The Salesman Dies

“The man who makes an appearance in the business world, the man who creates personal interest, is the man who gets ahead. Be liked and you will never want.”

Willy Loman – the salesman in Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman – offers that advice to his son. Sure, the neighbor’s son is a hot-shot lawyer who just argued a case in front of the Supreme Court. That’s fine, and he may be liked, but is he well-liked? You see, being well-liked is what really matters – that’s where the big money is, and the power, and, most of all, the respect. Miller’s rather heavy-handed 1949 play explores what an empty delusion that is – and how it destroys a man, and a family, and by implication a nation.

The man’s two sons end up hating their old man – he’s pathetic – he’s delusional – but Miller’s play ends with the guy’s funeral, and his widow scolding those two sons. Respect the man. He did his best, but the world kept shifting out from under him. She knew. She didn’t have to say it. The economy changes all the time. It leaves lots of people behind. He was a good man. Respect the man. Fade to black.

That made Miller’s play “the” American story – and then Arthur Miller married Marilyn Monroe. That was another version of the American Dream, but he should have known better. That didn’t last. He had turned himself into Willy Loman. Be liked and you will never want? Things don’t work that way. They never do.

No one told Donald Trump, and recently, the New York Times’ Charles Blow told the same sad story:

Donald Trump has spent his whole life overselling an overinflated vision of himself and his success.

He was the outer-borough boy whose father’s “boxlike office” was on Avenue Z in Brooklyn; he always dreamed of making it to Manhattan and breaking into the big league.

With a hustler’s spirit and some sleight of hand, he made it, but not in total.

He made the move, made the money and made his mark on New York’s skyline, but he never quite made it into the inner sanctum of New York high society.

Be liked and you will never want? That wasn’t going to happen:

For Trump’s part, his sin was even worse than being new-money: He was tacky rich. No amount of money or success could completely rid him of the odiousness of being coarse and crass.

He was an odd kind of Willie Loman, and he too tried:

For him, things had to be gilded to be glamorous. All modesty – either real or contrived to guard against exposure – was absent from the man. He was a glutton for attention and adoration. He chased the spotlight and pimped celebrity for profit. He valued flaunting over philanthropy.

In New York City’s elite social circles, Trump was persona non grata.

As many others have pointed out, he became the idiot’s image of an intellectual, the coward’s image of a courageous man and the pauper’s image of a prosperous man.

But rather than being crimped by his ostracism, he wore it as a badge of honor.

And that worked for him:

Trump swept into the presidential election with the same bluster and bravado, aggression and subversion that had worked well for him in business.

He was not book smart or well mannered. He was all gut and elbow and verbal barbs. For too many, he was refreshingly anti-polish and anti-convention.

And, as is Trump’s wont and calling card, he oversold his voters a bill of goods that he would never be able to deliver. The Pied Piper of pipe dreams did in politics what he had done in business: He got people to buy into a success mythology in which he was a wizard. In this mythology, ethics, honor and truth are casualties.

Everything is going to be the greatest and the best and the most successful simply because he deems it so.

He was a salesman. He was Willie Loman writ large, and with his wonderful replacement for Obamacare, he’s about to meet the same fate:

In January, Trump oversold again in an interview with The Washington Post about what he would deliver. The Post reported Trump’s comments this way:

“We’re going to have insurance for everybody,” Trump said. “There was a philosophy in some circles that if you can’t pay for it, you don’t get it. That’s not going to happen with us.” People covered under the law “can expect to have great health care. It will be in a much simplified form. Much less expensive and much better.”

But the plan just announced and endorsed by Trump doesn’t even come close to delivering on this promise.

That calls for an expert sales job, but Trump may not be the best salesman for this:

President Trump spent Tuesday selling the Republican healthcare overhaul to skeptical House members, warning his party that failure would endanger his legislative agenda and their own political careers.

But more than two dozen GOP lawmakers remained firmly opposed to the legislation amid the high-stakes persuasion campaign led by Trump and House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.) – more than enough to block the bill ahead of a planned Thursday vote.

House passage would represent a powerful, if symbolic, achievement for both men – and failure would send leaders back to the drawing board on a key issue that Trump and congressional Republicans promised voters they would address. Even if the House approves the package, the legislation faces an uphill battle in the Senate.

So, even if Trump closes the sale in the House, which he may not, this dies in the Senate anyway, because no one likes the product:

The holdouts are mainly hardline conservatives who believe that the bill, known as the American Health Care Act, does not do nearly enough to undo the Affordable Care Act passed by Democrats in 2010. But they also include moderates who fear that the bill will imperil their constituents and their party’s prospects at the ballot box.

Trump loses either way, but there may be an answer to that:

In a morning address to a closed-door meeting of House Republicans, Trump used both charm and admonishment as he made his case, reassuring skittish members that they would gain seats in Congress if the bill passed.

He singled out Rep. Mark Meadows (R-N.C.), the chairman of the House Freedom Caucus, which has led the right-wing opposition to the bill.

“I’m gonna come after you, but I know I won’t have to, because I know you’ll vote ‘yes,’ ” Trump said, according to several lawmakers who attended the meeting.

That was a joke, and it wasn’t – an odd sort of sales pitch – and it didn’t work:

In interviews, more than two dozen lawmakers said they were either firmly opposed to the bill or leaning toward voting against it. Ryan can lose only 21 members of his party for the bill to succeed, as no Democrats have pledged to support the package.

Several Republicans privately said Tuesday that the Thursday vote could be postponed if leaders are unable to secure enough firm votes for passage beforehand.

Still, Trump the Salesman was trying, mostly in vain:

On Tuesday afternoon, Trump hosted more than a dozen members of the Tuesday Group, a moderate House faction, in the Oval Office for a lower-key lobbying session that involved the president asking each person to relay their concerns about the bill.

On Friday, a similar meeting helped Trump win converts among members of the Republican Study Committee, a key conservative bloc. But on Tuesday, he found more resistance.

Going into the White House meeting, Rep. Leonard Lance (R-N.J.) described himself as “a strong lean no,” citing a variety of concerns. “My views are based on fundamentals in the legislation,” he said. “I don’t see the lower premiums in this bill.”

After the meeting, he said his views had hardened: “I’m a no,” he told reporters.

Okay, change the product:

The meeting came less than 24 hours after GOP leaders released changes to the bill that they believe are sufficient to win a House majority.

Many of the changes were made to placate conservatives – including giving states the option to take a fixed Medicaid block grant and to impose work requirements on childless, able-bodied adults covered under the program. Others responded to broader concerns about the sufficiency of the tax credits offered to help Americans purchase insurance.

One revision was more narrowly targeted – added at the behest of a group of Upstate New York Republicans who wanted to end their state’s practice of commandeering local tax revenue to fund state Medicaid benefits.

That compounded the concerns of Rep. Daniel Donovan (R-N.Y.), a Tuesday Group member who represents parts of New York City that would be hurt by the change.

“I have four hospital systems in my district; they are my biggest employers,” he said. “All of them have grave concerns about how they are going to survive if this gets passed.”

Okay, don’t change the product:

It was Trump’s warning to Meadows that sent the sharpest message Tuesday. “He was kidding around – I think,” said Rep. Harold Rogers (R-Ky.), a bill supporter.

White House press secretary Sean Spicer said later in the day: “Mark Meadows is a longtime, early supporter of the president. He had some fun at his expense this morning during the conference meeting.”

Asked whether Trump believed that Republicans who opposed the bill would be damaged at the ballot box, Spicer answered: “I think they’ll probably pay a price at home.”

Spicer explained that statement was not a threat but “a political reality.”

This wasn’t working:

Meadows told reporters that he had a “sincere and deep friendship” with Trump and appreciated the many hours of negotiation that were involved in the package. But he remained firmly against the bill absent major changes that Trump and Ryan have now ruled out.

“This is not a personality decision; this is a policy decision,” Meadows said. “It won’t lower premiums, and until it does, I’m going to be a no, even if it sends me home.”

The man who wrote “The Art of the Deal” couldn’t make one, and Jonathan Chait explains why:

Almost every great vote-wrangling drama in Congress, especially on a high-profile issue in the first year or two of a new presidency, is eventually reduced to a simple test of strength. Like a bad war, the original objective falls by the wayside and is replaced by the conviction that defeat will lead to a collapse of all credibility.

So this had become a simple test of strength that had nothing to do with the actual product being sold:

President Trump can barely muster any enthusiasm at all for the bill. His public defenses are vague and grudging, and he is reportedly even less keen in private. “He is tired of seeing it criticized on TV,” one source tells Politico. What fires up Trump’s passion is not the bill itself, but the prospect of winning. “A loss is not acceptable, folks,” he reportedly told a caucus meeting.

Rather than advocate for the alleged benefits of the bill – if anybody even alleges them any more – Republicans have staked their case on a series of reasons unrelated to its direct effects on the health-care system:

That means that this is now about keeping a promise:

“We made a promise and now it is the time to keep that promise,” says Paul Ryan. “If we keep that promise, the people will reward us. If we don’t keep our promise, it will be very hard to manage this.”

There are only a few problems with that:

It is true that Republicans have promised for seven years to repeal Obamacare, which they have described to their base as irredeemably evil. At the same time, Republicans made other promises: to provide affordable coverage to everybody, including people with preexisting conditions, and with lower premiums and lower deductibles. “Nobody will be worse off financially,” promises Tom Price.

Overpromising is common for politicians. But Republicans didn’t merely stretch the truth. They have promised something diametrical to their actual agenda. Republican plans would reduce coverage subsidies, foisting people onto cheaper plans with much higher deductibles. All the while, they promised the precise opposite. Whatever they do, they are going to break their promises.

Oops. And there’s this:

A related argument maintains that Republicans would somehow take the blame for the status quo if they failed to pass the bill. “I’m optimistic that none of my members in the end want to be responsible for the status quo on Obamacare,” says Mitch McConnell. Of course, Republicans will be held responsible for the status quo regardless of whether they pass a health-care bill.

There’s no getting around that, but there’s always the fear-factor in effective salesmanship:

“Trump told us if we don’t pass this bill on Thursday, it will put everything in jeopardy that he wants to do, his agenda,” Republican Representative John Duncan of Tennessee told The Hill. “If we are not able to move forward with health-care reform, it endangers tax reform,” Representative Bill Flores of Texas, a former chairman of a House conservative caucus, tells Sahil Kapur. “The folks that were able to tear this down would feel like they’re empowered to tear the next big project down.” This is, essentially, the domino theory of legislation. But, really, think about it rationally: The folks who are tearing down Trumpcare are fellow Republicans in Congress. If Trumpcare fails, are they going to turn against tax cuts?

Nope, that won’t work, and then there are those tax cuts:

The manic drive to pass the health-care bill follows from a legislative strategy that was designed to culminate in a huge tax cut that would not have to be phased out after a decade. Republicans continue to insist health reform must be passed for this reason.

The trouble with this argument is that the strategy is hopelessly overambitious. In a nutshell, Republicans want to repeal Obamacare and the taxes that finance it in order to enable their next big tax cuts to appear “revenue-neutral.” But their strategy also requires passing a border-adjustment tax, which is supposed to provide a trillion dollars they can use to offset the costs of the big tax cuts for rich people that they crave. But that tax is wildly complex and enormously controversial among Republicans in Congress and stands almost no chance of enactment.

So, if and when this strategy fails, they’re going to give up on passing a revenue-neutral tax “reform” and instead pass a huge tax cut that doesn’t bother pretending to be revenue-neutral. And when that happens, it won’t matter whether or not they have already repealed the taxes that finance Obamacare. They’ll look back and wish they hadn’t bled time and political capital on a reach goal that they wound up abandoning anyway.

Okay, scratch that, but there’s another kind of fear:

“If we get this done, and tax reform, Trump believes we pick up ten seats in the Senate and we add to our majority in the House,” says Republican Representative Chris Collins of New York. “If we don’t get it done, we lose the House and the Senate.” Trump has reportedly emphasized the same point to his party.

No, scratch that too:

It is a bit strange to argue that a party can consolidate or even expand its base of support by passing a deeply unpopular bill. To be sure, if Republicans believe that the public has simply been misled about its bill, and will like the result once it has been enacted, they might have reason to think a vote could help them in the long run. But it is almost impossible to find a policy advocate of any ideological persuasion who believes that. The GOP plan does create some beneficiaries: Very wealthy people will enjoy lower taxes, and some healthy, high-income people will get lower insurance premiums. But many millions of people will lose their coverage or face enormous premium hikes. And those people are disproportionately Republican. So if House Republicans do pass the bill, they’ll take a hit in public opinion for backing a highly unpopular piece of legislation, and then, down the road, a much larger hit as the real-world consequences of their vote take effect.

Chait sees no way to fix any of this, and Paul Waldman sees all this as a product of Donald Trump’s rather unique experience as a businessman:

In his particular corner of the business world, you really can create wealth just by managing public perception – or at least he could. This was the theory of his entire career, that by fashioning a public persona that was as much of a caricature of wealth and success as Scrooge McDuck, he could turn himself into the picture he was painting. The more people saw Donald Trump as the embodiment of wealth, the more they would want to invest in his projects and buy his products, which would in turn make him wealthier. Making ridiculous promises and outright lying were all part of creating the image; one of my favorite examples is how Trump Tower is 58 stories high, but he numbered the floors up to 68 so that everyone would think it was taller than it is.

And it worked, even if not to quite the extent he claims. Over time, the Trump Organization became less about actual real estate development and more about brand licensing, where he would give someone rights to use the Trump name and its association with garish conspicuous consumption, take little or no risk and just collect the fees.

Yes, the man who makes an appearance in the business world, the man who creates personal interest, is the man who gets ahead. That’s what Willie Loman said, but Waldman notes that this idea isn’t transferable:

It’s a good business, but it’s not the same as politics. Brand management is certainly important to political success, but if you’re the president, you have to deliver for people, and deliver on things such as health care, which are complex and require difficult trade-offs.

This is a different world:

When he conned someone, like the attendees of Trump University, no matter how unhappy they were he could move on to other marks (even if he might have to pay his victims off if the courts caught up with him). It was a big world, and there were always other people who might be taken in by the next scam. But in politics, you have to go back to the people you made promises to the first time around, and ask them to put their faith in you again.

For now, it’s obvious that Trump looks at his first legislative priority much like one of his buildings: What matters is that people think it’s the tallest one around, even if it isn’t. He doesn’t seem to know or care much about what’s in the GOP’s bill to repeal the ACA or what the effects would be. It’s just about getting a win one way or the other.

And that win may be a loss:

There were a lot of people who voted for Trump even though they knew he was a blowhard and utterly lacking in anything resembling common human decency, but were dissatisfied enough with their personal situation and the state of their communities that they said, “What the hell, let’s give him a shot.” Their support is not guaranteed. Trump will have to win it all over again if they’re going to vote for him in 2020, or vote to keep his party in control in Congress. And if he can’t come through for them in real ways, they won’t come through for him at the ballot box.

Buy the product and the product will make their lives worse. They won’t remember Obamacare, or Obama. They’ll remember that, and there are no more easy marks out there to snooker. There’s no moving on.

That’s a problem, and Kevin Drum agrees with Charles Blow:

Trump is vain. He’s peculiarly unwilling to learn anything new. He feels endlessly persecuted. His attention span can be measured in minutes. He’s paranoid over the slightest sign of disloyalty. He is vengeful. He demands constant attention. He makes up preposterous fictions to sustain his worldview and shield his ego from the slings and arrows of reality. He desperately wants to be liked by everyone. He’s domineering. His personal relationships are almost entirely transactional. He never laughs. He can’t stand people poking fun at him. He’s often unable to control his emotional outbursts. And he likes his steaks really well done…

No single one of these things is debilitating, but what happens when you put them all together?

You get a very dark Willie Loman:

Maybe this is Trump. Being, say, vain and domineering would make him a bit of an asshole, but nothing more. But put all of his bizarre personality traits together, stir in the pressure of being president, and that might be enough to qualify him as detached from consensus reality.

That’s an old story. Be liked and you will never want. That story always ends badly.

About Alan

The editor is a former systems manager for a large California-based HMO, and a former senior systems manager for Northrop, Hughes-Raytheon, Computer Sciences Corporation, Perot Systems and other such organizations. One position was managing the financial and payroll systems for a large hospital chain. And somewhere in there was a two-year stint in Canada running the systems shop at a General Motors locomotive factory - in London, Ontario. That explains Canadian matters scattered through these pages. Otherwise, think large-scale HR, payroll, financial and manufacturing systems. A résumé is available if you wish. The editor has a graduate degree in Eighteenth-Century British Literature from Duke University where he was a National Woodrow Wilson Fellow, and taught English and music in upstate New York in the seventies, and then in the early eighties moved to California and left teaching. The editor currently resides in Hollywood California, a block north of the Sunset Strip.
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