A CEO would be fired for saying what Trump has said about bankruptcy

Donald Trump
Daniel Acker | Bloomberg | Getty Images
Donald Trump

The transcript of an interview Donald Trump did with Washington Post reporter Robert O'Harrow in May recently resurfaced on Twitter, revealing that he boasted about making deals where others were hurt by his bankruptcies.

"They were great decisions for myself," Trump said in the interview. "I mean, I'm representing me. I'm not representing other people … I mean I make great deals for myself."

This isn't the first time Trump has made such comments but they nonetheless sparked outrage in the Twittersphere all over again.

If an executive of a blue-chip company made comments like this, the likely result would be a quick resignation, which is what happened a few weeks ago when the head of a major advertising agency made ill-advised remarks about gender equality. In Trump's case — despite him running for the highest public trust position in the world — this kind of thing barely registers.

Here's why.

There is a concept social scientists call "narrative fidelity," which means being true to your own story, or being faithful to what we already know to be true about you. Trump supporters already know that Trump is a publicist with one client: Himself. They also know that his rap is abrasive and anti-social in an era of insipid displays of corporate treacle that many people simply don't believe and find insulting to boot.

So afraid are corporations of appearing insensitive or confrontational that I was once asked by a corporate PR chief to refrain from using the term "adversary" to describe an organization that was singularly devoted to the company's destruction. "If they're not adversaries, what else could they possibly be?" I asked. The PR person said, "We don't have adversaries. We only have stakeholders." Uh huh.

Trump, on the contrary, has ushered in the age of anti-social business candor. The more corporations preach the usual litany of transparency, sustainability, inclusiveness, corporate social responsibility, diversity and tolerance, and industrial giants run soft-focus advertisements telling us how much they care about us, the more Trump positions against it and conveys that he acts exactly as you would expect a businessman to act: Like a greedy S.O.B. who is singularly out for himself.

Bill Clinton thrived under the rule of narrative fidelity during his many "bimbo eruptions." Clinton's supporters all knew of his zipper issues and elected him anyway. Twice. So when Monica Lewinsky came along, and Clinton lied about his conduct, he was behaving precisely as someone who carries on with multiple women outside of his marriage behaves. No flag thrown.

"Trump's life experience has taught him that audacity pays big. During this election cycle he has been calibrated as an entertainer, not as a business or civic leader. And it's worked well up to this point in winning him a sizable base."

Trump is also the beneficiary of something I call "offense desensitization." He has so many strikes against him that new ones simply fail to resonate. Interestingly, his opponent, Hillary Clinton, also benefits from this phenomenon: She has as many liabilities in politics that Trump has in business so the revelation of one new one has little impact.

In high-stakes communications, the rules are different for different people and organizations — accounting for pre-existing biases and the whim of events. President George W. Bush's golf-playing and New Orleans flyover during Katrina validated the dominant media meme of Republican racism and hostility to the poor. Under similar circumstances President Obama got a pass for just being a little tone deaf.

In the meantime, Trump's life experience has taught him that audacity pays big. During this election cycle he has been calibrated as an entertainer, not as a business or civic leader. And it's worked well up to this point in winning him a sizable base.

I suspect, however, that the closer we get to the actual election, the more Americans will register our historic fear of the Big Guy who seems to trample on the Little Guy with impunity. One thing's for certain, the Clinton machine will do everything in its ample power to throw every word Trump has ever uttered that seems to say "screw 'em all" back in his face in the homestretch.

Commentary by Eric Dezenhall, CEO of Dezenhall Resources, a crisis-management firm in Washington, DC. He is also the author of "Glass Jaw: A Manifesto for Defending Fragile Reputations in an Age of Instant Scandal." Follow him on Twitter @EricDezenhall.

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