People think Trump is a self-made millionaire. They change their minds about him when they learn the truth.
I can’t say I’m surprised about this. Throughout the campaign I heard his supporters say they trusted him becuse he was such a successful businessman. Many were “Apprentice” fans, of course. But Trump ran as the greatest businessman in the world and dismissed his father’s involvement in his career as being irrelevant.
Who is Donald Trump? Ask Americans and many of them will describe a self-made billionaire, a business tycoon of unfathomable success. In research recently 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. The focus of our work, however, is on whether indisputable facts regarding candidate biographies—which are often invisible to voters over the course of a campaign—affect public opinion.
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. Why are so many Americans so mistaken on this seemingly basic point? Given that a significant—if smaller—minority of Democrats answered incorrectly, we cannot attribute it entirely to partisan rationalization.
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. Similarly, reporters are often reactive, and Trump’s rivals in 2016 seldom noted the centrality of Fred Trump’s financial support in keeping his son’s businesses afloat.
They point out the fact that the media neglected to cover this aspect of his history or confront him with facts about it. That was a big failure.
Now we can all see with our own eyes how inept he is. (Well, most of us anyway.) This shouldn’t besomething people need to know about going forward. But it wouldn’t hurt to make sure it’s out there anyway. As long as people think this guy was some kind of yuge success by dint of his own talents he maintains some undeserved power.