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Review Essay: Transactional Man: Teaching Negotiation Strategy in the Age of Trump

Originally published in the Wiley Online Library.

Review of
Martin E. Latz. “The Real Trump Deal: An Eye-Opening Look at How He Really Negotiates. Phoenix, AZ: Life Success Press, 377 pages. $27.95
(hardcover). ISBN: 978-1-944194-47-5.

My style of deal-making is quite simple and straightforward. I
aim very high, and then I just keep pushing and pushing and
pushing to get what I’m after.

–Donald J. Trump (Trump 1987: 45)


The election of Donald J. Trump as President of the United States has left many people in a state of head-spinning disorientation. With him, as with Lewis Carroll’s Humpty-Dumpty, a word means “just what I choose it to mean – neither more nor less.” And when we ask, as Alice does in Through the Looking Glass, “whether you can make words mean so many different things,” Trump confidently replies, as does Humpty Dumpty: “The question is: which is to be the master – that’s all” (Carroll 1871: 112). For now, Trump is the master. From the halls of academia to the shores of North Korea, professors, foreign leaders, policy analysts, and media pundits are parsing his every tweet, trying to determine when to take him “literally” and when to take him, as his supporters usually do, “seriously.”

Nowhere are the implications of this new style of presidential leadership more fraught than in negotiations. Words matter in bargaining. Guessing what they mean when deployed as part of an aggressive, competitive negotiating style is an important form of judgment. But it is also something of a lost art in law schools (and to a lesser extent in business schools), where the language of relationship-oriented collaboration has ruled supreme for over thirty years. When you are in a collaborative negotiation and your counterpart says, “Your proposal is utterly unacceptable; I am insulted by it,” that negotiator has crossed the Rubicon. Her credibility is now on the line to hold that position come hell or high water. When you hear these same words in the type of negotiations Donald Trump and his lawyers routinely engaged in during his real estate and Trump-brand-licensing careers, they could easily mean something quite different, as in: “We don’t like your proposal and intend to fight hard against it. Game on!”

Love Trump or hate him, his ascendancy to the stage of global
politics has forced those of us who study and teach negotiations to
become better acquainted – or reacquainted – with a type of negotiator we tend to keep at arm’s length. In this review essay, I will take a page out of Trump’s rhetorical playbook and pin a label on Trump’s type:
Transactional Man (with “Man” denoting negotiators of all genders).1 Our students will see a lot of Transactional Man in the Age of Trump, so it is up to us to explain him and, even more important, prepare them to cross swords with him at the bargaining table.

The book that occasions this essay, Martin Latz’s The Real Trump
Deal: An Eye-Opening Look at How He Really Negotiates,
provides a
good starter kit for attempting this effort. It is a sprawling book full of
how-to-negotiate advice, bits and pieces of Latz’s earlier writings, including Gain the Edge! Negotiating to Get What You Want (2005), and more
than three hundred fifty pages of negotiation anecdotes from Trump’s
career organized by tactic (although unfortunately without an index to
keep track of the key people and deals). Trump’s relentlessness in pursuing his goals is evident on every page, making it an exhausting read.

In the end, Latz answers a question we already know the answer
to: by research-based standards, is Trump really the negotiation genius
he claims to be? Well … no. Latz’s evidence shows that Trump is an
aggressive, persistent, win-lose negotiator who is good at setting high
goals, targeting others’ motivations to gain leverage, manipulating perceptions, and anchoring the bargaining range at his end. He is also
impulsive, ill-prepared, unethical, and prone to exaggerations, bluffs,
and bullying. Whatever business success Trump enjoyed using these
tactics, Latz has his doubts about turning them into a new presidential
formula for achieving consistent legislative and diplomatic victories. He
concludes by saying that history will be Trump’s ultimate judge.

Fair enough. But my encounter with Latz’s book led me to take a
deep dive into the associated Trump literature he cites (and a few more
Negotiation Journal January 2019 33
books besides). I emerged with some insights I will explore in this essay.
Trump surrounded himself with skilled, ruthless Transactional Men who
were as good as, or better than, he was at hard-ball negotiation. Their
stories, in combination with those that Latz tells about Trump, open a
vivid window into Transactional Man’s mindset and values. They also
confirm that the only reliable way to neutralize this extreme style of negotiation is, in the words of one of Trump’s closest negotiation advisors,
to summon your courage and “stand your ground” (Ross 2006: 260)

I organize this essay as follows. First, I share three factual takeaways I gained regarding Trump-the-Negotiator. Next, I briefly summarize Trump’s business biography (something Latz neglects to do, which
makes his book harder to follow). Importantly, this section shows where
his advisers fit in. Then, I analyze the lives and writings of these advisers
as well as Latz’s work, highlighting three key insights into Transactional
Man’s negotiation philosophy. These insights, in turn, help us better understand the virtually unlimited set of tactics ethically available to him. I
will conclude with a few final thoughts on Latz’s book and the puzzle of
teaching transactional strategies in the modern negotiation curriculum

Trump-the-Negotiator: Myth versus Man

Trump has a genius – but it is a genius for brand marketing, not negotiation. So we need to start by separating fact from fiction.

Few scholars would spend time parsing Trump’s negotiating ability
(much less write a book about this) but for one fact: Trump elevated
a common negotiation style into a personal brand. His name is associated with hard-nosed bargaining the way “Nathan’s Famous” (created by
Coney Island vendor Nathan Handwerker) is associated with hot dogs.

Trump could do this because the ethos of competitive bargaining
is immediately recognizable in everyday life. Across the globe, from the
haggling in New Delhi’s open markets to the back-and-forth moves of
multi-million dollar condo sales in New York, people set goals, take
positions, test each other’s resolve, and close deals. Tony Schwartz, the
ghostwriter for Trump’s 1987 book Trump: The Art of the Deal, captured
this ethos, cloaked his client’s deal-making stories in it, and endowed
Trump with its voice. Trump took it from there, using bold strokes, dramatic flair, and robber-baron–infused romance to promote himself as
the ultimate Transactional Man.

To those who see Trump only from a distance, this brand is rock
solid, shielding him from criticisms that would bring down many conventional business or political leaders. For example, at one point in his
book, Latz (p. 255) wonders how someone like Trump could enjoy a
widespread reputation as a “tough but ethical negotiator” when he has behaved so unethically over such a long period of time, with “his counterparts regularly discussing this conduct publicly.”

Transactional Man’s ethos provides the answer. The ancient Greeks
had a saying: “The market is a place set apart where people may deceive
each other” (Shell 2006: 196). The average person expects exaggerations
and bluffs when someone is selling into a competitive market. Trump
just does it better and on a bigger scale.

The second fact we need to appreciate is Trump’s limited role in
most of his deals. . . . (continues as PDF)

Attachments to this Article


G. Richard Shell

G. Richard Shell is the Thomas Gerrity Professor of Legal Studies and Business Ethics and Management at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School in Philadelphia. MORE >

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