Donald Trump began the week pointing to a heckler and declaring, “I’d like to punch him in the face.” On Friday, Sen. Marco Rubio taunted his billionaire rival: “Donald Trump has never punched anyone in the face.”
The Republican presidential race has come down in part to this question: Does Trump’s real life match the tough-guy persona that he has carefully crafted over years in business, reality television and, now, politics? The answer is not clear.
Trump did not directly address Rubio’s Friday remark, nor did Trump’s campaign respond to questions about it.
Trump’s image often has relied on heavy doses of bluster.
He reveled in the attention of thousands when he decked World Wrestling Entertainment chief executive Vince McMahon as he played his role in a mock “Battle of the Billionaires.” In “The Art of the Deal,” his 1987 autobiography, he wrote about an altercation in second grade.
“I actually gave a teacher a black eye,” he wrote. “I punched my music teacher because I didn’t think he knew anything about music and I almost got expelled.”
Trump, while saying he wasn’t proud of his action, excused it by saying it showed he has always been willing to “stand up and make my opinions known in a very forceful way.”
Whether or not the incident happened exactly as Trump says, it is evidence of the way he wants the world to see him: as a fighter, a tough guy, even a bully. These days, instead of a fist fight, he files a lawsuit or demeans competitors by calling them “weak,” but the effect has often proven to be just as devastating. Trump wrote in this book that he now likes “to use my brain instead of my fists.”
He speaks in the fighter’s lexicon on the campaign trail, saying that he hits back when attacked. That has made some of his opponents reluctant to attack him, which has benefited Trump for months.
Trump has said that he initially developed his tactic as a means of dealing with his father, Fred Trump, an intimidating presence in the world of New York City real estate. While Trump grew up in a comfortable home, there were plenty of tough characters in his Queens neighborhood and in his school, and he has said that as a kid he liked to create mischief and “make a ruckus.”
After allegedly punching his second-grade music teacher, he was constantly reprimanded. By the time he was in seventh grade, his parents had had enough of his rebellious behavior and sent him for the next five years to New York Military Academy, where he fought even more.
“I always loved to fight,” Trump told biographer Michael D’Antonio, the author of “Never Enough.” “All types of fights, including physical.” Trump told D’Antonio that “when I look at myself in the first grade and I look at myself now, I’m basically the same. The temperament is not all that different.”
He said that his attendance at New York Military Academy gave him more training “than a lot of guys that go into the military.”
Trump did not volunteer or serve in the military. He received four years of education deferments. In 1968, he was medically disqualified. His campaign said it was the result of bone spurs.
Former cadets recall that hazing was common at the military school during Trump’s time there. But out of dozens of former classmates interviewed recently, nobody recalls Trump ever taking part in hazing.
Trump is one of the few cadets who does not recall any hazing at NYMA.
“Did I see hazing going on? There may have been hazing but it wasn’t involved with me,” he said.
Still, Trump told The Washington Post, “It was a tough school” with “a lot of drill sergeants. . . . And they were tough, and it was less politically correct than it is today. . . . You had to learn how to survive, essentially, with some of these guys. I learned discipline — how to dish it out and otherwise.”
Ted Levine, who roomed with Trump at the military academy, told NPR about the day when Trump messed up his bed. Levine said he responded by hitting Trump with a broomstick. “He came back at me with his hands,” Levine said, who was 4-11 at the time and Trump was 6-2. “He was bigger than me. And it took three people to get him off me.”
Levine and Trump did not respond to requests for comment.
On the campaign trail, Trump rallies can often feel like professional-wrestling events or boxing matches. The candidate, and his crowds, seem to relish a good confrontation.
When Trump on Monday night said he would like to punch a protester in the face, the man was vastly outnumbered by the pro-Trump crowd and hauled away by security guards. Trump told the audience that the man was “nasty as hell, throwing punches, screaming and everything else” and was trying to fight off the guards, but CNN reported that the man didn’t appear to be fighting them off.
The encounter made Trump nostalgic.
“You know what I hate?” Trump said. “There’s a guy, totally disruptive, throwing punches, we’re not allowed to punch back anymore. I love the old days. You know what they used to do to guys like that when they were in a place like this? They’d be carried out on a stretcher, folks.”