Economy & Business

What a 1990 Playboy Interview Tells Us about Trump’s Economics

President Trump in the Oval Office, April 27, 2017. (Carlos Barria/Reuters)
His views have been consistent in some key ways.

Contrary to the claims of his critics and supporters alike, there is at least one area in which Donald Trump’s views have been consistent over the decades: political economy. There are a few lodestars to his worldview here, most prominently the power of ego, the idea that economic activity cannot be win-win, and a deep suspicion of economic competition.

Trump attributes all success — not only in business, but also the charity work of Mother Teresa and the mission of Jesus Christ— to “ego.” By the same token, failure comes from a lack of ego, and the recipe for doing better is “egotizing.” In 1990 Playboy interview he connected this concept directly to economic policy:

I think our country needs more ego, because it is being ripped off so badly by our so-called allies; i.e., Japan, West Germany, Saudi Arabia, South Korea, etc. They have literally outegotized this country, because they rule the greatest money machine ever assembled and it’s sitting on our backs. Their products are better because they have so much subsidy. We Americans are laughed at around the world for losing $150 billion year after year, for defending wealthy nations for nothing, nations that would be wiped off the face of the earth in about 15 minutes if it weren’t for us. Our “allies” are making billions screwing us.

As a younger man, Trump was extremely concerned about Japanese business success. He believed that, when it comes to real estate, “the Japanese will pay more than it’s worth just to screw us.” The fact that Americans would therefore be paid more for those buildings did not change Trump’s calculations: “If I ever wanted to sell any of my properties, I’d have a field day. But it’s an embarrassment!

The familiar Trumpian theme of “losing” shows up here, but interestingly he seemed to consider American sales to the Japanese just as damaging as the imports from abroad he warns of today: “The Japanese double-screw the US, a real trick: First they take all our money with their consumer goods, then they put it back in buying all of Manhattan. So either way, we lose.” So if Americans are getting products from the Japanese for money, he characterizes that as the Japanese “taking” money rather than the Americans getting goods. But when the Japanese buy American real estate, it is the Japanese getting buildings rather than Americans “taking” money.

He does not limit this thinking to international trade alone, given his animus today toward Amazon, an American company that does billions of dollars of business in the United States. While Trump is likely driven by envy of Jeff Bezos’s fortune and anger at Bezos’s ownership of the “fake” Washington Post, the arguments Trump makes against the company aim to deny it a “win” by attributing its success to cheating the postal service (claims that do not seem to hold up).

In the decades since Trump’s Playboy interview, China’s turn from Marxist-Leninist economics led it to high economic growth and global economic power, whereas the burst of the 1980s bubble economy in Japan brought on an economic stagnation. With this development, China seems to have displaced Japan in Trump’s view of the economic landscape. This suggests that the president’s current focus on China could shift to the next rising power. Should Trump begin railing against Indian trade practices, it would disappoint Peter Navarro but would be in line with the current of his thinking.

Asked in 1990 about the first thing he would do in an imaginary world where he became president, Donald Trump responded, “Many things. A toughness of attitude would prevail. I’d throw a tax on every Mercedes-Benz rolling into this country and on all Japanese products, and we’d have wonderful allies again.” (How did Trump see himself achieving the presidency? As a Democrat, because “the working guy would elect me. He likes me.”) With the substitution of Chinese products for Japanese and Triumph motorcycles for Mercedes-Benz cars, this is what is happening 28 years later. Trade wars show “toughness,” but instead of having “wonderful allies again,” the U.S. is facing retaliation from China and Europe alike.

Trump’s appreciation of “toughness” seems to be linked to his belief in ego. He argues that Soviet negotiators and Chinese crackdowns after the Tiananmen Square protests showed toughness, which the U.S. lacks, allowing it to be “pushed around by everyone.” Fleshing this out, he explained in the same interview that a hypothetical President Trump “would believe very strongly in extreme military strength. He wouldn’t trust anyone. He wouldn’t trust the Russians; He wouldn’t trust our allies.” This show of toughness, which would be implemented through businessmen negotiating foreign policy, would ensure “respect around the world.” Again, this seems to be in keeping with the practice of the actual Trump administration, with Rex Tillerson taking the place of the 1980s business figures Trump was speaking of at the time. As with the trade policies, this has backfired in practice.

He has stuck to these beliefs decade after decade, regardless of where the facts fall.

Trump has always viewed himself as an outsider — as a working-class guy who just happened to make it big, in a way that recalls England’s Alan Sugar (who, incidentally, hosts The Apprentice in the U.K.). Sugar, like Trump, is the grandchild of immigrants and grew up in an outer borough (Hackney, to Trump’s Queens), though where Fred Trump was a multimillionaire, Sugar’s father was a tailor in East London’s garment industry. The two even share a trajectory, including a recent party defection: from Democratic/Labour to Republican/Conservative. But Sugar, a tech investor, holds a much more conventional view in favor of free enterprise.

Would-be Trump interpreters seem to have broadly fallen into two camps: There are the nationalist intellectuals, who attribute Trump’s actions to a (mostly projected) philosophical backing in the hopes of achieving American dirigisme, and there are those who seize on his apparent ideological vacuum as an opportunity to guide the president toward a more conventional GOP platform. Neither is right. Trump does have a defined set of economic views, contrary to the second group’s assumption, but these are not quite views the nationalists share. Honest economic nationalists prioritize their industrial program even if it means a shrinking of the economy; on the contrary, Trump boasts of economic growth, even if he does not seem clear on what causes it.

He has stuck to these beliefs decade after decade, regardless of where the facts fall. Both those who seek to oppose the Trump presidency and those who want to achieve their own agendas through it ought to be aware of this. Trump’s views are an open book; supporters of his candidacy who’ve recoiled at his economics should not have been surprised.

Jibran Khan is the Thomas L. Rhodes Journalism Fellow at the National Review Institute.