The cultural roots of our political problems.
It’s become clear in the interim that things are not in good shape, that our problems are societal. The whole country is going through some sort of spiritual and emotional crisis.
College mental health facilities are swamped, suicide rates are spiking, the president’s repulsive behavior is tolerated or even celebrated by tens of millions of Americans. At the root of it all is the following problem: We’ve created a culture based on lies.
Here are some of them:
Career success is fulfilling. This is the lie we foist on the young. In their tender years we put the most privileged of them inside a college admissions process that puts achievement and status anxiety at the center of their lives. That begins advertising’s lifelong mantra — if you make it, life will be good.
Everybody who has actually tasted success can tell you that’s not true. I remember when the editor of my first book called to tell me it had made the best-seller list. It felt like … nothing. It was external to me.
The truth is, success spares you from the shame you might experience if you feel yourself a failure, but career success alone does not provide positive peace or fulfillment. If you build your life around it, your ambitions will always race out in front of what you’ve achieved, leaving you anxious and dissatisfied.
I can make myself happy. This is the lie of self-sufficiency. This is the lie that happiness is an individual accomplishment. If I can have just one more victory, lose 15 pounds or get better at meditation, then I will be happy.
But people looking back on their lives from their deathbeds tell us that happiness is found amid thick and loving relationships. It is found by defeating self-sufficiency for a state of mutual dependence. It is found in the giving and receiving of care.
It’s easy to say you live for relationships, but it’s very hard to do. It’s hard to see other people in all their complexity. It’s hard to communicate from your depths, not your shallows. It’s hard to stop performing! No one teaches us these skills.
Life is an individual journey. This is the lie books like Dr. Seuss’ “Oh, the Places You’ll Go” tell. In adulthood, each person goes on a personal trip and racks up a bunch of experiences, and whoever has the most experiences wins. This lie encourages people to believe freedom is the absence of restraint. Be unattached. Stay on the move. Keep your options open.
In reality, the people who live best tie themselves down. They don’t ask: What cool thing can I do next? They ask: What is my responsibility here? They respond to some problem or get called out of themselves by a deep love.
By planting themselves in one neighborhood, one organization or one mission, they earn trust. They have the freedom to make a lasting difference. It’s the chains we choose that set us free.
You have to find your own truth. This is the privatization of meaning. It’s not up to the schools to teach a coherent set of moral values, or a society. Everybody chooses his or her own values. Come up with your own answers to life’s ultimate questions! You do you!
The problem is that unless your name is Aristotle, you probably can’t do it. Most of us wind up with a few vague moral feelings but no moral clarity or sense of purpose.
The reality is that values are created and passed down by strong, self-confident communities and institutions. People absorb their values by submitting to communities and institutions and taking part in the conversations that take place within them. It’s a group process.
According to “Kushner, Inc.,” Gary Cohn, former director of the National Economic Council, has told people that Ivanka Trump thinks she could someday be president. “Her father’s reign in Washington, D.C., is, she believes, the beginning of a great American dynasty,”
.. Kushner, whose pre-White House experience included owning a boutique newspaper and helming a catastrophically ill-timed real estate deal, has arrogated to himself substantial parts of American foreign policy. According to Ward, shortly after Rex Tillerson was confirmed as secretary of state, Kushner told him “to leave Mexico to him because he’d have Nafta wrapped up by October.”
.. As political actors, the couple are living exemplars of the Dunning-Kruger effect, a psychological phenomenon which leads incompetent people to overestimate their ability because they can’t grasp how much they don’t know.
Partly, the Jared and Ivanka story is about the “reality distortion field” — a term one of Ward’s sources uses about Kushner — created by great family wealth. She quotes a member of Trump’s legal team saying that the two “have no idea how normal people perceive, understand, intuit.” Privilege, in them, has been raised to the level of near sociopathy.
.. Ward, the author of two previous books about the worlds of high finance and real estate, has known Kushner slightly for a long time; she told me that when he bought The New York Observer newspaper in 2006, he tried to hire her. She knocks down the idea that either he or his wife is a stabilizing force or moral compass in the Trump administration. Multiple White House sources told her they think it was Kushner who ordered the closing of White House visitor logs in April 2017, because he “didn’t want his frenetic networking exposed.” Ward reports that Cohn was stunned by their blasé reaction to Trump’s defense of the white-nationalist marchers in Charlottesville, Va.: “He was upset that they were not sufficiently upset.”
Still, even if you assume that the couple are amoral climbers, their behavior still doesn’t quite make sense. Ward writes that Ivanka’s chief concern is her personal brand, but that brand has been trashed. The book cites an October 2017 survey measuring consumer approval of more than 1,600 brands. Ivanka’s fashion line was in the bottom 10. A leading real estate developer tells Ward that Kushner, now caught up in multiple state and federal investigations, has become radioactive: “No one will want to do business with him.” (Kushner resigned as C.E.O. of Kushner Companies in 2017, but has kept most of his stake in the business.)
To truly make sense of their motivations, Ward told me, you have to understand the gravitational pull of their fathers. Husband and wife are both “really extraordinarily orientated and identified through their respective fathers in a way that most fully formed adults are not,” she said.
“You’ll notice that the U.S. position toward Qatar changes when the Qataris bail out 666 Fifth Avenue,” said Ward, adding, “We look like a banana republic.” Maybe that’s why Jared and Ivanka appear so blithely confident. As public servants, they’re obviously way out of their depth. But as self-dealing scions of a gaudy autocracy? They’re naturals.
Manufacturers would profit more from selling their products through a range of retailers, but they say they are eager to offer up their concepts solely to Amazon. In exchange, brands get help launching their products on Amazon.com, faster customer feedback when testing new products, marketing support and revenue from the sales. They also can appear at the top of search results—a big draw, given Amazon’s platform lists an estimated 550 million items.
.. Amazon, on its own, also has been quietly growing the number of its in-house brands in recent years. Analysts estimate they now have more than 100. Those include the more obvious AmazonBasics brand, which makes everything from suitcases to batteries; the Happy Belly brand of foods; and the Mama Bear baby products brand. Amazon sometimes promotes its own brands higher in search results, like “Amazon’s Choice” and sponsored items, or default results in voice searches using Amazon’s Alexa virtual assistant.
In-house brands often generate a higher profit margin for retailers, including Amazon, and can draw in customers because they can’t find those brands elsewhere. But developing a new brand and formulating products takes time. Amazon spent several years crafting and launching brands like Happy Belly and Mama Bear. By getting other brand manufacturers to do that work instead, Amazon can ramp up its private-brand offerings faster and at a lower cost, people familiar with the program said.
There are lots of details and surprises to come, but the end game of this presidency seems as clear now as those of Iraq and the financial crisis did months before they unfolded.”
We are now in the end stages of the Trump presidency.” What is it that’s gone on in the last few weeks or months that’s made you think this?
Adam Davidson: For a year and a half now, I’m one of several reporters who’ve been studying intently Donald Trump’s businesses, his relationships with people around the world. And as a rule, this group of reporters finds it increasingly shocking just how flagrant the Trump Organization was in dealing with some of the shadiest—frankly, in cases, purely evil—people who made their money in wildly illegal and corrupt ways.
I do think most Americans, including Trump’s hardcore supporters, have a general sense that this is a guy who isn’t going to be a stickler for the rules, and has probably done some sort of technically illegal things or shady things. But I don’t think the full lawless and also kind of pathetic and lame nature of the Trump business has entered the national narrative in the way I think it should... I’m suspecting, but I can’t say for sure—that Michael Cohen will have recordings or emails that show that the Trump Organization knew they were basically helping fairly evil people continue their crimes by putting the Trump brand on their projects so as to make them less suspicious, I think we’re going find it very hard for an awful lot of Republicans to support... Do you think Donald Trump is a good businessman, as a businessman, setting aside ethics?
No, definitely not.
He has, in sort of financial terms, either lost money or certainly barely made money over the course of his career. So if you start with control of $200 million of your father’s money, and one alternative is you just invest that safely in the stock market, and the other alternative is you do whatever business you do, he has lost compared to that sort of benchmark, at least for much of the time frame that he’s been in business.
So that is just a sign of, “OK, he’s a rich man,” but it’s different to start as a rich man and end up as sort of roughly exactly as rich. That’s less impressive to real business people.
.. The other thing is, especially in the real estate industry, you want to see someone amassing wealth—that over time, their holdings, their empire, is bigger, not smaller, and they’re not going to be taking as wild a risk as they were when they were younger because they’ve been able to amass a kind of sustainable wealth, a bundle of assets that are really worth something.
We certainly see that. There’s certainly plenty of people in New York real estate who, over the course of Trump’s career, have done exactly that. He hasn’t. He’s this brash guy doing big, loud projects in the 1970s, and he’s a brash guy doing less big, less loud projects in the 2000s, and by 2010, he’s basically a failed real estate guy who then starts a new career as, basically, a pitchman.
.. he’s richer than I am, and I know his followers seem to see that as really relevant. But if you look at his peers, if you look at any sensible benchmark, this is not a guy who’s really impressing a lot of people.
.. Regardless of how many bankruptcies he had, or how he’s compared to other real estate developers, he made himself into a universally recognized brand. It seems to me that even most of us who were given $200 million of our father’s money could not do that, so I’m wondering what you think that is and how you think that fits or doesn’t fit with what you say is his not-very-good business sense.
.. Over the course of Donald Trump’s life, branding has become much more central to how American businesses strategize, how they measure their success, etc. To say the obvious thing that everyone points to, Coca-Cola is sugar water that has the Coca-Cola brand on it. But even Boeing and others are very aware of the brand as a central part of their value, and we’ve learned a lot about how to manage brand.
Brands are a new thing. They’re commonly understood to have started probably with Ivory soap, maybe 130 years ago—1879, I think—and have developed into one of the central tools of American business. I think there’s been a dramatic sea-change over the course of the ’70s and ’80s and how we manage brands, how we think about brands.
If the test is simply, “Have people heard of it?” then I guess a lot of people have heard of him. But if the test is, “Has he been able to monetize that brand? Has he been able to turn that into real brand value and sustaining brand value and growing brand value, so that each year the brand itself is worth more?” that is not the case... There are, I think, 14 Trump hotels in the world, and that’s a fairly stable number. When you look at the projects that he’s been doing over the last decade, there was an attempt at a Trump Baku, Azerbaijan, an attempt at a Trump Mumbai, an attempt at a Trump Uruguay. It’s nothing like the incredible expansion of Four Seasons or Ritz-Carlton.
From a branding standpoint, it’s a pretty pathetic business, and we saw that in the just throwing his name on anything, no matter how peripheral or lousy the product is. I think one of the many things we can learn from Trump support is that a lot of people conflate fame with success, and trappings of wealth with actual wealth.
.. [Michael Cohen’s ] main job was not as a lawyer of any kind. His main job was as a deal-maker, as a guy who would travel the country and the world looking for possible projects, looking for partners who might want to get the Trump name on their hotel or buildings.
Within the Trump Organization, that was a very clearly distinct role—the deal-maker versus the lawyer role—and that was his primary role. So the reason I think he’s so significant is there’s this period of very rapid expansion into these overseas licensing deals. It’s sort of remarkable. Between 2006 and then really speeding up in 2010, ’11, ’12, into 2016, they’re just going all over the world. By “they,” I mean three people—Don Jr., Ivanka, and Michael Cohen—and they are signing deals with really famously corrupt people in famously corrupt parts of the world, doing virtually no due diligence that we can tell or that they can claim, and taking some enormous legal risks, all the while saying, “Well, we didn’t know they were bad. We didn’t know the details,” etc., etc... So he will have the email traffic that will tell us what, exactly, is happening. What, exactly, did they know about these partners? How aware were they of these partners’ illegality? Or how careful were they to not know? Because in an American law, being deliberately … it’s called willful blindness. So if I do business with you, and you constantly show up with all the telltale signs of a notorious criminal, and I never ask you, and I ask everyone not to tell me, that’s deliberate ignorance. That’s willful blindness and that’s, essentially, legally the same as actually knowing.
.. We know the role Michael Cohen played in trying to get a Trump Tower built in Moscow several years ago. You’ve been looking at the Russia story and at the Trump business story, and earlier you referred to journalists who are on the beat of the Trump business story. To what degree do you think that these are going to eventually meld and become the same story?
.. I think the bigger story is the Trump business story, and the Russia stuff is a subset of that. Look, Donald Trump is somebody who’s been trying to score big through business since the 1970s or 1960s. He’s a guy who’s been trying to make it politically for a couple years. So I’m pretty sympathetic to the argument that this really was not a presidential run. This was an effort to burnish his brand, to sell more properties around the world, and specifically to get a Trump Tower Moscow. I think that was a major, major goal for Donald Trump for reasons that still don’t quite make a lot of sense.
.. When the Paul Manafort charges broke and it became clear how much illegal activity he was engaged in, separately from his work on the Trump campaign, it was pretty striking that a guy like this could go around, and commit this many financial crimes overseas, and still be a lobbyist and work in Washington. Have you been shocked at how much white-collar crime seems to go unprosecuted or investigated until it is closely examined?
Yeah. It’s been really upsetting. I think one of the key lessons of all of this is just how little we prosecute white-collar crime in general, and particularly international white-collar crime
.. I will say, even in that Trump is an outlier, that the Trump Organization took risks, did work with partners that very few Americans would ever consider working with. So I don’t want to give the impression that he’s just run-of-the-mill, he’s just like everybody else, because that’s something I hear a lot, and that always drives me crazy. He’s not.
.. That’s not because, necessarily, all business people are moral. It’s because business people are supposed to be good at balancing risk and return. Take the Mammadovs that he did this deal in Azerbaijan with. As far as we can tell, Trump made $5 million or so from that deal. If he had done his due diligence and if he had learned, as he would have, that they were likely to be money laundering partners of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard, he faced a life-changing amount of fines and potential criminal liability. If you’re a billionaire, as he claims, then you shouldn’t do that for $5 million. It’s an absurd risk to take. It makes no sense at all, and we see him taking such risks again and again and again. So he really is an outlier. He’s not like everybody.