Why does President Trump behave in the dangerous and seemingly self-destructive ways he does?
Three decades ago, I spent nearly a year hanging around Trump to write his first book, “The Art of the Deal,” and got to know him very well. I spent hundreds of hours listening to him, watching him in action and interviewing him about his life. To me, none of what he has said or done over the past four months as president comes as a surprise. The way he has behaved over the past two weeks — firing FBI Director James B. Comey, undercutting his own aides as they tried to explain the decision, disclosing sensitive information to Russian officials and railing about it all on Twitter — is also entirely predictable.
Early on, I recognized that Trump’s sense of self-worth is forever at risk. When he feels aggrieved, he reacts impulsively and defensively, constructing a self-justifying story that doesn’t depend on facts and always directs the blame to others.
The Trump I first met in 1985 had lived nearly all his life in survival mode. By his own description, his father, Fred, was relentlessly demanding, difficult and driven. Here’s how I phrased it in “The Art of the Deal”: “My father is a wonderful man, but he is also very much a business guy and strong and tough as hell.” As Trump saw it, his older brother, Fred Jr., who became an alcoholic and died at age 42, was overwhelmed by his father. Or as I euphemized it in the book: “There were inevitably confrontations between the two of them. In most cases, Freddy came out on the short end.”
Trump’s worldview was profoundly and self-protectively shaped by his father. “I was drawn to business very early, and I was never intimidated by my father, the way most people were,” is the way I wrote it in the book. “I stood up to him, and he respected that. We had a relationship that was almost businesslike.”
To survive, I concluded from our conversations, Trump felt compelled to go to war with the world. It was a binary, zero-sum choice for him: You either dominated or you submitted. You either created and exploited fear, or you succumbed to it — as he thought his older brother had. This narrow, defensive outlook took hold at a very early age, and it never evolved. “When I look at myself in the first grade and I look at myself now,” he told a recent biographer, “I’m basically the same.” His development essentially ended in early childhood.
Instead, Trump grew up fighting for his life and taking no prisoners. In countless conversations, he made clear to me that he treated every encounter as a contest he had to win, because the only other option from his perspective was to lose, and that was the equivalent of obliteration. Many of the deals in “The Art of the Deal” were massive failures — among them the casinos he owned and the launch of a league to rival the National Football League — but Trump had me describe each of them as a huge success.
With evident pride, Trump explained to me that he was “an assertive, aggressive” kid from an early age, and that he had once punched a music teacher in the eye and was nearly expelled from elementary school for his behavior.
Like so much about Trump, who knows whether that story is true? What’s clear is that he has spent his life seeking to dominate others, whatever that requires and whatever collateral damage it creates along the way. In “The Art of the Deal,” he speaks with street-fighting relish about competing in the world of New York real estate: They are “some of the sharpest, toughest, and most vicious people in the world. I happen to love to go up against these guys, and I love to beat them.” I never sensed from Trump any guilt or contrition about anything he’d done, and he certainly never shared any misgivings publicly. From his perspective, he operated in a jungle full of predators who were forever out to get him, and he did what he must to survive.
Trump was equally clear with me that he didn’t value — nor even necessarily recognize — the qualities that tend to emerge as people grow more secure, such as empathy, generosity, reflectiveness, the capacity to delay gratification or, above all, a conscience, an inner sense of right and wrong. Trump simply didn’t traffic in emotions or interest in others. The life he lived was all transactional, all the time. Having never expanded his emotional, intellectual or moral universe, he has his story down, and he’s sticking to it.
A key part of that story is that facts are whatever Trump deems them to be on any given day. When he is challenged, he instinctively doubles down — even when what he has just said is demonstrably false. I saw that countless times, whether it was as trivial as exaggerating the number of floors at Trump Tower or as consequential as telling me that his casinos were performing well when they were actually going bankrupt. In the same way, Trump would see no contradiction at all in changing his story about why he fired Comey and thereby undermining the statements of his aides, or in any other lie he tells. His aim is never accuracy; it’s domination.
The Trump I got to know had no deep ideological beliefs, nor any passionate feeling about anything but his immediate self-interest. He derives his sense of significance from conquests and accomplishments. “Can you believe it, Tony?” he would often say at the start of late-night conversations with me, going on to describe some new example of his brilliance. But the reassurance he got from even his biggest achievements was always ephemeral and unreliable — and that appears to include being elected president. Any addiction has a predictable pattern: The addict keeps chasing the high by upping the ante in an increasingly futile attempt to re-create the desired state. On the face of it, Trump has more opportunities now to feel significant and accomplished than almost any other human being on the planet. But that’s like saying a heroin addict has his problem licked once he has free and continuous access to the drug. Trump also now has a far bigger and more public stage on which to fail and to feel unworthy.
From the very first time I interviewed him in his office in Trump Tower in 1985, the image I had of Trump was that of a black hole. Whatever goes in quickly disappears without a trace. Nothing sustains. It’s forever uncertain when someone or something will throw Trump off his precarious perch — when his sense of equilibrium will be threatened and he’ll feel an overwhelming compulsion to restore it. Beneath his bluff exterior, I always sensed a hurt, incredibly vulnerable little boy who just wanted to be loved.
What Trump craves most deeply is the adulation he has found so fleeting. This goes a long way toward explaining his need for control and why he simply couldn’t abide Comey, who reportedly refused to accede to Trump’s demand for loyalty and whose continuing investigation into Russian interference in the election campaign last year threatens to bring down his presidency. Trump’s need for unquestioning praise and flattery also helps to explain his hostility to democracy and to a free press — both of which thrive on open dissent.
As we have seen countless times during the campaign and since the election, Trump can devolve into survival mode on a moment’s notice. Look no further than the thousands of tweets he has written attacking his perceived enemies over the past year. In neurochemical terms, when he feels threatened or thwarted, Trump moves into a fight-or-flight state. His amygdala is triggered, his hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis activates, and his prefrontal cortex — the part of the brain that makes us capable of rationality and reflection — shuts down. He reacts rather than reflects, and damn the consequences. This is what makes his access to the nuclear codes so dangerous and frightening.
Over the past week, in the face of criticism from nearly every quarter, Trump’s distrust has almost palpably mushroomed. No importuning by his advisers stands a chance of constraining him when he is this deeply triggered. The more he feels at the mercy of forces he cannot control — and he is surely feeling that now — the more resentful, desperate and impulsive he becomes.
Even 30 years later, I vividly remember the ominous feeling when Trump got angry about some perceived slight. Everyone around him knew that you were best off keeping your distance at those times, or, if that wasn’t possible, that you should resist disagreeing with him in any way.
In the hundreds of Trump’s phone calls I listened in on with his consent, and the dozens of meetings I attended with him, I can never remember anyone disagreeing with him about anything. The same climate of fear and paranoia appears to have taken root in his White House.
The most recent time I spoke to Trump — and the first such occasion in nearly three decades — was July 14, 2016, shortly before the New Yorker published an article by Jane Mayer about my experience writing “The Art of the Deal.” Trump was just about to win the Republican nomination for president. I was driving in my car when my cellphone rang. It was Trump. He had just gotten off a call with a fact-checker for the New Yorker, and he didn’t mince words.
“I just want to tell you that I think you’re very disloyal,” he started in. Then he berated and threatened me for a few minutes. I pushed back, gently but firmly. And then suddenly, as abruptly as he began the call, he ended it. “Have a nice life,” he said, and hung up.