A pre-moral analysis of the mental ground where Donald Trump moves, setting aside common myths about businessmen and politicians. Written by João N.S. Almeida and reviewed by Telmo Rodrigues. Cover image: Jean-Baptiste Regnault, “Socrates Dragging Alcibiades from the Embrace of Aspasia”, 1785. Originally published in Forma de Vida.

1. Introduction

Written in 1987, at the inaugural peak of Donald Trump’s popularity as a real estate tycoon, The Art of the Deal was initially thought of as an autobiography. But early on ghostwriter Tony Schwartz realized that Trump is not given to reflections on the past, tending mostly towards an absolutist view of the present.[1] The book took on a mixed form, somewhat between a business manual, a realistic first-person account of a mogul’s routine, and a classical biography, resulting in a work composed of mixed literary genres which Trump today calls, with characteristic exaggeration, his second favorite book following the Bible.[2] Most of its fragmented narrative resembles a handbook of practical advice on how to do business, but Trump’s felicitous account of his rise to fame is also meant to be a description of the American Dream, although the author was already born excessively fortunate and could not easily assume such a status. In both registers, the tone of the book is characterized by a gentleness of wording and a pleasantness in temper which contrast with the common image of the predatory businessman given to materialistic satisfactions, regarding business less as a pleasure in itself and more as a means to an end. While the book may be easily considered an exercise of pride and vanity, as these emotional temperatures are usually part of the author’s public persona, it may also be read more simply, and more benignly, as the elegy of a passion for doing business. Such two apparently different readings are not absolutely incompatible, and I will try to argue that in order to understand Trump it is necessary to understand this first. Another important duality in Trump’s mindset, played out through contradictory stances which often confuse his opponents, is the distinction between fact and fiction, a distinction presenting puzzling and unexpected forms in the author’s personal and public life, but which the account offered by the book helps us to formalize. Thus, in order to grasp the a priori conditions necessary to understand Trump, one must first entertain a pre-moral analysis of the mental ground in which he moves, setting aside common myths about businessmen and politicians. This analytical and non-judgmental stance is often lacking in many of his critics, which seem to depart from preconceptions and ignorance—precisely some of the traits which they accuse Trump of possessing. Besides The Art of the Deal, I will also base my analysis on The Art of the Comeback, another of Trump’s autobiographical exercises, and, additionally, on many other books on Trump as a person, as a businessman, and as a politician, mostly written after his election. I restrained from analyzing the immense torrent of critical content in the daily press about him, for that would surely outweigh the margins of this essay; besides, most of that content is critically useless and serves only as exemplyfying a larger phenomenon of antagonism towards Trump from some professional and intellectual classes, namely journalists but not only.

2. Truthful hyperboles

Donald Trump at the Taj Mahal casino, in Atlantic City (https://www.vanityfair.com/news/2021/02/trump-plaza-atlantic-city-blown-up).

I like thinking big. I always have. To me it’s very simple: if you’re going to be thinking anyway, you might as well think big. Most people think small, because most people are afraid of success, afraid of making decisions, afraid of winning. And that gives people like me a great advantage.


I play to people’s fantasies. People may not always think big themselves, but they can still get excited by those who do. That’s why a little hyperbole never hurts. People want to believe that something is the greatest and the most spectacular.[3]

While it may seem obvious to categorize many of Trump’s distortions and exaggerations of facts as plain lies, he prefers to describe them as truthful hyperboles. This might seem to be another outrageous lie or maybe a kind of a self-conscious joke, according to the typical view of Trump as a charlatan who uses low-art rhetorical tricks in order to deceive his counterpart and obtain some sort of material profit. However, if subject to a rigorous case-by-case analysis, many—if not all—of Trump’s dubious statements might not be considered lies as we understand it, as most are grounded in wordplay epiphenomena derived from grains of truth, but seem instead to consist of rhetorical figures and tropes such as hyperboles, ironies, synecdoches, metonymies; a series of argumentative and formal flourishes or plainly smart perspectives of looking at things, even if arguably deceitful. Some examples of this may be found in the famous “alternative facts” quote,[4] as well as in many accusations directed towards his opponents,[5] or in the millionaire/billionaire quarrel which pre-dates his presidency[6] (later in this essay, I’ll point out some more). This rhetorical exercises, many of which assume a bragging tone, are the most visible phenomena regarding Trump’s position towards truth. This marks a fundamental difference from the typical mindset of some of his most visible antagonists, mostly part of an intellectual oriented class who tends to see bragging and other modes of persuasive discourse as distasteful and dishonest. Their tradition is in the form of intellectual logical proofs, with much more contrived rhetorical licenses. Thus the question is if Trump, not merely as a private citizen but as a public businessman and as a politician, can be allowed to exert these kinds of rhetorical flourishes, or if those are not simply flourishes at all, but instead dishonest uses of the tropological possibilities of language which end up amounting to plain lying and actually deserve real censure.

3. An intellectual’s dualist epistemology

Crowd at a Trump rally in Iowa, 2020 (https://www.politico.com/news/2020/01/31/unexpected-joy-trump-rally-iowa-109864).

Trump’s most common antagonist is typically part of the western American or European urban intelligentsia, usually culturally refined and politically progressive, in clear contrast with the rural workmanship and/or business-oriented principles of many of his supporters.[7] While the first set of people admittedly hold a social ethos dominated by various post-enlightenment creeds—Hegelian ends of history, class-based social views, and advocacy for central state planning, etc.—the second seem more attached to a sort of virtue-based notion of social relations and do not even tend to conceive of society as a quasi-organic whole. It is only natural that many of these rural types and their values—in which, interestingly, Trump is culturally included, despite being a real-estate millionaire from New York—are immensely alien to the intelligentsia. So, on the one hand, we have this epistemologically oriented view of man, stemming from a certain tradition of classical Greek thought which leads to idealism; on the other hand, a brand of American pragmatism that attempts to re-ground intellectualism in straightforward material practices, resorting to virtue, ethics, and theology to explain all things metaphysical.[8]

Several obvious epistemic differences between the aforementioned intelligentsia and Trump are at play here, but the main schism relates to a dualist conception of man and man’s relation with the world. This is denounced, for instance, by the frequent complaint that Trump doesn’t have an “inner” humane core, a psyche, only an outer action-reaction personality, which sounds like a strange accusation, as if having private—secret, or unknowable—reasons and intentions somehow makes a person better.[9] Perhaps such a trait is not seen as inherently immoral or even tending towards immorality, but only that it provokes a feeling of strangeness in these Cartesian intellectuals, who are used to a typical twentieth-century psychological reading of people, in which Trump clearly does not easily fit—and makes little effort to.

Contrary to the dominant mindset of post-Cartesian thought among the intelligentsia, Trump doesn’t come from a culture where perception is dominated by strict truth-value theories. He is much more open about the rhetorical qualities needed to reach the other in the cognitive negotiations about the world—which are, in his business tradition, mostly non-metaphysical—while in the intelligentsia community they belong mostly to metaphysical categories (in concepts such as ethos, absolute truthfulness/falseness, systematic thought, etc). One could entertain the idea that Trump is closer to pre-Cartesian theological justifications, as some of his supporters are; this is doubtful to be the case, or perhaps entirely disprovable, as his narcissistic and sectarian behavior denounces him as a probable atheist, although lately he has been trying to present himself, sincerely or not, as a religious man.

4. The merchant and the artist

Scarsellino, Driving of the merchants from the temple, circa 1580-1585.

For the sake of the argument, let’s assume that Trump is neither a mind-centered  analytical creature nor a pious man, two intellectual stances which are ultimately rooted in some kind of metaphysics; his main mental mode seems to be, first and foremost, that of a merchant, a character whose dubious reputation goes back to patristic biblical exegesis.[10] Coming from the same walk of life as his father and his paternal grandfather, Trump spent his life dealing mostly in real-estate, having expanded later to other business ventures, and is, apparently, very passionate for what he does. In this craft, the way the product is presented is fundamental, and enhancing its appearance is not necessarily a fraud; but the typical intellectual creature who opposes Trump does not easily tolerate such rhetorical artifices outside of some pre-approved realms—for instance, the contemporary art world. While, for the merchant—and in a similar degree, for the politician—a criteria of ontological similarity between inner cognition and outer perception is demanded, which results both in a moral stance and an epistemological position, the same demand is not made in the fields of post-Romantic art in general. This goes as far as when the inner is free to occupy the outer, and such an adventure is morally tolerated through the teleology of art for art’s sake, which in many cases is exclusive to this practice and rarely admitted in other human activities.

Works of art, objects of admittedly fictional quality, are obviously allowed different criteria regarding the truth-value system in which they operate; but artists themselves, particularly post-Romantic ones, are given much more moral freedom in using devices of fiction, rhetoric, tropes, and figures, etc., in their private lives or in their extra-artistic works, where the frontier between artistry and citizenship is much more diluted, according to the post-Romantic paradigm. Take, for example, the social acceptance of some of contemporary art’s bad boys: the imaginative narratives of Bob Dylan’s 2004 autobiography, where this exercise of fancy regarding one’s own life is, or may be considered to be, poetic freedom[11]; Orson Welles, a bohemian admirer of forgers and a frequent con-man himself[12]; or Marlon Brando, whose famous unpredictable temper caused numerous riffs and explicitly equated acting with lying.[13] Examples like these are frequently analyzed with critical delight by the same type of intellectual persona that despises Trump; here, moral issues seem to be temporarily put aside to serve the motto of ars gratia artis.

Kellyanne Conway, former speaker of president Trump, during an interview with NBC, 2016.

Although the differences between the uses of tropology by the merchant and the artist appear to be mostly formal, additional substantial justifications seems to be inequitably demanded of the merchant. In material commerce, not distinguishing between fact and value is frequently seen as amoral by the intellectual critic, and the submission of the rhetorical artifice to the supposed end-goal of money generally deserves censure: the merchant’s use of fiction often means lie, it’s use of rhetoric—to a degree—means snake-oil-salesman tricks, and the art of forgery does not mean mimesis, but blatant conning. This moral categorization seems to apply not only to inner workings of the craft itself—whose ethics are framed in the appearance/contents dualism, where matters of material fraud could be raised, as in selling silver as it were gold—but also to the outer presentation of the produced goods. In that realm of mere appearance, the criteria of admissibility required of the merchant is frankly more severe than in art (if an artist intended to sell silver as if it were gold, the mental framework on which one would have to integrate this would be somewhat different to that of the merchant). Many justifications for this duality of criteria seem feeble: with the merchant, favoring certain angles and certain preconceived descriptions over others seems like a mere mutability of form—not only as in the art world itself, but also as in other artful practices such as flirting, pranking, etc.—and not so much a severe adulteration of content. Typically, this does not significantly alter the factual consensus of the given, and thus the craft of the merchant may differ only in degree and not in kind from everyday common practice; whatever tricks he typically uses for selling his product might not be lies as we strictly understand lies, but merely rhetorical exercises. So a distinction might be found here between a perhaps illegitimate language game, as part of pragmatist and/or rhetorical matters, and a potential straight lie, within a strict true/false value system. In that sense, Kellyanne Conway’s notion of alternative facts seems to be merely a shaping of the given within a legitimate language game—and not as in an illegitimate one where tropology surpasses blatantly acceptable limits, as in saying to someone: “you are a fish and that is an alternative fact”. This example, intentionally or not, recalls Stanley Fish’s work, much of which is precisely about the establishment of facts through the context and language-games of a given situation, and not the other way around. The so much vilified “alternative fact” quote fits perfectly within such a theory, as what Conway is ultimately saying is that her interlocutor is not playing the same game as hers.

Different social customs—maybe rooted in material contingencies—demand that, for each social practice, a different standard regarding the acceptance of rhetorical tricks is enforced. In the case of the merchant, a certain aggrandizement of the product is tolerated, but not to a degree that endangers epistemic contents. Trump tended to exert that aggrandizement to an extreme degree in his real-estate mogul career, but when he brought the same techniques to the realm of politics, the reaction of some of the public was severely antagonistic. Despite the fact that such hyperbolic tricks are tolerated in everyday language, literature, art, journalism, advertising, courtship, even in judicial language and in politics, Trump apparently overstepped the wall of its admissibility. It is not clear whether this stems from his overdoing of rhetoric, which breaks the reality of consensus, or mostly from a severe bias towards his personality, his politics, etc, from some of the public and the press. One could also more solidly ground this general objection to Trump’s antics in the fact that merchants deal mainly with material goods with clearly defined functions, whether artists, journalists and politicians deal mainly with ideas grounded in material goods, with not so clearly defined functions, so the question of subjectivity and fraud regarding both material and non-material transactions might be more clearly put in the case of the merchant. The question, however, is less whether artists, journalists and politicians are in fact subjective creatures, and more whether they are completely honest regarding the level of subjectivity and their volitive responsibility over that degree in the negotiation with the world on truth. But setting aside whether it is really conceivable if intellectuals deal mainly or solely with ideas, or if it is possible for such a thing as an idea to simply exist independently, it is not clear whether Trump, or the merchant in general, are conducting exclusively, or even mainly, material commerce, neither it is clear that obtaining material returns is his main interest. It is argued, in several passages of the book, that it is more important to do than to have, more important to compete and play the game than obtaining objective returns like money, happiness, and material goods.

I do not do it for the money. I’ve got enough, much more than I’ll ever need. I do it to do it. Deals are my art form. Other people paint beautifully on canvas or write wonderful poetry. I like making deals, preferably big deals. That’s how I get my kicks.


I do not say this trait leads to a happier life, or a better life, but it’s great when it comes to getting what you want. This is particularly true in New York real estate, where you are dealing with some of the sharpest, toughest, and most vicious people in the world. I happen to love to go up against these guys, and I love to beat them.

To “beat them,” in this context, sounds less than achieving end-results superior to their own and more like outsmart them; in fact, Trump frequently emphasizes the win itself, more than the results of the win. It may be thought, of course, that such statements are merely cosmetic and do not portray the actual truth, since Trump, as a typical tycoon-like character, sees as its ultimate end money and money only, money for money’s sake (if such use of a medium as the end in itself is actually possible). But it is surprising that someone who is seen as a loudmouth amoral creature, explicitly obnoxious towards his enemies, towards women, and towards political correctness in general, does not explicitly state that his ultimate purpose is wealth and material debauchery; there seems to be no reason why he would not do so. One gets the frequent feeling that, instead of presenting himself as someone who values material wealth in itself, Trump seems to self-delight more in the appearance of wealth (hence his well-known fetish for gold-plated goods): and this is closer to an attraction for fantasy, imagination, fiction, and farther from a raw materialism which exists for its own sake.

5. Trump and the politicians

As we have seen, the question here at stake is if Trump-the-merchant is simply using the artifices of rhetorical political combat to an extreme, unacceptable, and perhaps unethical degree, or if he sets aside these criteria and instead deals in pure charlatanism; in other words, if the difference between Trump and the typical politician in terms of rhetorical, epistemological, and ethical positions, is a difference in kind or in species. A serious objective study of many of his statements would have to be endured, but just a mere draft of such an analysis will find that most examples of Trump’s juggling with the truth are not actually flat-out lies.[14] Some examples: the boasting of the numeric improvements of his presidential administration (similarly to the boastful aggrandizement of his own accomplishments in his real-estate career) is generally made of rounding-up figures or selective picking of data[15]; accusations towards his opponents oscillate between attributing objective particular responsibility and the abstraction of general responsibility implied in the ethos of political hierarchies.[16] Other claims, which can be dubious or even blatantly dishonest—but not necessarily untrue—are probably the closest we can get to the traditional notion of lies.[17] Even so, it is certainly awkward that a man with a blatant reputation of lying can be so hard to catch uttering a blatant black-and-white falsehood. Indeed, those coming close seem to fit in line with other politicians of his time.[18] One could conclude that Trump, given the psychological profile so far laid out, would be perfectly capable of uttering a flat-out lie if the language-game in question would allow him that; but since, generally, it does not, he does not do it, which might indicate either that he is too smart for that or too afraid of the consequences (or that being afraid of the consequences and conscious of the rules, as a New York real-estate entrepreneur and tycoon should be, is being smart). Thus, it would seem that his opponents’ quest for lies, in the classical sense, is absolutely infertile; they would probably be better off denouncing him as a dishonest salesman, a cheap rhetorical artificer, more so than a liar. But even then, the question of whether Trump’s dealings with the truth are cheap or deserve to be called artful would be left open.

6. Characters and narrators

Trump and the CNN White House correspondent Jim Acosta.

Favoring fantasy instead of fact, appearance over substance and/or virtue, should be a practice familiar to politics, but the particular brand of fictionalization that Trump uses places him in direct opposition with the status quo of most public actors. Part of this trend manifests itself in the expression of his large ego, which leads to the pervasive endurance of his political persona. Such a bigger-than-life personality, though not crafted for politics from the beginning, contrasts with the typical career politician: while a young and eager one can easily pretend to want to have knowledge of thousands of factors involving a political unit and possess a prism of rhetorical qualities different from the merchant, elderly aged billionaires such as Trump probably have differentiated experiences and motivations, manifested in the ways one is used to manage collective entities, whether these are companies or states. Still, it seems that the politician and the mogul are doing very similar things and should probably be expected to use very similar rhetorical skills. Particularly in rational debate, his confrontations with political rivals highlight how both sides of the argument eventually dilute themselves in the so-called swamp of the profession, for politicians are also perfectly used to employing language tricks to diminish their opponents, avoid the press, etc. So one gets the feeling politicians are playing the same rhetorical game as Trump, only with less nerve, less bravado, although it seems clear that, comparatively, he may feel less responsibility to an intellectual logical proof of his argument, and more interested in relying upon rhetorical devices. 

However, in his relationship with the press, the most relevant public player involved in the establishment of a public fact in contemporary times, Trump’s attitude poses a lot more problems. As narrators of the journalistic real—which can be loosely defined as an attempt of scientific objectivity, a sort of distorted projection of common-sense realism, the given, the reality of consensus, etc.—, the press, similarly to their counterparts in science laboratories, requires mainly passive subjects. Trump does not easily fit in this role, and frequently prefers to assume co-authorship of the journalistic account, having no ethical issue with manipulating facts in his favor, mainly because he sees the report of the press as already pre-manipulated. Thus, in reacting to the description not with the acceptance of the given terms but with an aggressive counter-description, Trump, as a character of the 24-hours news cycle narrative, puts himself in an unusual position of equality before the author, and attempts to democratize the relationship between the active and the passive parties of the matter; from the point of view of the press, this is as if a character in a novel, gaining life and mental autonomy, demanded to play a more participative role in its author’s account.[19] 

My people keep telling me I shouldn’t write letters like this to critics. The way I see it, critics get to say what they want to about my work, so why shouldn’t I be able to say what I want to about theirs? 

Interestingly, there is an additional level of democratization Trump introduces in this field: the leveling of authorship occurs not only between the producer of contents—the press—and the passive subject of the report—Trump himself—but goes so far as to extend such freedom to the third-person recipient public. This is denounced by his often self-conscious humor, as the comments he makes about the press are occasionally accompanied by others which mock not only his own speech, but the whole setup of the situation (facts/subjects-of-facts/neutral-journalistic-reporting), as if encouraging a kind of free interpretation of events by the public, or, at least, keeping them in the suspension of disbelief that such a free interpretation is possible; this is highly unusual for a politician, and it seems to break the fourth wall that these public actors typically have to deal with.[20] Again, Trump’s— and other public actors —creative use of techniques in dealing with the press, seen in a metafictional light, seems to attract little interest from the people who often find the same topic in art extremely captivating.

As the press faces such a powerful co-author, one who was supposed to be a mostly passive party in the game of facts/subjects/reports, it is difficult to gauge the possibility of a consensus among the various parties involved. Nevertheless, neither Trump, nor the journalists, nor the public, ultimately deny that facts can exist, and everyone knows that a report of consensus can be reached; however, that consensus does not necessarily have to emerge in the form of an objective standard depending on apriorism, but instead as a deal. In this particular game, Trump, summoning his professional and non-political public figure background, positions himself as an extremely tough negotiator, with a purposely warlike stance towards his negotiating counterpart. Hence the legitimacy of the term fake news, that he likes to invoke, despite being frequently used to refer to any journalistic content that goes against his interest. Such an epithet, however, is not entirely unjustified, because false news do exist—as they should, because there is no inherently neutral journalism—and true fakeness in the press can assume multiple forms, such as bad objective reporting, a clear political bias, or ad hominem character assassination. Thus Trump, being highly dependent on appearance, therefore on the media, and therefore highly distrustful of the media’s errors, is unable to place himself in a passive position before the media’s construction of narratives, and puts himself instead in a position of equality with the interlocutor, in a proactive stance, moving the threshold of imagination according to the need of the interlocutor before him, as if he was an equal partner on the ongoing business of establishing truth.

The other thing I do when I talk to reporters is to be straight. I try not to deceive them or to be defensive, because those are precisely the ways most people get themselves into trouble with the press. Instead, when a reporter asks me a tough question, I try to frame a positive answer, even if that means shifting the ground.

7. The Republic: Plato and Wilde

Oscar Wilde, coloured.

The use of rhetorical devices such as these, both in the case of the poet and the merchant, would merit the reproach of the ultimate guardian of the republic, Plato—and hence the strong anti-Trump stance taken by many politicians since the beginning of his political career—but not of the quintessential defender of fiction, Oscar Wilde. But things are not this simple, either: Trump’s so-called lies may resemble boasts not compromised by facts, but, as we’ve seen, they are still grounded in a shadow or a speck of truth. However, to its most vocal critics, Trump’s truthful hyperbole, contrary to the common lie which purports to be true, should seem closer to a lie that seeks a circular justification in itself, constituting what Wilde treated as the noble office of the true liar, which is distinct from the semi-justifiable lie of the common politician (and this is again slightly puzzling, for many of his critics would surely admire Wilde’s witty take on perception and fiction): 

I assure you that they [the politicians] do not. They never rise beyond the level of misrepresentation, and actually condescend to prove, to discuss, to argue. How different from the temper of the true liar, with his frank, fearless statements, his superb irresponsibility, his healthy, natural disdain of proof of any kind![21]

At this point, I tend to follow the thought of Professor António M. Feijó, who stated in a 2018 talk on the topic of fake news that Trump does not tell lies as if they were truths, like the common liar does: he tells lies as if they were lies.[22] Perhaps he does not simply intends to fool, but to  actually be part of the fictional process itself, as a conscious actor. Such a metafictional role may have its origin in a mindset dominated by an epistemological position of radical subjective idealism, comparable to the immaterialism of George Berkeley. Trump, like Berkeley, does not deny the existence of things, but reduces that existence to his perception of them. And it is important to note how this is not the typical position ascribed to a pure materialist, as it is common to characterize merchant moguls, because, for Trump the subjective idealist merchant, abstract perception can actually be more substantial than a purely cerebral calculus of the material good in question.

[Changing his mind after having accepted a deal related to underground drilling] I called my friend back and I said, “Listen, there’s something about that bothers me. Maybe it’s that oil is underground, and I cannot see it, or maybe it’s that there’s nothing creative about it. In any case, I just do not want to go in.

Here, the equivalence between seeing and knowing seems clear—an equivalence which might be expanded to negotiating and creating. Such a position is the opposite of the stereotypical investor who has a distant and non-palpable relationship with the abstractions of business, seeking only the purely quantitative monetary return. Trump’s sensitivity appears to require closeness and tactility, going as far as avoiding the programmatic abstraction of projects, calculations and opinion studies and preferring his own gut feeling. This sensitivity is apparently derived from the specific talents required by his specific craft, which involves selling dreams, ideas, ideals. Averse to risk, possessive, Trump does not easily fit the profile of a speculator without a safety net or a player who puts all the chips on the table—or, at least, that’s how he portrays himself. He seems more attracted to appearing to be wealthy than to actually being wealthy; more importantly, he seems to know that material possessions are volatile, that capital is always subject to fluctuations in value, unlike pure appearance, plain fantasy, imaginary creations, which possess a non-material quality that can be long-lasting. This is why the role that the perceptual agent has in creating extra-material value is so important. 

By contrast, we took our strengths and promoted them to the skies. From day one, we set out to sell Trump Tower not just a beautiful building in a great location but an event. We place ourselves on the right place for a certain kind of person to live—the hottest ticket in town. We were selling fantasy.

8. Conclusion

Going back to the initial topic of this essay, it is unclear whether in The Art of the Deal Trump is describing himself as he is or as he would like to be. Frequently, intellectuals seem confused and shocked with Trump’s priority on perception, a stance which is confirmed by other members of his inner circle.[23] But, as we have seen, the two concepts do not necessarily contradict each other. Only by assuming a theory that absolutely dualizes being and appearing to be (becoming), the thing-in-itself and the phenomenon, can one put them as antagonistic, and it is not clear that Trump moves on a terrain where this duality is so vivid. He appears to see himself at the same time as he is, assuming no real difference between a substantial interior and a superficial or accidental exterior. Ese es percipi, as Berkeley would have it. And since Trump sees himself not as an entity of definitely pre-established facts, but as an idea, a brand, his relation to product, material, is the same relation of fiction, or imagination, with a potential thing-in-itself. In this Trumpian world, one is only great if one looks great, and even if the relationship between substance and appearance is built by a salesman cheap trick, outer appearance still remains potentially more substantial than a potential inner substance. This is notorious in his repeated admiration for the art of rhetorical flourishing, from the facade of a building to the bullshit artists which he often praises.

The first thing we did was to invest in beautiful white shutters for the windows. That might not sound like a big deal, but what the shutters did was give a bunch of cold red brick buildings a feeling of warmth and coziness, which was important.

I can always tell a loser when I see someone with a car that is filthy dirty. It’s so easy to make it look better.

 At this point of conclusion, it should be remembered how, in May 1968, the children of the generation that returned from World War II were unsatisfied with the pacified and functional social order they encountered and invented, among some good ideas and much nonsense, a slogan to counter it: l’imagination au pouvoir. Curiously, the implicit detournement in this slogan, the revolutionary avant-garde character of the message, is subject, in the contemporary age, to a new detournement. Possibly, its authors have severely devalued what imagination and its limits actually mean, as so often happens in the workshops of politics. Having forgotten that the frontiers of the imagination may coincide entirely with the frontiers of perception, nowadays the relativists of 1968 have the answer to their wish, personified in the current president of the United States, which reminds us of the old maxim: be careful about what you wish for. To move towards a conclusion, we can quote the co-author of The Art of the Deal, Tony Schwartz, as an example of the current intellectual attitude towards Trump: 

I don’t think Donald Trump has an inner life. I don’t think there’s something different going on inside him than you see going on outside him. It’s not just that he’s not introspective; there’s nothing in there to introspect about. Again, for me to label him is unreasonable, but he certainly strikes me as someone without much of a soul or a conscience or emotional range that you would associate with most human beings.[24] 

While also exercising an artifice of the imagination, acting as if the problem-of-other-minds was already solved, the contemporary intellectual implicit in Schwartz’s view intends to find in the other an inner life, a thinking subject—recognizable as his own reflection, a mirror of his mental activity. This intellectual creature is mainly a craftsman not of material things but of ideas, and appears to primarily despise the low inner life of the rustic, the hand-worker, the merchant; intentionally or not, he seems to attempt to find in the peasant a poet, in the metallurgist a social critic, and in every human being a philosopher. Such an intellectual persona is able to distinguish an inner, mental, perhaps moral dimension, from an external, phenomenal, superficial dimension. He can also assume that, in art, the inner does not necessarily govern the outer, and in life there is no outer without the inner. But while establishing these moral hierarchies, at the same time he refuses to put himself into play in the plural negotiation of facts if the relativism in question does not serve the ends he prefers. Such a critic appears to attribute an absolute value to truth, and take figurative exercises as poetic ingenuity, when the author-subject of the act or work in question pleases him, while taking them for a lie when the same author-subject displeases him or deals in a craft which he disapproves of. It is particularly revealing to see how many works in the liberal arts in general have been authored in praise of mimesis, others in forgery, and even others on artful stealing and fraud, but regarding the fields of finance and politics, not much complimentary tones can be found. Thus, Schwartz’s accusation that Trump has no inner content but only form, when applied, for instance, to a contemporary artist, would be a great compliment. But when applied to the “common man”—since one of Trump’s major defects for most of his critics is to be a commoner and not a superior intellectual counterpart—it represents an insult, a degree in freedom of imagination that the intellectual apparently does not authorize.[25]

Summing up some main points of this essay, we can establish that an inequitable criterium regarding matters of truth and appearance seems to be used towards the merchant and the artist; that Trump does not seek exclusively material profit (in fact, who does?) and seems to be much more interested in the craft either of his business or of his political negotiations; that Trump’s argumentative arsenal is not fundamentally different in kind from the typical politician’s, only perhaps in degree (namely, in rhetorical resourcefulness); that many respected contemporary intellectuals recognize severe problems regarding the presentation of facts by the press, but cannot handle a character such as Trump as the spearhead of that confrontation; and that many of the traits brought by Trump to the political arena are tolerated and even admired in other activities. This essay also attempted to bridge some gaps between explanations for the terribly antagonistic treatment by the intellectual class that Trump is subject to, while at the same time receiving such a large popular support — in fact, titanically huge, for someone who has been in politics for only 5 years; in this respect, his polarizing character is very much comparable to that of his predecessor. Such a stark division might stem from deeply rooted social stances present in contemporary America — not necessarily in a dualist manner — which have no place to be discussed in this essay, but are certainly deserving of much critical study, which is already underway. Although the full nature of such divisions is not entirely clear, it is the press and the intellectual class who generally have the job to report and study this matters. As in this case both of those parties seem to be compromised by their own corporate interests, we should probably save thanks for Trump, both as citizens and as critics, for making those divisions come so visibly to the public light, and in such a debatable manner, although very much polarized—which would not have happened any other way, as the press and the intelligentsia have a sort of monopoly on the establishment and circulation of ideas. Most of this debate takes place, both in the media as well as in the vast literature already written on the subject, mainly in political terms, or with political biases, or, even if grounded in moral or psychological discussions, with political points to be made; all these are less interesting for classical humanities scholars for who this essay is mainly intended. The debate, however, can also raise superb philosophical puzzlements, some of which are particularly interesting and thoroughly refreshing for the intellectual climate among the intelligentsia in general and academia in particular; Donald Trump sounds very much like a creature who is not easily processable by philosophical thought in general, which seems to illustrate how far philosophers may be from understanding certain positions or crafts. This paper tried to approach and develop those perspectives, hoping that, in the future, non-traditional political and philosophical thought, farther from the business and the profession of politicians and philosophers, and closer to other crafts and trades such as Trump’s or his supporters, can be understood with more serious, more tolerant and open-minded critical analyses.

Guns N’Roses singer Axl Rose performing at Rock in Rio, 1991.


[1] Some pseudo-psychological/psychiatric literature has picked up this point—and others—in order to prove a mental disfunction of some sort in Trump, going against the American Psychiatry Association’s “Goldwater rule” that forbids long-distance diagnosis. Vd. Frances, 2017; Frank, 2018; Lee, 2017; McAdams, 2020; Samuels, 2016.
[2] Donald Trump reveals his favorite book.
[3] Donald Trump, The Art of the Deal, USA: Random House, 1987. Henceforth all unmarked citations will refer to this.
[4] This is one of the inaugural moments of Trump’s post-presidential feud with the press. Trump’s staff laid the bait, with a probably purposeful ambitious statement (“[…] largest audience to ever to witness an inauguration, period—both in person and around the globe.”), and the press bit into it, as they tend to do. Initial statements; presidential advisor Kellyanne Conway’s comments; press secretary Sean Spicer’s explanation.
[5] As in accusing his predecessor, Barack Obama, of ordering the wiretapping of his campaign; more on this further on.
[6] As there are several ways to account for wealth in the overall net worth category, and contrary to common belief no type of wealth holds absolute fixed values, Trump purposely plays with this ambiguity. “My net worth fluctuates, and it goes up and down with markets and with attitudes and with feelings, even my own feelings.”
[7] Some studies on Trump’s demographics and the urban/rural divide in particular: An examination of the 2016 electorate, based on validated voters; Behind Trump’s win in rural white America: Women joined men in backing him; Trump is only popular in rural areas.
[8] Contrary to common thought, early American pragmatists did not categorically deny metaphysics as a valid epistemic content; instead, their descriptions of categorical metaphysical entities such as virtue, ethics, and theological matters were largely empiricist in spirit, privileging function over substance, but not explicitly denying its epistemic value.
[9] Some examples of this complaints might be found in McAddams, 2020; Schwartz in Lee, 2017; Mika, in Id.
[10] Particularly in Matthew, further developed by the fifth/sixth Century commentary Opus Imperfectum in Matthaeum and John Chrysostom’s Homilies on Mathew; this view, prevalent in the West but not in the Eastern churches, was carried on by medieval scholastic tradition; later, this feeling of moral disgust towards money was also carried on by one of its modern heirs, Karl Marx. Vd. Chrisman, 2012; Sanchez, 2016; Woyciechowski, 2014.
[11] Vd. Levy, 2014; Warmuth, 2008.
[12] War of the Worlds (Orson Welles, 1938), the purposely fraudulent radio broadcast, jump-started Welles’ national fame; among other legendary antics, he famously used a real ambulance with sirens on to commute between jobs; and his admiration for forgers is documented in his movie F for Fake (1973).
[13] Many examples can be found in the autobiographical posthumous documentary titled Listen to Me Marlon (Steven Riley, 2015).
[14] Several media sources have collected lists of Trump’s greatest or more prominent falsehoods. As one browses through them, the challenge of finding a flat-out lie is evident. Vd. Trumps ten top lies; or Lies, damned lies and Donald Trump: the pick of the president’s untruths.
[15] Other politicians have obviously always done the same; this rhetorical mode is frequently used in political propaganda, as abstractly claiming that the numbers regarding economic recovery or demographic improvements are the best ever—they can indeed be seen as such, depending on whichever concrete data one finds more important—which reminds us that all hard data is subject to interpretation in order to reach meaning.
[16] The Obama wiretapping of the republican presidential campaign, an accusation made “out of gut instinct”, according to Trump, is part of a political tradition: conflating and mistaking erroneous procedures, or event unethical behavior, for corruption is quite common in politics as well as in journalism; but such accusations are used in a less cautionary way by Trump against his opponents. An example: seeing Adam Schiff, chairman of some political inquiries against Trump, as corrupt, is a legitimate political accusation, as conducting political inquiries in an overly partisan fashion—a subjective matter—can be seen as a form of corruption.
[17] Such as his claims regarding the completed segments of the wall in the frontier with Mexico, and some ad-hoc comments where he imprecisely quotes adversaries or claims to have heard or witnessed things unlikely to have happened: a certain apologetic letter written by Joe Biden, the investigation request to Ukraine’s president, and having witnessed Muslims celebrating terrorism.
[18] Some recent examples: Barack Obama’s precipitous comments on the Trayvon Martin shooting or the costs of healthcare reform; Bill Clinton’s comments on the Lewinsky affair; Reagan’s denial of knowledge in the Contras scandal; George W. H. Bush read my lips campaign pledge; Lyndon Johnson pacifist campaign promises; John Kennedy’s infidelities; even more recently, Joe Biden’s statement that Republicans would put African-Americans “back in chains”, a rhetorical abuse that rivals Trump himself.
[19] The classical example of Don Quixote as the character challenging its author comes to mind; but many modern works have continued the general metafictional tradition, such as William Shakespeare’s The Tempest (1610) and Calderon de La Barca’s La Vida es Sueño (1635); in film, some of Jean-Luc Godard’s work (Le Petit Soldat [1963] and Prénom: Carmen [1983] come to mind) and the very recent and famous Hollywood film The Truman Show [1998].
[20] This was evident in a discrete but shocking comment made by Trump, when he was already president, in one of his public rallies, on which he stated that if a given action by his part would not produce the intended effect, he would gladly admit his failure, quickly correcting this statement saying that he would instead probably make up some excuse and thus gaining the applause and laughter of the crowd in response; vd. Trump: “I’ll Find Some Kind of an Excuse” if Wrong About Kim Jong Un.
[21] Wilde, Oscar. The Decay of Lying. New York: Brentano, 1905 [1889].
[22] Conference: António M. Feijó on Fake News, Literary Theory Program, School of Arts and Humanities at the University of Lisbon, Tuesday, May 22, 2018.
[23] As in one famous quote by Ivanka Trump, Trump’s daughter: “Perception is more important than reality. If someone perceives something to be true, it is more important than if it is in fact true. This doesn’t mean you should be duplicitous or deceitful, but don’t go out of your way to correct a false assumption if it plays to your advantage.” in Trump, 2009.
[24] In Interview: Tony Schwartz.
[25] In that sense, of being nothing more than a common merchant, Trump receives similar antagonism to that of both Harry Truman, a shopkeeper from Missouri, and Richard Nixon, born in poverty within an evangelical family in a small Californian town — thanks to Miguel Tamen for pointing this out.


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Frank, J. A. (2018). Trump on the couch: Inside the mind of the president.

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McAdams, D. P. (2020). The strange case of Donald J. Trump: A psychological reckoning. Oxford University Press.

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Sanchez, G. (2016). “Perjury, Lies, Charity, and the Market”. http://opuspublicum.com.

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Warmuth, S. (2008). “Bob Charlatan: Deconstructing Dylan’s Chronicles: Volume One”. New Haven Review, 6, 70–83.

Wilde, O. (1905). The Decay of Lying. Brentano.

Woyciechowski, M. (2014). “Economy And Business In The Bible”, in Benyik, G., & International Biblical Conference (Eds.). (2014). The bible and economics: International Biblical Conference XXV. ; Szeged, Ferenc Gal Theological College, 22nd – 24th August 2013. Jate-Press.