J BROOKS SPECTOR ponders a new biography of Donald Trump, the man who will soon become America’s 45th president, and looks for the key that unlocks this extraordinary personality – and terrifying political leader.
The authors of biographies of the lives of the leaders of major nations usually swim in tsunamis of far more information than they can make use of – unless they produce multi-volume works that rival James MacGregor Burns or Arthur Schlesinger’s recounting of Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s life, or Robert Caro’s treatment of Lyndon Johnson – and let alone Winston Churchill’s ebullient coverage of his own long, eventful career. Biographers of public figures have all those abundant public records to fall back upon; there are people to interview (in the case of recent figures); and they almost always can access many of their subjects’ private papers.
The soon-to-be President of the United States, Donald J Trump, is different. Even as we type this line, we can just about hear readers muttering, “Of course he’s different!” And that is the wonder and terror in the case of The Donald.
As a parenthetical note, pity the poor archivist who will end up bringing together all the man’s tweets for the inevitable presidential library, four or eight years into the future, and who will then have to make sense of which of those astonishing messages must be saved for posterity – with all the glory of their original scrambled syntax, grammar and spelling.
But unlike every other president who has come along before Donald Trump, what with their vast stores of public documents, papers, speeches and miscellaneous transcripts, the incoming president has a fairly trivial public footprint. Yes, there are the ghost written books on deal-making, wealth-making, and real estate investment that have been attributed to his name. There has been a plethora of articles about him (and his wives and their gold gilt lifestyle) in tabloid newspapers and magazines.
And there are recordings of television and radio talk show interviews (and his infamous conversation about his views on women), his on-air comments in The Apprentice television show he hosted for many years, as well as transcripts of the presidential debates he was involved in. Nevertheless, the usual slow accretion of views and ideas over the years, set out before audiences and analysed by the commentariat throughout a career has never taken place with this president elect.
As a result, the Trump record still is a thin soup in substantive content and idea terms. What is this man’s actual view about governing? Who knows?
This challenge has been especially true if one has been looking for serious, considered comment from him on public national and international issues – beyond the size of his hands, his use of flip phrases like “a big, beautiful wall”, or the coarse invective directed against his opponents. Nonetheless, historians may ultimately be forced to fall back upon this queasy-making smorgasbord, such as it is, given the paucity of much else, to understand where he came from and how he got that way.
In fact, even from his tangled, frequently contentious corporate career, much of the record is less than easily accessible, especially for the ordinary reader who wants to learn more about the man who will shortly be president. Some of this remains in sealed court records. Other items are in the hands of attorneys who negotiated out-of-court settlements and confidentiality agreements.
As a result, in contrast to almost any other highly placed, powerful figure in the West, it remains difficult to get behind the façade that Donald Trump has created for himself in creating the image he has wanted people to see and hear. Like the Wizard of Oz, by virtue of the public image Donald Trump has achieved, we have been commanded to pay no attention to anybody behind a curtain – if we could only find that curtain and peek behind it in the first place.
This will change, of course, now that, going forward, every utterance will be carefully recorded, parsed and evaluated – and weighed for the appropriate response from the leaders of large and small nations, from a global network of international organisations as well as a vast domestic and foreign NGO community, business leaders, the media and ordinary citizens. But the mystery of how he became who he is, and how he became so able to ride the wave of an American populist zeitgeist, will continue to tantalise us without final resolution for some time yet.
Given the increasing likelihood that Donald Trump would be the Republican candidate (and, gulp, the president elect), a while back, the Washington Post undertook a major effort to build an increasingly comprehensive documentation library on Trump, in tandem with a new bio on the president elect, written by reporters Michael Kranish and Marc Fisher, with lots and lots of research help. Linked with the book itself is an open source archive of some 400 documents related to the two authors’ non-fictional bildungsroman, Trump Revealed: An American Journey of Ambition, Ego, Money, and Power, published by Simon and Schuster. The resulting archive is available to everyone.
But, in the absence of that deep record of real participation in years of public policy debate, Kranish and Fischer’s book has aimed at untangling the psychological as well as business and personal historical background of the Donald Trump who stands before us now. Accordingly, the authors go long with an exploration of the origins of the family in Germany and Scotland; the business dealings of Trump’s grandfather and then his father, all in an effort to find guiding family precepts and principles.
They take us back to his days as a rebellious, baseball-loving child who is packed off to a military boarding high school in an effort to have someone mould his behaviour. But in that experience, we gain insights into the origins of his blustering, bullying behaviour as a cadet officer in boarding school.
As co-author Marc Fisher explained in a recent radio interview: “He was, by both his friends’ description and his own, a rambunctious kid who got in trouble a lot and who was a bit of a ruffian. From the youngest age, about age six or seven, he pelted the neighbour’s toddler with rocks from across the yard. He pulled the pigtails of a classmate. He got into a physical altercation with one of his teachers, and so he was someone who was kind of a rambunctious kid, even obnoxious by some accounts, and he says that he hasn’t changed since second grade. So that kind of in-your-face provocateur character that we’ve come to see in the campaign is something that traces back very cleanly and consistently to this childhood as kind of a tough kid.”
And in describing the lessons from the lawsuit that had charged his father’s real estate empire with racial bias, Fisher added: “Donald Trump decided that he would, in fact, fight like hell, and he absorbed in a philosophy that he maintains to this day — when you’re hit, hit back 10 times harder.” (Sean Connery in Brian DePalma’s The Untouchables.)
The academic content of his university years at the University of Pennsylvania, however, gets shorter shrift, even though the authors argue that period almost certainly contributed to his ideas about business values and behaviour. Still, why has no one tried to ascertain how he really did in his courses there? What did his surviving classmates or instructors think of him as he studied real estate and property development?
The authors are on more thorough ground, however, as they explore his burgeoning reputation as a lady’s man. This comes at the University of Pennsylvania, along with his growing realisation that being the popular-on-campus, son of a rich property developer in the outer boroughs of Queens and Brooklyn was very, very different from being a true “master of the universe” property magnate in mid-town Manhattan. “New York, New York….”
This awakening to the reality of those much larger universes to conquer generates some of Trump’s business swagger, his take-no-prisoners adventurism, and his risk-taking approach to property development. And all of that comes with his recognition that most others can be beaten down by a stronger, more obdurate opponent – the self he wills himself to become. This realisation becomes the modus operandi and model for much of his behaviour in the political arena from 2015 onward.
Kranish and Fisher devote some serious time, too, to exploring the impact of the two other men (besides Trump’s father) who most influenced the man who is poised to become America’s next president: Roy Cohn and the Reverend Norman Vincent Peale. Cohn, of course, was the never surrender, never give an inch, always attack, junkyard-dog-of-an-attorney who cut his lawyerly teeth as Senator Joe McCarthy’s avenging angel during the red scares of the 1950s. Cohn would give Trump legal advice, especially in circumstances where Trump was overextended and facing possible ruin, to help Trump face down financiers who wanted to pull the plug on him.
Peale, by contrast, with his gospel of the power of positive thinking, had helped reinforce Trump’s growing sense that the world was his for the taking, and that men like him were virtually predestined to succeed, as long as they kept their self-confidence and optimism. Peale’s impact offered a kind of contemporary spin on predestination and self-improvement and self-help, something in the manner of the 19th century Scottish author, Samuel Smiles. Peale is little remarked upon now, but, in the mid-20th century, he had issued best-selling, how-to-do-it, religiously inspired self-improvement books. He made frequent, well-watched television appearances, and his church sermons were very influential around the nation.
The two writers naturally tackle Trump’s construction and development empire from its relatively modest beginnings to boom to bust to repeated revivals – including, variously, Manhattan office buildings and hotels, entanglements with a clutch of casinos in Atlantic City, New Jersey, and then his flamboyant creation of Trump Tower in Manhattan. Along the way, the reader learns about his run-ins with government commissions, contractors and subcontractors, bankruptcy lawyers, and bankers eager to get their money back before Trump’s balloon bursts – even if they were not quite ready to squeeze Trump so hard his business ventures completely collapsed.
The book also spends significant time in exploring how Trump came to the realisation – and new success – in turning himself into a brand. As a result, he has been successful in selling the rights to other developers – at home and abroad – by branding their works with the Trump name and aura. And there is also that foray into the ownership of a global beauty pageant that helped him get acquainted with the Russian oligarchs (and, maybe, Vladimir Putin). And Trump then took all of his accumulated lessons to become his own product, this time as the host of long-running television reality show, thereby placing the Trump name before an entire nation, and not just casino goers, bankruptcy lawyers and scandal sheet readers eager for news about one or another Trump marriage.
Necessarily there is coverage of his love life and those three marriages, especially as they were reported in the New York City tabloid newspapers, often fed by Trump’s own PR efforts. But what we never really quite get are deep insights into what he thinks about government, the economy, or human nature. Perhaps this is because Trump’s thoughts on such questions are like quicksilver and hard to corral by lesser mortals.
Or, perhaps, he really doesn’t think about them very much at all and so there is simply nothing much to report. Perhaps he is simply interested in the game of building family wealth and imparting these behaviours to his children – most especially his daughter, Ivanka. Ivanka is married to Jared Kushner (a newly named senior advisor in the Trump White House). Kushner was until that moment, a property developer following in his father’s footsteps and the publisher of The Observer newspaper in NYC, and someone who has now become one of Trump’s closest advisors.
In evaluating the book, and, necessarily the Trumpian legend, the Kirkus Review described a tale fit for a great, sweeping, melodramatic opera. “Trump may have built an unknown fortune in hotels, casinos, and luxury apartments, but he is foremost both a media creation and a creator of media images. That self-creation has propelled him to the front ranks of the Republican Party in an odd trajectory whose launch dates back decades. The apex of that arc, though, may well have been The Apprentice, the TV show that made ever more fuzzy the ‘line between Trump the character and Trump the person,’ a line that until recently allowed him to say whatever he wanted to, and always with the defence that ‘things he said on TV were intended just to provoke or entertain’.” They concluded their evaluation, saying, “those willing and brave enough to dare these pages will find the authors’ approach even-handed, perhaps even overly so, in preference to allowing Trump plenty of rope — and suffice it to say that Trump unrolls miles of it”.
The still-unscratched itch even with a hefty tome of a book like this, however, is that we have yet to find Donald Trump’s own Rosebud. That was the fictional Charles Foster Kane’s final enigmatic word that kicks off Orson Welles’ eponymous film masterpiece, loosely based on the life of publisher William Randolph Hearst. Rosebud was the name of the child’s sled that Kane must surrender as a boy, and that is the device that sets off the tale of longing and avarice that unfolds in the film.
What is Trump’s own Rosebud? Perhaps that mystery mirrors the inability of anyone to find out what really makes him tick, besides his vacuous campaign applause line of “Let’s Make America Great Again”. In ten days time, however, the world may begin to find out. DM
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