Donald J. Trump’s boardroom in “The Apprentice” was like something out of a movie. Specifically, “Network.”
In the Netflix documentary “The Confidence Man,” two “Apprentice” producers say they found the actual Trump Organization offices too dated and dowdy for TV. So they built a set in Trump Tower, modeled on the darkened lair where the mogul, Arthur Jensen (Ned Beatty), dresses down the rebellious newsman Howard Beale (Peter Finch), howling, “The world is a business!”
That’s what reality TV does: It set-designs locations (a “Survivor” island, a “Bachelor” love nest) to look more convincing, more in line with our mental cartoons than the real thing.
“The Confidence Man,” a swift, brutal overview of Mr. Trump’s business career, argues that he had been doing the same thing with his image for decades: He wasn’t a business titan so much as he played one on TV.
The film, directed by Fisher Stevens (“Bright Lights”), is the last episode of a six-part anthology, “Dirty Money,” from the filmmaker Alex Gibney (“Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room”), arriving Friday. The installments range from an infuriating look at payday lending to an offbeat story about Canadian maple syrup cartels.
The common thread is the abuse of trust. And “The Confidence Man” argues that the problem goes all the way to the top.
Mr. Stevens’s narrative starts with Trump Tower, the gleaming metonym Mr. Trump hung his name on in brass letters. The splashy project landed him on talk shows and magazine covers as the photogenic shorthand for Reagan-age materialism.
That served his other big 1980s construction effort — his media image, for which he poured the foundation in the New York tabloids. The gossip columnist A. J. Benza recalls Mr. Trump as a regular source, offering juicy tips with only one condition: that he be referred to in print as a billionaire.
TV reports picked up on the description and embellished it, and Mr. Trump smiled and let them.
“The Confidence Man” interviews old friends, like the music mogul Russell Simmons, and associates like Barbara Res, the executive in charge of the Trump Tower construction, who remember his mythmaking bemusedly. Compared with real estate families like the Zeckendorfs, Ms. Res says, “Who was Trump? He was nobody.”
Maybe Mr. Trump wasn’t the biggest developer. But he was the most visible, and he banked on people taking one for the other. (A later ad for Trump University declared, “Donald Trump is, without question, the world’s most famous businessman” — trusting the audience to read that as “most successful.”)
Banks threw money at his celebrity, and he spent it on high-visibility purchases: an airline, the Plaza Hotel, a football team, casinos.
When it all went bad by the early ’90s, fame was his guarantor. His creditors, who needed the Trump brand to survive in order to get paid back, put him on an allowance to keep up a glitzy front.
Mr. Trump, the film argues, has thrived by finding partners — in finance, reality TV, politics — who were as invested as he was in propping up his image.
Mr. Trump’s self-inflation has been covered before. In the 2005 book “TrumpNation” the former New York Times reporter Tim O’Brien, who figures heavily in this documentary, concluded that Mr. Trump was worth mere hundreds of millions, not billions. (Mr. Trump sued him for libel, unsuccessfully.) But “The Confidence Man” is useful for how it separates out the business thread from the recent tangle of “How we got Trump” analyses.
When Mr. Trump’s business became licensing his name to others, he essentially turned into a mascot. He showed up on sitcoms and did fast-food ads with his ex-wife Ivana and Grimace from McDonald’s. He was his own Col. Sanders, personifying the herbs and spices — glitter, ambition — that “TRUMP” in big brass letters stood for.
That made him a perfect host for “The Apprentice,” whose premise was that Mr. Trump was a legendary businessman and desirable boss.
TV fame opened up other opportunities, and the last half of “The Confidence Man” detours into dark intimations about Mr. Trump’s partnerships with businessmen from former Soviet republics and his alleged self-enrichment as president. It also re-examines the fraud case, later settled, against Trump University that his opponents tried to make stick to him in the 2016 campaign.
But the film’s larger case is against the reasoning that helped elect him: He was the most famous businessman, therefore he was the best businessman, therefore — following the logic of Mitt Romney and H. Ross Perot before him — he would be the best president. “He’s managed businesses,” one voter quoted in the film says, “and I think he can manage this country.”
You could, of course, argue that branding and the ability to leverage illusions are valuable skills themselves. You could agree with Arthur Jensen that the world is a business. But the forceful conclusion of “The Confidence Man” is that Mr. Trump’s world is, and has always been, a stage.