The Trumps: A Family That Spans American Capitalism

Who else but Donald Trump would have a game named after him?

Unlike Monopoly, another real estate game, Trump: The Game has a small number of properties and a currency where the lowest denomination is a $10 million bill bearing Donald’s face and name.

The idea, writes Gwenda Blair, author of The Trumps: Three Generations that Built an Empire, was to give players the fantasy of sharing Donald Trump’s opulent lifestyle and charisma.

The real estate magnate has worked hard to further that image, making his a household name with outsized buildings and flamboyant media stunts. And for the author, driving that effort is the conviction that people frequently become famous not because of what they accomplish but because of their skill in selling an image of themselves.

Donald tapped a family legacy of entrepreneurial savvy, and then went on to realize his own great insight — that being famous for being rich could make him even richer.

Three of a Kind

Blair’s book puts the Trump legacy in context, as the culmination of the careers of his father Fred Trump, who was dubbed home building’s answer to Henry Ford, and his grandfather Friedrich Trump, a German immigrant who started the family’s fortunes in the New World back in 1885.

They were “three men; three empires; three different times: the whole constituting a singular history of American capitalism itself,” Blair writes.

Through the author’s well-rounded and carefully researched profiles, we understand that the Trumps have known how to make the system work for them ever since Friedrich, then a “thin, gangly 16-year-old boy,” first set foot on American soil.

That is, they have the remarkable ability to assess the world around them, and figure out what it takes to be a success at that moment.

Friedrich Trump, a wine maker and barber by trade, emigrated from his native Germany to New York City, then moved on to America’s Western frontier to become a Gold Rush-era saloon keeper. He eventually moved back to New York to become a real estate entrepreneur.

Friedrich’s son, Fred, was a house builder who made his fortune from the ambitious government programs of President Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal. Fred built thousands of homes for ordinary people in Brooklyn, and through a network of political ties he accumulated huge government housing subsidies. By the time of his death Fred’s fortune was estimated to be between $250 and $300 million.

Donald’s Luck

Next came Donald.

While not the heir apparent to his father’s vast fortune, Donald Trump was the one offspring among five most likely to continue the legacy of financial success.

More determined than his other siblings, he joined the New York Military Academy at the age of 13, “a place where winning really mattered,” and where Donald “poured himself into doing better than everyone else at everything.”

Still, Donald’s life was not a smooth path to success. Continuing his father’s legacy as a real estate tycoon, he used determination to amass a huge fortune in the 1980s, lost a lot of it in the 1990s, and then made it all back by the end of the decade.

The Publicity Principle

Donald’s guiding principle was publicity — not making money — and getting his name in the paper was a sign of success, says Blair.

His triumphs and losses have been spectacular. They include a series of overpriced purchases that caused a tidal wave of debt and a financial crisis for so many banks that they were forced to bail him out.

On the other end of the scale, Donald acquired and redeveloped New York’s rundown Commodore Hotel, and managed to pay just $2,811 out-of-pocket of the $20 million price tag for Mar-a-Lago, a Palm Beach estate, then turned it into a private club and charged admission to the rich and famous.

In this way, Donald built the Trump name into a symbol of luxury and success, seen on skyscrapers, casinos and airplanes. He even went to court to protect the name from being used by anyone else, even those who had the Trump name from birth.

Historical Document

But like Donald Trump, the book has not avoided controversy.

Most contentious are its details of Donald’s tumultuous relationship with his ex-wife Ivana, a Czech émigré who met Donald in New York. Blair writes that even after his wife had extensive plastic surgery, he was not interested in her sexually.

And the author notes that although Donald had at one time been attracted to Ivana’s drive to succeed, it was a trait he eventually grew to dislike. Donald has publicly denied both claims.

Still, Blair’s book does appear to be meticulously investigated. In it she details the social and economic situation in 19th century Germany that compelled young men such as Friedrich Trump to seek their fortunes in America. She describes the development of the Federal Housing Administration in the 1930s, which propelled Fred Trump to stardom, and also documents the rise to stardom of Fred’s son, Donald Trump.

In fact, The Trumps is in many ways a work of American history. The lives of Friedrich, Fred and Donald were vastly different, but each was ruthless and energetic, and craved money and success. As Blair writes, “how these traits played out is, in its own way, a vest-pocket history of America.”