But there is a contradiction in Trump’s rallying cry: Throughout his public and private life, Trump has personified, in extreme form, many of the qualities and experiences that have defined America over the past half-century.
How can he suggest that America needs rescuing if, in fact, he is America?
The Trumpification of America, or the Americanness of Donald Trump, is rarely far from the surface in “Never Enough,” a new biography of the billionaire by journalist Michael D’Antonio. Born in 1946, the first burst of the baby boom, Trump came of age with the narcissism of the 1970s and made his name and fortune during the “greed is good” 1980s. He endured a tabloid sex scandal in the 1990s and morphed into a reality-TV star in the 2000s. Today, The Donald is a social-media fiend running a superficial, divisive and improbably successful presidential campaign, one in which insults supplant insights and high poll numbers become, tautologically, the candidate’s best argument in his favor.
“For all of his excesses, Donald Trump is a man perfectly adapted to his time,” D’Antonio writes. “Trump is not a man apart. He is, instead, merely one of us writ large.”
It doesn’t matter whether you support Trump. You can still take credit for him.
Originally scheduled for early 2016, D’Antonio’s biography was rushed to publication to indulge the national infatuation with its subject. You can tell, too — stray words and occasional typos pop up just often enough to be distracting — but it is still a brisk and entertaining read, drawing on interviews and documents and distilling decades’ worth of news coverage to tell the story of Trump’s childhood, family, business deals and political forays.
D’Antonio gets some remarkable quotes from Trump, though these days that happens whenever the candidate opens his mouth. “When I look at myself in the first grade and I look at myself now, I’m basically the same,” Trump tells him. “The temperament is not that different.” Also, Trump compares his time at the New York Military Academy, a privileged prep school, to actual military experience, even if one of his most daring missions took place when young Donald was able to cut in front of Catholic schoolgirls so the NYMA could march first in a Columbus Day parade. “Maje, leave this to me,” he told his supervisor confidently.
Trump learned the real estate business from his father, Fred Trump, a wealthy and prolific builder in New York’s outer boroughs. D’Antonio recounts how the two visited construction sites together; the elder Trump was so focused on his work that tagging along was sometimes the best way for his kids to spend time with him. Donald also studied real estate at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School, but his father’s tactics seemed to influence him most. Fred sought free publicity however he could, deploying news releases and pitching nonevents (such as a company picnic) as newsworthy. And while remaining on the right side of the law, he manipulated the system, as when he created independent companies to buy used construction equipment, which he then leased to a Trump construction project at many times the true cost. “Be a killer,” Trump’s father told Donald repeatedly, an expression that still recurs in the son’s public statements.
Trump launched his solo developer career — with frequent assists from his father — in the 1970s, an era that Tom Wolfe branded the Me Decade and that Christopher Lasch dissected in his 1979 book, “The Culture of Narcissism.” Making it couldn’t simply mean earning a lot of money. “Success in our society,” Lasch wrote, “has to be ratified by publicity.”
Trump would become a master of this, from joining Manhattan’s Le Club — where the point was “to be noticed as powerful or beautiful and to be photographed alongside a celebrity and thereby become one yourself” — to courting beautiful women and magazine covers with equal zeal. In 1983, he was featured on the first episode of Robin Leach’s “Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous,” along with Cher and Princess Diana. Playgirl magazine dubbed him one of the 10 sexiest men in America, helping him achieve what the author calls the trifecta of celebrity: wealth, fame and sex appeal.
“No one in the world of business — not Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, or Warren Buffett — has been as famous as Trump for as long,” D’Antonio writes.
Trump’s 1987 book, “The Art of the Deal,” became part of his persona, portraying him as a masterful negotiator and market sage. In his description of Trump’s business deals, however, D’Antonio dwells on the less-savory aspects of the developer’s work: sucking up to politicians, manipulating public opinion, bullying opponents. “If this was art,” D’Antonio writes, “then it was a kind of performance art that depended on his ability to manipulate, schmooze, and cajole.” For a while, Trump even created a fake corporate spokesman, “John Baron,” who would deliver some of the more outlandish statements to reporters. (Now there’s a fantasy for every White House press secretary.)
Trump’s marriage to his first wife, Ivana, became tabloid fodder at a time when the private lives of public figures were under greater scrutiny, especially after the sex scandal that destroyed Gary Hart’s presidential bid in 1988. When Trump’s relationship with Marla Maples became public knowledge, Playboy offered her $2 million to pose nude, and she had the chance to launch a lingerie line called “The Other Woman.” (She turned down those offers, though she did endorse a brand of jeans called “No Excuses.”) D’Antonio details some of Trump’s marital spats, including battles over prenuptial agreements. In one instance, a discussion with Ivana got so intense that she bolted the room, “and only returned after Donald chased her to the sidewalk and persuaded her to keep talking.”
It is hard to separate the reality of Trump from the lore. The name has come to signify “more than just the wealth, opulence, and excitement he hoped it would evoke,” D’Antonio writes, but also “an unseemly level of self-regard and exaggeration.” Trump never seems satisfied with his status. In a particularly tacky move, he frequently called the editors of Forbes, who publish the annual list of the richest Americans, “to say that he should be included when he was not, or that his fortune was bigger than they reported,” D’Antonio reports.
Trump’s dalliance with Obama birtherism during the 2012 campaign tapped into baser American instincts, but it was in keeping with his history of crude attention-seeking. In the 1970s, he complained about having to rent properties to welfare recipients; in the 1980s, he inserted himself into the controversy surrounding the murder of a Central Park jogger and called for the death penalty for supposed “roving bands of wild criminals”; today he depicts Mexican immigrants as rapists and lawbreakers. Trump’s approach is “consistent with a long tradition of divisive and extreme rhetoric in American politics,” D’Antonio writes, but he gives Trump the benefit of the doubt, suggesting that he is guilty of insensitivity rather than outright bigotry.
During Trump’s prior flirtations with presidential politics, his overall rhetoric was not all that different from today’s. In a 1987 ad he put in the Boston Globe, the New York Times and The Washington Post laying out his foreign policy views, Trump concluded: “Let’s not let our great country be laughed at anymore.” Sound familiar? And in a New Hampshire speech that year, he delivered the same apocalyptic warnings that pepper his current addresses: “If the right man doesn’t get into office, you’re going to see a catastrophe in this country in the next four years like you’re never going to believe.” The enemies back then were Japan and the Soviet Union; now, sub in China, Russia and the Islamic State.
When he made noise about a possible 2000 presidential bid, reporters “tended to dwell more on the idea of his candidacy rather than on the ideas he would advocate,” D’Antonio writes. We could say much the same of today’s coverage. The idea of Trump is what tantalizes, because it is, in many ways, the American idea.
“In his wealth and fame he is truly a man for our time, the ultimate expression of certain aspects of the American spirit,” D’Antonio concludes. “Donald Trump may blow his horn a little louder than other Americans, but he is playing the right tune.”