Sorry New York Times, Donald Trump Is Self-Made

Sorry New York Times, Donald Trump Is Self-Made
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In their 2009 book From Poverty to Prosperity, authors Arnold Kling and Nick Schulz noted how the productivity of a typical immigrant surged upon arrival in the United States. Thanks to feverish investment in all things American, those working in the United States (at all levels of income) are equipped to produce at levels that are the envy of much of the world.

Simply stated, to be able to work in the United States is to win the proverbial lottery. While most Americans can’t lay claim to any substantial inheritance, we increasingly live and work as though we do. The rich and their heirs have left us with voluminous resources of the educational (walk any U.S. college campus if you’re skeptical), mechanical and financial variety that have given us the opportunity to achieve financial security on par with how actual heirs are set for life. That’s one reason why the world’s poorest continue to risk their lives in order to reach here, legally and illegally. So vast is the knowledge and wealth here, so immense is the investment in the typical worker, that Americans on all levels have the chance to prosper in ways that those not American do not. To use but one example, does anyone seriously think the world’s most valuable company would presently be headquartered in Damascus if Steve Jobs’ father hadn’t immigrated to the U.S.?

By global standards, nearly every American was born on 1st or 2nd base, and some would say 3rd. All of this rates discussion in consideration of the New York Times’ recent front page story about President Trump’s wealth. The 14,000 word report observed that while “Mr. Trump won the presidency proclaiming himself a self-made billionaire,” he "received the equivalent today of at least $413 million from his father’s real estate empire, starting when he was a toddler and continuing to this day.” The Times’ conclusion was that Trump is in fact not self-made, that he was and still is the beneficiary of immense wealth created by his father (Fred Trump), and that he was in the position to utilize his father’s money because the “Trumps paid a total of $52.2 million, or about 5 percent” in inheritance taxes, not the headline 55 percent rate that was in place when Trump’s father passed. 

About all this, the Wall Street Journal’s Holman Jenkins pointed out over the weekend how it surprised “exactly no one” that Trump inherited quite a bit more than a $1 million that he long claimed his father staked him to get started. So true.  Most sensed that Trump had more at his disposal starting out, but then we all do by virtue of living in the United States. Compared to much of the rest of the world, none of us are self-made. Many Americans doubtless imagine “what they would do” with a multi-million dollar inheritance, but many more who aren’t American imagine “what they would do” if fortunate enough just to live and work in the United States. This rates some thought in consideration of Trump’s business career, as do Trump's substantial achievements.

The 45th president has said that “I built what I built myself,” and has been criticized for saying just that, but there’s a great deal of truth to what he asserts. While Fred Trump was undeniably successful, his achievements were relatively unknown. They also took place outside the borough of Manhattan.

That Trump has his name on various buildings inside Manhattan says a lot about him. How many individuals, self-made or heir, can point to skyscrapers with their last name on them in the borough of the world’s most prominent city, let alone on buildings in the most prominent cities in the world? All that, plus as the Times acknowledges in the report, Trump’s “singular achievement” before “he became president” was building a brand “so potent [that] it generated hundreds of millions of dollars in revenue through TV shows, books, and licensing deals.” The Times added that “[J]ust as important” to Trump’s achievements as his father’s dollars “were his son’s preternatural marketing skills and always-be-closing competitive hustle.” Sorry readers, but this isn’t nothing. While this column takes a backseat to very few when it comes to critiques of certain Trump policies, what he accomplished in business was beyond impressive. All of this analysis ignores how an individual on a shoestring budget managed to vanquish sixteen politically seasoned Republicans (including political “heirs” of the Jeb Bush variety….) on the way to the Republican presidential nomination, not to mention his victory over a political heiress in the form of Hillary Clinton despite the media’s near-monolithic view that Clinton would mop the floor with Trump.

For those who want to believe that Trump’s achievements are still undeserving given the tax machinations of the Trump family and its accountants, such a view isn’t serious. Figure that the Times itself acknowledged that the tax “maneuvers met with little resistance from the Internal Revenue Service.” Estate tax lawyers are paid quite a bit precisely because they’re able to help the rich legally shield their money from the grasping hands of politicians. Per Jenkins, the Trump family did what Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg and others with immense wealth have long been doing. And it’s good that they do. Politicians don’t tax away our dollars to stare at them lovingly as much as they do so in order to arrogate to themselves influence over the direction of precious resources; influence that most could never hope to achieve in the private sector. The latter in mind, a better investigation from the Times would be an ongoing one of the Democrats and Republicans in Washington who’ve long enhanced their own personal wealth through the mis-allocation of the wealth produced by others, including Fred and Donald Trump.

Which brings us to the final point of this column. The annual Forbes 400 was just released. Skeptics about Donald Trump’s self-made status might stop and think about the list. Not only was Fred Trump never a member of the 400, the greater truth is that there are few (if any) 400 members who inherited great wealth only to use the money to make their own fortunes with it. Think about it. Members of the Forbes 400 are either self-made or heirs, but rarely both. With the exception of Donald Trump. Trump is a Forbes 400 member who got that way by putting inherited wealth to work in the building of a brand that is global in scope. Trump is both, and that makes him exceedingly unique.

Forget the politics, Brett Kavanaugh, Republicans and Democrats, Trump's wrongheaded stances on trade and immigration, and simply ask the question: Is Donald Trump self-made? By any reasonable standard, yes.  

John Tamny is a speechwriter and writer of opinion pieces for clients, he's editor of RealClearMarkets, Director of the Center for Economic Freedom at FreedomWorks, and a senior economic adviser to Toreador Research and Trading ( His new book is The End of Work, about the exciting explosion of remunerative jobs that don't feel at all like work.  He's also the author of Who Needs the Fed? and Popular Economics. He can be reached at  

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