THEN WEAR THE RED HAT, IF THAT WILL MOVE HER
IF YOU CAN BUILD WALLS, BUILD FOR HER TOO
TILL SHE CRY, LOVER, RED-HATTED WALL-BUILDING LOVER
I MUST HAVE YOU!
–Thomas Parke D’Invilliers/John Barron
In my younger and more vulnerable years my father gave me some advice that I’ve been turning over in my mind ever since.
“Whenever you feel like criticizing any one,” he told me, “just remember that all the people in this world haven’t had the advantages that you’ve had. Except Donald Trump. Donald Trump has definitely had those advantages.”
When I first moved to the city I immediately went to visit my cousin America, who was living in East Egg, in the White House, with her soon-to-be-ex husband, Barack and fiancee, Hillary. Barack had picked up a new book by that man Goddard called “The Rise of the Colored Empires,” that seemed to be a little racist, and it was all he wanted to talk about at dinner. America resented this. “I don’t see why we have to constantly be reminded about race,” she murmured.
America took me to one side and confided that she was deeply unhappy and did not think it was good to bring babies into a world like this. “Do you want to know what I said when I saw my baby daughter?” she asked me.
“No,” I said, “but I can tell that this question is rhetorical.”
“I hope she’s a fool,” America said, “a beautiful little fool. That’s the best thing to be in this awful world.”
I felt much closer to her all of a sudden, which I suppose was the intended aim of this unexpected confidence, but it was clear that America was not quite the feminist that I had been led to believe.
To drive back from their house you had to go through the Valley of Ashes and then pass under a large sign where two bewildered, beady eyes stared out at you from within the rims of immense spectacles. Rick Perry should not have spent his super PAC money on that sign, I often thought, but at least it made a nice metaphor. Sometimes the best legacy you can leave in a community is a large sign that doubles as a metaphor.
I lived on the other side of the city, in Northwest Egg, next door to the newly renovated Old Post Office Pavilion. There was a sign on the Old Post Office that said “TRUMP” in immense, brazen letters, but I didn’t think much of it at the time. Each night I watched as a giant pyramid of orange was carted into the building (that was, I later gleaned, the host) followed by a giant pyramid of oranges and lemons which were duly squashed and returned as rinds through the back exit. The parties there lasted long into the night and resembled the worst excesses of Studio 54, in the sense that it appeared to be stuffed to the brim with celebrities whom I had taken little notice of since the 1980s.
I was startled one evening to discover that I had been invited. A porter rode a brass-covered escalator directly to my door and waited for my answer. He told me to dress as though I were attending a third-world dictator’s birthday party, and I did so.
Curiosity was my motive as much as anything. I kept hearing the word “Trump” everywhere but the people at the party all had different ideas of what this Trump or Trumpsby might be.
“I hear he’s a type of steak,” one woman announced.
“I thought he was a failed airline,” said another.
“I thought he was a type of card.”
“I think he’s in pictures,” said yet a fourth.
It was at this party that I ran into my friend Jordan Baker again. She was a celebrity tennis player, so of course she was there. “Who is this Trump?” I asked her. “What do you know about him?”
She shrugged. “As a woman employed by the Trump organization, I am bound by a non-disclosure agreement,” she said.
Then a butler motioned me aside. “Mr. Trump would like to speak with you,” he said.
We boarded an escalator, which led up to an elevator. It was overkill, but it impressed me all the same.
We groaned up it in silence. “Hands off the lever, please,” the operator said.
“I’m sorry,” I said. “I didn’t know I was touching it.”
When we came to the penthouse there he was, sitting in a giant white chair with a heavy gilt frame, absently rubbing tanning lotion into one of his hands. He turned to me and smiled – understandingly, much more than understandingly. It was one of those rare smiles with a quality of eternal reassurance in it. It assured me that he had precisely the impression of me that, at my best, I wanted to convey.
“Hello, Old Sport,” he said.
He led me to the window. There, flickering in the distance, was a green light. The White House was lit up entirely in green to celebrate the end of carbon, or something. “Do you see that green light?” Trump asked. “That is why I built this place. So that I could look at it. That is America’s house.”
“I know,” I said. “We’re cousins. I know her through the Republican Party.”
Trump beamed. “What is your opinion of me?”
I attempted to give him the polite evasion that this question required.
“Don’t answer that,” he said. “Get into my helicopter, and I will tell you about myself.”
We rode another escalator, then another, and he began to speak of himself — at first haltingly, as though his biography stuck on his tongue, then with greater fluidity. “Yes,” he said, “this is the famous escalator. The one I rode when I made my announcement.”
He shrugged. “Haven’t you heard?” he asked. “I am running for president. I shall tell you my story. I am a Wharton man. It is the best school, the greatest. I have a great brain. My parents were quite wealthy people, but I have had to work for everything I had, save for one trifling loan of a million dollars when I was just starting out. For many years I lived like a young rajah in Manhattan, collecting the best jewels, chiefly rubies, hunting big game, painting a little, six-foot things of myself only, and trying to forget something very sad that had happened to me long ago.”
With an effort I managed to restrain my incredulous laughter. The very phrases were worn so threadbare that they evoked no image at all. No such person could conceivably exist.
“Then came the war, Old Sport. It was a great relief, and I tried very hard not to be enlisted. Fortunately I seemed to bear an enchanted life. I discovered horrible bone spurs in my feet, a great tragedy, Old Sport. But the true battle was against the constant danger of venereal disease, something I refer to as my personal Vietnam, and from that I emerged intact, but — having seen such things. Things I will tell you of, someday, my friend, but only when I do not suspect that we are being recorded, as we may well be today.”
The helicopter swooped wildly and I clung on for dear life.
“I also have a Purple Heart,” Trump said, “but it isn’t mine, it’s someone else’s. You may see it if you like.”
I looked at it. “Yes,” I said, “that is definitely a Purple Heart.” I had little idea of what else to say. I had never met such a man.
“But the point is that I have one,” Trump said, “So, you see.”
I said I saw.
“And worthy of note, too, is the hand that holds it. Remarkable, is it not? I have a certificate from a doctor certifying it the ‘Greatest American Hand.’ ”
I did not know where on his person Trump had concealed this certificate, but he presented it to me now. It said “DR. ISRAEL DOCTOR, A REAL DOCTOR” on the top and then in large block letters it said “You can tell them that you have a great hand, the best hand I have ever been asked to certify in all my professional years.”
“So there can be no doubt of that,” Trump said, “absolutely no doubt whatsoever. Large, beautiful hands, and all that comes with them. Quite above average.”
“Quite,” I said.
From a compartment beneath the seat next to me Trump produced a tremendous binder full of newspaper clippings. “It may impress you to hear that I am in the papers,” he said. “Quite often, as it happens. Time. Businessweek. Newsday. The New York Times. Trifles, merely, but I can tell you of each article in detail. I go on television constantly and am widely respected.”
“Absolutely,” I said. “Why are you telling me this?”
Trump adjusted his collar. “I have known many women, all the most exquisite of women, so there can be no doubts upon that score. I have children, all of them healthy, most of them blonde, as I am, myself. This one I find especially pleasing to the eye.”
He presented me a faded black-and-white picture of himself on the Oxford quad holding a cricket bat, with a young blonde girl with a nervous smile perched on his knee.
“Ah,” I said, “you are related to her?”
“Yes,” he said, “though I sometimes wish I wasn’t.”
I could tell that he wished me to laugh, and so I laughed.
“Now, I’ve got quite a serious request to make of you,” Trump went on, “but first I’m to take you to lunch with a very distinguished man, very distinguished, who can vouch for my character.”
“I thought that it was evening,” I said, feebly.
“This is a pastiche,” Trump said. “We are playing fast and loose with the rules of time and place.”
The helicopter landed in Cleveland and we stepped out.
He led me to what seemed to be a large convention hall. A band that I thought I remembered from “Saturday Night Live” many years before was playing some enthusiastic covers of old classics, while a group of aging people attempted to gyrate rhythmically.
Trump let me to a seat and brought out a man named Roy Cohn. Amazingly, his cuff links were not made from human molars. He greeted me, and Trump excused himself. “Did you know that Mr. Trump is a Wharton man?” he asked.
“I was aware,” I said.
“It is a very good school, this Wharton,” Roy Cohn said. “And if you have any doubts, you can read many good, true, unskewed articles on Breitbart.com which will put them out of your mind. The second I met Mr. Trump, the second I saw the way he dresses and the things he puts around him, pure gold, pure white tiger, solid marble, I said, this is a man who comes from very old money, and I would like to get to know him and place his name upon all my business ventures.”
“Ah,” I said. It was something to say.
He got up and went away. On the stage, an aging sitcom actor was telling us why Mr. Trump was a good man. Then began a parade of his children and people who seemed to work for him, all repeating variants of the same tale. I think it was calculated to impress me, but it just made me begin to worry that he had no friends. His tower had been so vast and so empty.
“So,” Mr. Trump said, when he sat down, “any questions for me?”
“What was it you wanted me to do?” I asked. “And who was that man?”
“Don’t you know Roy Cohn?” Trump asked. “He’s a very important man. Taught me everything I know. He was the one who fixed the Rosenbergs. If you have any further questions he appears prominently in ‘Angels in America.’ ”
I deemed it prudent not to inquire further.
“All I’d like you to do,” he says, “is introduce me to America. As a Republican, you can do that.”
“That doesn’t sound like such a big favor,” I said. “Come over tomorrow. We’re having a primary. I’ll bring her.”
“Would you, Old Sport?” he asked.
The next day when I awakened there were men cutting my grass and removing my chairs and replacing them with golden chairs covered in the skins of albino leopards. I tried to stop them but they were ruthlessly efficient.
“This will be good,” Jordan Baker confided in me. “You’re doing the right thing, Nick. America needs someone in her life. She’s not happy with Barack, and she won’t be happy with Hillary. She’s always telling me so.”
When America arrived in my apartment she and Donald Trump just sat there looking at each other awkwardly. Fifteen other people were also there, but one of them was Ted Cruz and another was Jeb Bush and America did not look at them for even a second. She gazed, rapt, at Donald.
“It’s been a long time,” she said, finally.
“Years,” Trump said. “Since the birther movement.”
“I remember,” she said.
I left the room and started to make noises with pots and pans.
“Why don’t you come see my house?” Trump asked.
“That huge place there?” she cried pointing.
“Do you like it?”
“I love it, but I don’t see how you live there all alone.”
“I keep it always full of interesting people, night and day. People who do interesting things. Celebrated people.”
We went in. Donald Trump proceeded to show her everything: paintings, leather-bound books, a large pipe organ in which a man named Chris Christie was asleep, snoring loudly. Trump seemed nervous. I could see that for the first time he was seeing all his possessions through her eyes and determining their effect. He went to his closet and found a large pile of fancy shirts.
“I’ve got a man in England who buys me clothes. He sends over a selection of things at the beginning of each season, spring and fall.” He threw them down to us. Then he threw down other things: steaks, university certificates, tiny scale models of skyscrapers.
I shouted, “Throw down your tax returns!”
“What tax returns?” he shouted, then caught himself. “They’re much too complicated to throw down, Old Sport.”
America began to sob loudly. “They’re such beautiful shirts,” she said. “I’m only crying because I have never seen such beautiful shirts before.”
Trump threw down hats for both of us, and then he began to make remarks about immigrants and women which I only half-listened to. I decided it would be better for our friendship if I kept doing this.
Thus began the affair.
It took some time for Trump to meet Hillary, America’s intended. She had been to Yale. She was sturdy and straw-haired and there were men at New Haven who hated her guts. Her speaking voice, a gruff, husky tenor, added to the impression of fractiousness that she conveyed. People had many thoughts about her body and the clothes that covered it.
Hillary had not been aware of Trump but one day, riding over on her polo horse to see a major donor, she happened to cut across his lawn by accident.
He invited her to one of his parties and she showed up, looking underwhelmed. She could tell at a glance that he was not of the establishment, at least, not the right part. Nothing of his impressed her.
“You notice that Scott Baio is here,” Trump said, pointing a tanned finger.
“Who?” Hillary said. She swung her polo-playing arms. “I see Katy Perry, an actual celebrity, on a weekly basis. What is interesting about this man?”
America looked chagrined to have this pointed out. “But we’re having a lovely time,” she said, “aren’t we?”
Still, she went home with Hillary that night.
Trump was crushed the moment she left. He turned to me in great agitation.
“America didn’t like it,” he said immediately.
“Of course she did.”
“No,” he insisted. “She didn’t have a good time.”
He was silent, and I guessed at his unutterable depression.
He wanted nothing less of America than that she should go to Hillary and Barack and say: “I never loved you. We don’t win any more. I am going to be great again.” After she had obliterated 40 or 50 years with that sentence they could decide upon the more practical measures to be taken. “And America doesn’t understand,” he said. “She used to be able to understand. We’d sit for hours ——”
He broke off and began to walk up and down a desolate path of fruit rinds and discarded favors and crushed flowers.
“I wouldn’t ask too much of her,” I ventured. “You can’t repeat the past.”
“Can’t repeat the past?” he cried incredulously. “Why of course you can!”
He talked a lot about the past, and I gathered that he wanted to recover something, some idea of himself perhaps, that had gone into this campaign. His life had been confused and disordered since then, but if he could once return to a certain starting place and go over it all slowly, he could find out what that thing was. . . .
Things started to heat up after that. We rode back and forth beneath the judgmental gaze of Rick Perry’s empty spectacles.
Their liaison continued its original character; Trump would sit for hours and tell America of his plans, large and inventive, and she would smile up at him. He would construct imaginary walls and she would laugh and clap and nod along, and not ask about where his money had come from.
But these things always have an end. One afternoon they invited me to lunch with them. I thought they could not possibly want a scene but I was wrong. They had gotten a suite at the Plaza in Vegas and Hillary and Donald were clearly about to debate, once and for all. The room in which we sat was very hot.
America looked on very worried. As much as she loved Donald she hated being seen with him, and Hillary was quite well aware of this fact. She looked at Donald in his pink suit with his blue power tie. Hillary watched him look.
“You look so authentic,” America told him. For a moment the room fell away. “You always look so authentic.”America had told Donald Trump she loved him, and Hillary saw.
Hillary clapped her hands. “Come on,” she said. “You wanted to debate me. Let’s debate.” She began working away with an icepick at the block of ice that a porter had brought to the room. “There are a lot of things you say about yourself,” Hillary said, tonging some ice into her glass, “that are not, strictly speaking, true.”
Everyone in the room began to sweat. Even I was sweating.
“Not a penny in taxes,” she continued. “Not a penny! And I looked into your businesses. Trump University is a fraud. I don’t think you have the faintest idea what you’re doing.”
“Nasty,” Trump murmured.
At first I thought he might carry the day. He had been having a wonderful week with America. Hillary had fallen over, and there is nothing America hates more than seeing women fall over.
But then he got into the bus with Billy Bush and they drove off, quickly, laughing.
Hillary and I pulled up in the car a few moments later.
I didn’t see the wreckage, but I am assured that there was wreckage.
After that Trump still thought that America was going to run off with him, but I looked in on America and Hillary chewing over cold pork chops together and speaking in a low, conspiratorial manner and I knew that it had all been settled.
Trump didn’t. I could not bear to break his heart.
The last time I saw Trumpsby he had retreated into his house and fired all his servants, even Kellyanne. He was despondent. He could not believe that America would not come to him, that she did not love him only and best, that her time with Hillary and Barack was not an aberration.
We spent the whole night together talking, staring at the green light, talking about how the system was rigged against him, forced to admit that you could not just erase 50 years, that even though America said this was what it wanted, it did not, deep down. Deep down it just thought that would be creepy and a step back, no matter how many beautiful shirts Donald Trump owned or how many Chris Christies he hired to sleep in his pipe organ.
“Maybe I will start a television network,” he said.
“You should,” I said. “You are great, you know.”
“I wanted America to be great too.”
“You’re worth the lot of them put together,” I yelled. I’m not, in retrospect, glad that I said this. History will judge me for this remark, and not kindly.
But he was staring at his phone, already thinking up tweets, and I am not sure he heard me.
We found him later, adrift in the middle of the press pool. The news from each state had left a separate wound.
And as I sat there brooding on the old, unknown world, I thought of Trump’s wonder when he first picked out the green light shining in the White House. He had come a long way to this blue lawn full of strangers in trucker hats, their yards full of signs, and his dream must have seemed so close that he could hardly fail to grasp it. He did not know that it was already behind him, somewhere back in that vast obscurity beyond the city, where the dark fields of the republic rolled on under the night.
Trump believed in the green light, the orgastic future that year by year recedes before us. It eluded us then, but that’s no matter — to-morrow we will run faster, stretch out our large hands farther. . . . And one fine morning ——
So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.
*Italicized portions are actually from “The Great Gatsby.”