Watching Trump: An American Dream is like watching a movie that you’re in the middle of. You cruise through its four episodes, watch the end credits roll, turn off the TV … but it’s not over. The story carries on. And you don’t know how it will all end. By TONY JACKMAN.
You don’t want to know Roy Cohn. He’s the most evil-looking man you’ve ever seen. Veteran New Yorker journalist Ken Auletta says of him on camera in Netflix’s four-part documentary Trump: An American Dream: “I got to know him over the years, and it was like having lunch with Satan.” Seeing Cohn, you don’t doubt it for a second.
Yet the young Donald Trump, knowing what kind of a man this was – Cohn was Senator Joseph McCarthy’s right-hand legal counsel, for starters, and persecuted gay men even though he was gay himself, and that’s not even to mention his Mafia connections – hired him as his lawyer. Cohn won The Donald a massive tax break for his Trump Tower on Manhattan’s 5th Avenue, the second of many such tax abatements, not least the 40-year break for the conversion of NYC’s Commodore Hotel into the plush 30-storey Grand Hyatt, a project that shoved the young Trump out of his father Fred’s shadow and into his own self-serving limelight.
Watch: Roy Cohn, ‘psychopath’
What this compelling series does, it does in a somewhat understated way, perhaps because of it being entirely a British production. Made by 72 Films in Association with Channel 4 – and when you read the words “Channel 4” you’re inevitably dealing with liberal points of view – it contains no narration other than the voices and views of those interviewed, and it purports to glean those observations from “those that have known him for 50 years – friends and enemies”. It purports to show us “who he really is” and “how he became president”.
The latter might seem to suggest that it will be about his election campaign that led to him entering the White House while a world of jaws dropped and heads shook, whether in shock or elation. But that’s not at all the case, unless you count his entire life as having led him to that point. And there is a case to be made for that, even if much of it is coincidental.
There are four distinct chapters, each with a theme, so it is not necessarily a chronological telling, although the time sequence from the 1970s to the present is clear and sensible.
The first chapter is simply titled Manhattan, a bonus for anyone fascinated by that fabulous and complex slice of the planet. We find ourselves in a crime-ridden 1970s Manhattan that is in seriously dire straits, teetering on bankruptcy, poverty and misery on every street, the police force suffering massive cuts and lay-offs, and a mayor, Abraham Beame, under siege and utterly helpless in sorting out the city’s woes. Meanwhile in Brooklyn, Trump’s father Fred has his tenement buildings with long, low corridors and hundreds of poor tenants. And Trump eyes his future across the river.
Watch: What Donald Trump Learned from Roy Cohn
As longtime Trump friend, the socialite Nikki Haskell, says, if you wanna make it you’re not gonna make it in Brooklyn, “you wanna be in Manhattan”.
And as the Village Voice’s Wayne Barrett says to the camera, “Dark times are times of opportunity for people of great stealth.”
A useful voice throughout is that of Rona Barrett, a television host from the Sixties to the Eighties who had, circa the early Eighties, a show in which she interviewed rich people, or those seemingly en route to fabulous wealth. Interviewing him high up in Trump Tower, overlooking Central Park and the Plaza hotel (which Trump buys for more than its value because he likes the look of it) way down below, Barrett asks the dapper young Donald:
“If you lost your fortune today, what would you do?”
He replies, unblinking: “I think I’d run for president.”
Consider that: It’s the early Eighties, Ronald Reagan is US president, and one of his favourite lines is “We will make America great again.” Until Trump trademarks – yes, trademarks – a not entirely dissimilar term.
Watch: Trump’s Connections to Roy Cohn
Part 2 of Trump: An American Dream – note, in the opening credits, how the ‘a’ and ’m’ in Dream become lopsided as if his continuing story might yet lead to a cliff-edge – is titled Gambler. It’s a big switch from the Manhattan focus to his looming casino empire, and all the machinations, wheeler-dealing and screwing of the little guy that goes with it. It’s also a fat slice of the story of his marriage to the classy Ivana Trump, who – it quickly becomes clear – was a much feistier and more astute woman than the doe-eyed current first lady, Melania.
They could have titled the chapter Borrowed Money. He inveigles his way into Atlantic City, opening his first casino there in 1984 and another in 1985. By his side is the canny Ivana, a university graduate who becomes pivotal in the operational running of the Trump empire and its finances. Her eye has everything to do, as well, with the famous Trump gilt, from the Trump Tower to these ridiculously lavish casinos. As Nikki Haskell observes, “Anything that didn’t move, walk or talk she painted gold.”
Insights into who Trump is/was pour out of every mouth. Tony Schwartz, ghost-writer of The Art of the Deal, observes of Trump that his “binary view of the world is there are predators and there are victims, and if you’re not the predator, you’re the victim”, adding: “He was value-free.”
My favourite voice in the whole thing is that of Barbara Res, an engineer who built the Trump Tower. This is interesting in light of the claims (undeniable) that he is sexist, misogynist, et al. Yet in the hyper-masculine world of those who build Manhattan’s skyscrapers – like the men having lunch on the girder in the famous Lunch Atop a Skyscraper photograph circa 1932, the authenticity of which is disputed – Trump hired a woman for the job. Irrefutable fact. If nothing else, this suggests some complexity in the man.
Photo: Lunch Atop a Skyscraper, 1932. The photograph was supposedly taken high up at Rockefeller Plaza while its construction was nearing an end. It has been suggested that the photo was staged to promote the building. Photo: New York Times
Res has a dry wit and takes no prisoners, but says in a grimmer moment:
“He was very full of himself, not to be challenged.”
There’s an interesting aside in a clip of Ronald Reagan, in that actorly, smarmy way of his, saying of the then young MicroSoft co-founders Bill Gates and Paul Allen that this was “the age of the young entrepreneur” and urging young Americans to follow suit. It would seem churlish to deny the prescience of that, knowing as we do where it led.
Part 3 takes a sharp turn into unfamiliar territory, and a strangely lucid, almost cultured Trump, something I for one had not expected. Its title is Citizen Trump, because of his fascination with Orson Welles’ classic movie, Citizen Kane, one theme of which is the ruthless pursuit of power. Or as Trump says, in answer to an interviewer’s question as to why he so admired the film, “It was really about accumulation.”
Let’s say that the irony of the film Trump did not get.
We quickly tumble into the Trump marriage coming off the rocks on an Aspen ski slope, with The Donald’s bit on the side, Marla Maples, not far away. Current wife Melania might want to watch this segment, paying particular attention to quotes such as, “I don’t wanna sleep with a woman who’s had children” and “I wanna have an open marriage”.
But it’s his Hebridean-born mother Mary MacLeod Trump who most pertinently sums up her son when she relates a nursery scene in which Donald and his hapless older brother Robert were both given building blocks and Donald persuaded Robert to give him his. Before Robert could change his mind, The (Little) Donald had taken steps in his own interests.
Said his mother: “Donald glued his bricks together.”
He’d turned them into a building.
Robert, meanwhile, was to die an alcoholic.
In the fourth and final chapter, Politics, the deeper background to Trump’s eventual run for the presidency is delved into. Key here is a pro wrestler, Jesse Ventura, who ran for governor of Minnesota in 1999, using unlikely and vulgar tactics, and who won against all odds. You get the picture.
Again, it’s the revealing quotes from those who were there, and who knew him, that open up the truth about the man – there’s no need for a commentary, we’re trusted to make up our own minds.
Timothy O’Brien, author of TrumpNation, who has seen the man’s tax returns, observes wryly that “Donald Trump is a poor person’s idea of what a rich person does”, adding that he’s “deeply insincere, often in surprising ways”.
As for Roy Cohn, he was long gone before this documentary was made – having died in the Eighties amid the early years of the Aids pandemic. But his “voice” is there, in suggestion, not least in stills of this frightening man. Watch the embedded videos and consider who this man was and the role he was to play in the making of the man who is now president of, one surmises, a United States of America more like the one Cohn wanted.
The clearest theme, which has been teased at all through the four chapters, is that the ambition one day to become president was in no way something that just came out of the blue in 2016. And the point that this final episode leads up to is almost chillingly telling.
Let’s just say that Barack Obama needed to be looking over his shoulder a lot sooner. DM
Photo: Young(er) Donald J Trump in Trump: An American Dream.
While we have your attention...
An increasingly rare commodity, quality independent journalism costs money - though not nearly as much as its absence.
Every article, every day, is our contribution to Defending Truth in South Africa. If you would like to join us on this mission, you could do much worse than support Daily Maverick's quest by becoming a Maverick Insider.
Click here to become a Maverick Insider and get a closer look at the Truth.
One of the largest carp ever caught on record was done so using the ashes of the fisherman's deceased friend.