“The system is f*cked” – Interview with Tony Schwartz, ghostwriter of Trump’s ‘The Art of the Deal’

Madeleine Claire Southey 13 October 2018

“That’s intense, folks, thank you,” – Tony Schwartz’s parting words to the cluster of reporters, noses to notepads in the dim light of the Cambridge Union’s Kennedy room, did little to disperse the tense atmosphere that had accrued during the interviews preceding his appearance in the chamber. Topics covered included the threat of climate change, about which Schwartz denounced the complacency of the American people, the nomination of Brett Kavanaugh to the US Supreme Court, the Brexit vote, UK politics, and Theresa May, whom Schwartz described as a “weak and weakened” leader. However, understandably, questions predominantly concerned Donald Trump. Having spent numerous hours interviewing and observing the US President in order to write ‘The Art of the Deal’ over thirty years ago, there are few people who have had an opportunity to get closer to a man who is almost impossible to conceive of separately from his public persona. This, Schwartz, says, echoing an earlier statement reported in the Washington Post, is because “Trump is his own inventor… [He] invented himself, and then he hired various people to help burnish that image, to put the best face on this self that he invented”.

Schwartz has no problem acknowledging his role in ‘burnishing’ that invention, confessing that he “misused [his] skill as a writer to create a portrait of Trump… that is radically more winning than he actually is”, and he’s quick to point out, when I ask what he thinks of the book itself, that the portrait he creates is “a piece of fiction”, and that ‘The Art of the Deal’ “has to be viewed almost as a novel as opposed to a factual book”. Further, he says of the advice laid out in the book that “it is almost all bad advice.” Nevertheless, there is no denying the success of the book, a New York Times bestseller which is estimated to have sold over a million copies. Although Schwartz thought at the time that it had the potential for success, he admits in our interview that he was “stunned by how much it was embraced”, in the same way, perhaps, as so many of us were caught off guard by how much Trump himself was embraced by the American people in his ultimately successful bid for the presidency.

We turned from discussing the book itself to looking at that fiction in action, and how Trump managed to appeal so much to the voting public. “The biggest lie Trump told,” Schwartz claims, “is ‘I’m a self-made man’. He’s nothing of the sort… He’s inherited more money than most people are near throughout their entire lifetime.” He describes it as a “blown-up fantasy”, “the notion that if you have a huge amount of money and you buy a ton of stuff… that means you’ve arrived in life.” Yet it is this fantasy that Schwartz believes resonated with “people who don’t really have the money and the advantage that he has [who] end up thinking… ‘that’s what I want’.” Schwartz at one point raised ‘The Apprentice’ as “the vehicle by which Trump defined himself or was able to get others to define him,” and it is easy to see how his fourteen-year tenure on the reality TV show would fuel the image of Trump as the apotheosis of attainable success. Yet the driving force behind Trump’s supporters must be something more powerful than a simple desire for wealth or fame; Schwartz puts it down to fear: “fear, which is of course what nationalism grows out of.” Earlier he had discussed the influence of this fear on the Brexit vote, and the general international lean towards a right-wing, divisive breed of politics. “It’s identifying an ‘other’ that you can hate, and that you can hold accountable for why your life isn’t good.”

With five minutes to go until Schwartz is due to address the Cambridge Union, I ask him what we can do to combat the progression of that fear. There is a momentary silence, underscored by the distant babble of incongruously cheerful conversation from downstairs, where the audience is filing in. “Wow”, Schwartz breaks the silence as he gathers his thoughts, hands clasped confidently together. Earlier in the evening he had been leaning back on his chair, relaxed and informal. There is a sense now that the mood has changed. We are all contemplating the wider repercussions of the fear he spoke of; for the United States and for the world at large. “I think two things,” he begins, leaning towards me. “The most practical thing you could do is address income inequality. In a world of such vast wealth, eight people, – eight people, – have as much money as the bottom 50% of people in the world. How can that not create hatred, and a feeling of anger, and polarisation, and the sense that we live in an unfair world?” Schwartz had earlier described Trump as “a poor person, or an un-famous person’s idea of what a rich person should be like,” and it now becomes apparent just how compelling that fiction of the “self-made man” is in a system of such injustice.

He uses the example of Jeff Bezos, founder of Amazon – “I don’t think he has malice, I’d take Jeff Bezos over Donald Trump any day, but he’s got $159.6bn in the bank that he doesn’t need. He’ll never touch it, it will never in any way influence his own life. What could $159bn do for the 3.5bn people who are at the bottom part of the economic system? I mean, the system is f*cked – I know you can’t write that – but the system is screwed, it’s a mess.” The expletive provokes dark laughter amongst those gathered. Schwartz pauses to let it settle, and moves on. “The other thing we have to address is the unconsciousness in people that causes them to project their own inadequacy on to others – their own hopelessness, their own feeling of being treated unfairly, onto people who they demonise, instead of being able to own all of who they are.” It is here that Schwartz’s experience as a public speaker, and his journalistic flair, sings through. A panel of student press representatives gaze, wide-eyed, as he tells us that “we need an evolutionary leap. We need a leap that takes people from ‘me’ as the primary focus, as the primary perspective through which people see everything, to ‘we’, because we’re all in it together, and the more that you try to deny that the more you hasten our demise.”

The phrasing of his sentence brings the interview to its natural close, and Schwartz is hurried away to have his photograph taken, although not before his aforementioned closing comment on the atmosphere of the room. It was undeniably an intense note on which to end, in particular the two messages of Schwartz’s closing statement – on the one hand, “we’re all in it together” suggesting hope; the possibility of synergy in defiance of the individualism he previously criticised. On the other hand, the fatalism of his final words casts a shadow – ‘demise’ rings in our ears as we shuffle out past the brightly-lit chamber. Nevertheless, perhaps that was the more important message of the two, if only to impress upon, not just the individuals gathered there, but the world, the gravity of the need for global collaboration now.