A Research Claims Trump Is Not Self Made But Was Made Rich By His Wealthy Father Fred Trump.
3 years ago
Who is Donald Trump? Ask Americans and many of them will describe a self-made billionaire, a business tycoon of unfathomable success. In researchrecently published in Political Behavior, we found that voters are not simply uninformed about President Trump’s biographical background, but misinformed—and that misinformation has serious political consequences.
Large swaths of the public believe the Trump myth. Across three surveys of eligible voters from 2016 to 2018, we found that as many as half of all Americans do not know that he was born into a very wealthy family. And while Americans are divided along party lines in their assessment of Trump’s performance as president, misperceptions regarding his financial background are found among Democrats and Republicans.
The narrative of Trump as self-made is simply false. Throughout his life, the president has downplayed the role his father, real estate developer Fred Trump, played in his success, claiming it was “limited to a small loan of $1 million.” That isn’t true, of course: A comprehensive New York Times investigation last year estimated that over the course of his lifetime, the younger Trump received more than $413 million in today’s dollars from his father. While this exact figure was not known before the Times’ report, it was a matter of record that by the mid-1980s, Trump had been loaned at least $14 million by his father, was loaned at least $3.5 million more in 1990, had borrowed several more million against his inheritance in the 1990s after many of his ventures failed, and had benefited enormously from his father’s political connections and co-signing on loans early in his career as a builder.
Of course, someone born into wealth may have great business acumen, and the question of whether Trump is “a great businessman” is a subjective evaluation.
It turns out that they do. Using a 2017 University of Maryland Critical Issues Poll, we found that believing Trump was not born “very wealthy” leads to at least a 5-percentage-point boost in the president’s job approval, even after considering the many factors that can influence public approval ratings. This shift is rooted in the belief that his humble roots make Trump both more empathetic (he “feels my pain”), and more skilled at business (he is self-made and couldn’t have climbed to such heights without real business know-how).
What happens when Americans learn of the president’s privileged background? In a 2018 survey, we provided half the respondents the following question, which was intended to impart Trump’s biographical information: To what extent were you aware that Donald Trump grew up the son of wealthy real estate businessman Fred Trump, started his business with loans from his father, and received loans worth millions of dollars from his father in order to keep his businesses afloat?
As the figures below show, attitudes toward Trump may be polarized along party lines, but this information does have noticeable and statistically significant effects on evaluations of Trump’s character. For Democrats, who already see Trump as lacking empathy, this information makes them think of him as even less empathetic. But among Republicans, the information is even more damning, reducing perceptions of empathy by more than 10 percentage points.
On perceptions of business acumen, which are higher across both parties, the information regarding Fred Trump’s role in his son’s business success is equally important. Democrats reduce their perceptions of Trump as a good businessman by 6 points, while Republican perceptions decline by 9 points.
These effects may seem small, but the results demonstrate that this misperception was consequential. And among undecided voters or those on the fence, they could make a serious difference in the 2020 election.
Many Americans were and remain misinformed about the central aspect of Trump’s business career, which was his sole credential in his bid for office.
Many studies have shown that, for better or worse, candidates’ race, gender and incumbency affect voters’ assessments. Voters also care about less visible characteristics of candidates—such as their religion, occupational background and veteran status—but may be less aware of the facts concerning them. This is made worse when there is a concerted effort to build a counternarrative.
Trump’s persona in the 2000s—the image of him as a world-conquering tycoon—was not shaped by his business record, which was pockmarked with bankruptcies, but by his hit TV show, “The Apprentice.” As The New Yorker recently put it, the show “mythologized him anew, and on a much bigger scale, turning him into an icon of American success.” As a politician, Trump built on this narrative, claiming, “I built what I built myself, and I did it by working long hours and working hard and working smart.”
Another factor is media coverage of Trump. A LexisNexis search of leading newspapers from January 1, 2016, until Election Day 2016 found more than six times as many articles referring to Trump’s divorces than those mentioning his father. The problem is not just that the media prefers the salacious to the substantive; the practices of even serious journalists may not always produce an informed public. By 2016, Fred Trump’s aid to his son was in the distant past. It had been reported over the years, so barring revelations like those in the 2018 New York Times exposé, it just wasn’t “news” to reporters. Yet without repeated coverage, many voters who do not follow politics closely will not absorb the facts that journalists take for granted.
The story was also complicated. Trump never denied being born wealthy or receiving some help from his father. He simply massively understated this aid, repeatedly characterizing it as “a small loan of a million dollars.” Yet the precise amount of help Trump received was hard to quantify, even if it was clearly far more than he admitted. Given his many flatly false and easily refutable statements, the murkiness around his paternal backing might have made it a less-than-attractive target even for journalists keen to fact-check the eventual GOP nominee.
The 2016 campaign is history, and if Trump runs for reelection, assessments of his record in office will likely be more important to the campaign than perceptions about his business career. Yet the issues our research raise about voter ignorance and misinformation—and the media coverage that contributes to it—are of broader importance.
As we enter the 2020 cycle, reporters and campaign workers may assume voters know about all sorts of things that they don’t. But our research shows that the basic information plugged-in elites take for granted is not known by many Americans, and can be consequential in political evaluations. After all, a 2016 poll showed that more Americans under age 30 could identify Pikachu than Joe Biden, suggesting that even well-vetted politicians must be reintroduced to an ever-changing electorate.
American voters do respond to information about candidates, but first, they need to be told the full story.
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