The early 1990s were Donald Trump's own private Great Depression, but they weren't for everybody else. Sure, the economy was bad, but it wasn't world-historically so.

Trump, though, is trying to explain the $916 million loss that the New York Times reports he racked up during this time and then could have used to avoid paying federal income taxes for up to 18 years. So he's resorted to saying that the early 1990s recession was "one of the most brutal economic downturns in our country's history," and that "other than I would say 1928" there was "nothing even close to it."

This is wrong. The important thing to remember about the Great Depression is that it was, well, great. Between 1929 and 1933, the economy shrank 25 percent, the unemployment rate peaked at 25 percent, and around half the country's banks failed. In comparison, the early 1990s recessions saw the economy contract a much more modest 1.3 percent, the unemployment rate "only" reach 7.8 percent, and about a third of all savings-and-loans go out of business. Not good, but not the apocalypse—and certainly not worse than the 2008 crisis. Gross domestic product fell 4.3 percent then, unemployment shot up to 10 percent, and it took an unprecedented $700 billion bailout to keep the entire financial system from going under. That was the closest we've had to a replay of the 1930s, and we might have gotten it if the Federal Reserve and federal government hadn't done so much to stop it.

So how did Trump fall on such hard times during such a relatively easy recession? Well, thanks to a host of journalism investigating that part of his record, we know. Part of it is that commercial real estate really did do badly during the early 1990s. But only part. It's one thing to say that this wasn't the best time to be building offices or hotels, and another to say that you couldn't make money managing a casino. It's generally hard to lose money when the odds are in your favor like they are for the house — unless, of course, you borrowed at too-high an interest rate to build it.

Which is exactly what Trump did. His big mistake, as the Washington Post has reported, was issuing $675 million worth of junk bonds—paying 14 percent interest!—to complete construction on Atlantic City's Taj Mahal casino in 1988. That meant, as casino analyst Marvin Roffman pointed out at the time, that Trump's Taj would have had to take in a then-record $1.3 million a day just to pay the interest it owed. Well, either that or have it go up in value so much that Trump could borrow against it to get the money he needed.

Trump, in other words, was a lot like a subprime borrower during the housing bubble. The only way he could afford to stay in his, well, opulent casino was if real estate prices kept rising and he could then refinance into a lower interest rate. Except that instead of replacing a teaser rate from the bank with something more sustainable from them, he'd have been replacing his junk bonds with a bank loan. In any case, this is the kind of thing that works until it doesn't, and it didn't work for very long for Trump. Real estate prices didn't go up, he couldn't borrow any more money, and the Taj missed a debt payment within six months of opening. Bankruptcy followed.

Now, it's true Trump rose from that wreckage to allegedly become a billionaire and tell celebrities they're fired, but that's only been possible because he's received largess that those subprime borrowers--and the little guys more generally--don't. Trump's father helped bail him out when the Taj was about to miss another payment, Trump's lenders agreed to lower his interest rate and give him more time to pay back what he owed in return for a share of the casino, and Trump's newly-formed public company then bought him out from the rest of his debt. It'd be like if your parents helped you make your mortgage payments, your bank did whatever it could to keep you in your house, and you then convinced your neighbors to take it off your hands.

It's a lot easier, though, to blame your bad decisions on a bad economy than to admit that you made the same mistakes a lot of people did but were able to get out of them because you're rich. Even—or maybe it's especially—when the economy wasn't anywhere near as bad as you say it was.

That'd mean admitting that you aren't always a great businessman, even if you like to say you are one on TV.