"Deals are my art form," Donald Trump tells us in the breathless first paragraph of his 1987 love letter to himself. It's a sentiment that Canadians should keep in mind as they brace for the third round of North American free-trade agreement negotiations, which will come to Ottawa later this month.
Just to be clear: It's not that Mr. Trump is actually a Warhol of wrangling, a Basquiat of bargaining. The problem arises from the fact that the U.S. President believes himself to be so. Satisfying his considerable ego is likely to be the unspoken demand hovering over the talks.
For insight into what to expect, look no further than The Art of the Deal, his long-ago first memoir, co-written with Tony Schwartz. Like many ancient relics, this late-eighties celebration of Mr. Trump's business acumen takes us back to a more innocent era – a time when Mr. Trump was still on his first marriage, when Ivanka was still a cute six-year-old, and when the future president's coiffure had yet to attain the full multilayered glory of its late period.
But there are still ample signs of the man to come, especially when it comes to his obsession with being the biggest, toughest guy in the room. "I wasn't satisfied just to make a good living," he declares of himself as a young developer. "I was looking to make a statement."
At times, his need to be taken seriously takes on a comic edge. In its early chapters, The Art of the Deal strives to be a Horatio Alger tale, a story of an audacious young man who rises to the top through hard work and pluck. The inherent problem with that narrative arc is that Mr. Trump didn't exactly labour his way up from the mean streets. He began life as the son of Fred Trump, an enormously wealthy entrepreneur who made his fortune by building low- and middle-income housing in New York's less glamorous boroughs.
So the book instead becomes a tale of horizontal mobility. It tells how the son of a multimillionaire real estate developer in Queens overcame remarkably few barriers to move a few miles and become a multimillionaire real estate developer in Manhattan. Social awareness is not its strong suit. Neither is modesty.
For that matter, business insight isn't present in enormous quantities, either. "I like thinking big," Mr. Trump tells us, by way of explaining his success. He elaborates: "One of the keys to thinking big is total focus."
Thanks for the clarification, Donald. Many of us had previously thought that the key to a great fortune lay in an unfocused habit of thinking small, and we appreciate the tip.
For the most part, the rest of the advice Mr. Trump dispenses is equally trite. You have to know your market, he tells us. You also have to maximize your options and protect your downside. All of that sounds as if it could have been lifted from any generic primer on real estate investing.
But there are patches where something more authentic pokes through. When he discusses the need to get the word out about your business, he sounds genuinely enthusiastic.
"I play to people's fantasies," he says. According to his gospel, "a little hyperbole never hurts. People want to believe that something is the biggest and the greatest and most spectacular. I call it truthful hyperbole."
You can quibble about the word "truthful," but otherwise you have to admire Mr. Trump's candour. Hyperbolic excess is exactly the strategy that has served him well over the years, from promoting Manhattan apartment buildings to peddling television fantasies to pitching absurd campaign promises.
Other passages in the book also offer early tipoffs to his future leanings. Of one associate, he says, "He was a very smooth, attractive guy, an Italian who looked like a WASP." Thirty years on, it's not entirely surprising that someone so conscious of ethnicity – and appearances – is working so hard to limit the role of people who aren't as lily white as himself.
But what will his negotiating techniques be like? Count on outrageous demands and threats. "I aim very high and then I just keep pushing and pushing and pushing to get what I want," he tells us in The Art of the Deal. "Sometimes I settle for less than I sought, but in most cases I still end up with what I want."
Count, too, on Mr. Trump putting up an imposing facade. He brags in his book about how, in one early Atlantic City deal, he told his contractor to put every piece of construction equipment he had onto a largely undeveloped piece of land to make it look as if construction was further advanced than it actually was. The charade worked. Mr. Trump's potential partner wondered why workers appeared to be filling in holes they had just dug, but was gullible enough to buy in anyway.
But Mr. Trump isn't quite as infallible as his self-serving stories would suggest. The Art of the Deal capped what you might term the early Trumpian empire. In the years after its publication, several of his Atlantic City properties ran into problems and declared bankruptcy. His Trump University elicited a storm of lawsuits. To be sure, his television career was a huge money maker, but he was no longer the golden boy of his early years.
His political career is following a similar course, but at warp speed. In less than a year, he's gone from being the surprise winner of the presidential election to plumbing unprecedented depths of unpopularity in polls. His attempt to repeal Obamacare failed and his policy on North Korea has baffled even his supporters.
That leaves him eager for a win. "The worst thing you can possibly do in a deal is seem desperate to make it," he tells us in his book. But unless he accomplishes something of note in the next few months, he is going to look more and more like the blusterer-in-chief. The pressure is on Mr. Trump and, as his book instructs, Canadian and Mexican negotiators should use that fact to their full advantage.