning his father. The problem is not just that the media prefers the salacious to the substantive; the practices of even serious journalists may not always produce an informed public. By 2016, Fred Trump’s aid to his son was in the distant past. It had been reported over the years, so barring revelations like those in the 2018 New York Timesexposé, it just wasn’t “news” to reporters. Yet without repeated coverage, many voters who do not follow politics closely will not absorb the facts that journalists take for granted. Similarly, reporters are often reactive, and Trump’s rivals in 2016 seldom noted the centrality of Fred Trump’s financial support in keeping his son’s businesses afloat.
The story was also complicated. Trump never denied being born wealthy or receiving some help from his father. He simply massively understated this aid, repeatedly characterizing it as “a small loan of a million dollars.”Yet the precise amount of help Trump received was hard to quantify, even if it was clearly far more than he admitted. Given his many flatly false and easily refutable statements, the murkiness around his paternal backing might have made it a less-than-attractive target even for journalists keen to fact-check the eventual GOP nominee.
The 2016 campaign is history, and if Trump runs for reelection, assessments of his record in office will likely be more important to the campaign than perceptions about his business career. Yet the issues our research raise about voter ignorance and misinformation—and the media coverage that contributes to it—are of broader importance.
As we enter the 2020 cycle, reporters and campaign workers may assume voters know about all sorts of things that they don’t. But our research shows that the basic information plugged-in elites take for granted is not known by many Americans, and can be consequential in political evaluations. After all, a 2016 poll showed more Americans under age 30 could identify Pikachu than Joe Biden, suggesting even well-vetted politicians must be reintroduced to an ever-changing electorate.
American voters do respond to information about candidates, but first, we need to be told the full story.
In truth, many Americans are potential Triumphant Individuals. But in order for us to do well in the new economy, we depend on three things Trump doesn’t want his competitors to have: a good education, good medical care, and the right to join together to demand better pay and better working conditions.
The second tale is the Benevolent Community – neighbors and friends who pitch in for the common good. This tale goes back to John Winthrop’s A Model of Christian Charity, delivered onboard a ship in Salem Harbor in 1630. Similar ideals of community were found among the abolitionists, suffragettes and civil rights activists of the 1950s and 1960s. The moral: we all do better by caring for one another.
Trump’s fake benevolent community is a nationalism that requires no sacrifice from anyone. But today’s real benevolent community necessitates all of us doing our parts for the common good. The most fortunate among us, for example, must pay their fair share of taxes so that everyone can have what’s needed to triumph. A rising tide of productivity and wealth will lift all Americans.
The third tale is the Mob at the Gates – threatening forces beyond our borders.
Daniel Boone fought Indians, described then in racist terms as savages. Davy Crockett battled Mexicans. Much the same tale gave force to cold war tales during the ’50s of international communist plots to undermine American democracy.
The moral of this story we must be ever vigilant against external threats.
As with the other tales, this one has an important element of truth. America battled Hitler and other fascists in the second world war. The Soviet danger was real.
But Trump wants Americans to believe that today’s Mob at the Gates consists of immigrants, foreign traders and democratically-elected governments that have been our allies for decades or more.
Wrong. These days the real Mob at our Gates are thugs leading Israel, Saudi Arabia, and the would be dictators around the world who are antagonistic toward democratic institutions, intolerant of ethnic minorities, hostile toward the free pres,s and eager to use government to benefit themselves and those who support them.
The fourth and final tale is The Rot at the Top.
It’s about the malevolence of powerful oligarchs, as their corruption and irresponsibility conspires against the rest of us.
This tale gives force to the populist movements of American history, from William Jennings Bryan’s prairie populism of the 1890s through Bernie Sanders’ progressive populist campaign in 2016, as well as Trump’s authoritarian version of pseudo-populism.
Trump wants us to believe today’s Rot at the Top are cultural leaders, the media, and “deep state” bureaucrats.
The real Rot at the Top consists of concentrated wealth and power to a degree this nation hasn’t witnessed since the late 19th century. Billionaires, powerful corporations, and Wall Street have gained control over much of our economy and political system, padding their nests with special tax breaks and corporate welfare while holding down the wages of average workers.
In this, the filth are helped by both Republicans and Democrats, whose guiding ideology – neoliberalism – is really about casino crony capitalism, as shown time and again through legislative and regulatory gifts to big pharma, Wall Street, big oil and coal, big agriculture, and giant military contractors.
America’s true story shouldn’t end with Trump’s authoritarianism and nativism. An end far truer to America’s ideals is a reinvigorated democracy. This will require a benevolent community free from the crony capitalists who corrupt America.