The Real Trump

Donald Trump at his campaign rally at Pittsburgh International Airport, November 2016
Damon Winter/The New York Times/Redux
Donald Trump at his campaign rally at Pittsburgh International Airport, November 2016

Men of factious tempers, of local prejudices, or of sinister designs, may, by intrigue, by corruption, or by other means, first obtain the suffrages, and then betray the interests, of the people.
Federalist 10

1.

Just when the shooting pains in our legs had become near unbearable—we’d been standing, ten thousand of us crushed together elbow to elbow, for well over five hours—the metal hangar door clattered back like a vast white curtain and unveiled The Plane: red, white, and blue with his name emblazoned along its side in the inevitable gold (with all its fixtures gold-plated as well, twenty-four carat, including the seatbelts)—and suddenly as the familiar silhouette materialized in the doorway, arm extended, all that pain from thousands of legs and backs and craning necks seemed to be drawn out of us into one great punishing roar of sound smashing and echoing against the metal walls of the vast building.

Hands that had been free flew instinctively up to cover ears but most clutched phones and cameras and suddenly all that could be seen amid the hundreds of signs (“Trump: Make America Great Again,” “Hispanics for Trump,” “Women for Trump,” and of course “The Silent Majority Stands with Trump”) were thousands and thousands of tiny screens, held aloft and forward in that curiously contemporary attitude of worship, reproducing across the roiling crowd in an array of pointillistic splendor His Face (rock-solid confident, chin outthrust, jaw set), his open-necked white dress shirt and blue Brioni suit beneath an elegant blue top coat, and of course, perched atop it all as he made his way slowly waving down the airstairs, clapping and punching the air and clasping his hands above his head, the red “Make America Great Again” baseball cap pressed down over the defiantly ridiculous coiffure. “In two days,” he began, addressing the working class of Moon Township, in the shadows of Pittsburgh’s old dead steelworks,

we are going to win the great state of Pennsylvania and we are going to win back the White House. [Huge cheers]… When we win, we are bringing steel back, we are going to bring steel back to Pennsylvania, like it used to be. We are putting our steel workers and our miners back to work. We are. We will be bringing back our once-great steel companies.

To this proud vision of a future as past restored the crowd brought huge cheers. By main force the man with the gold-appointed plane would bring back the glory that had been. How would he do it? First, by his very ascension, for he was here to affirm that those steel mills and mines and the good jobs they offered had been lost through treachery. He was here to point out the stab in the back and to vow to avenge it:

We are not going to allow our jobs to be taken from our states anymore…. We are going to bring back the jobs and the wealth that have been stolen from us. The economic policies of Bill and Hillary Clinton have bled Pennsylvania dry. You know it, I know it, we’ve watched it happen.

The rich satisfactions of a politics of villainy! Complicated decades-long tales of technological advance and social change dissolve into the self-satisfied sneer on a hated face. All around me I saw it reproduced, mostly behind bars, on “Crooked Hillary” buttons and “Hillary for Jail!” sweatshirts and much, much worse. “Hillary Clinton murders children!” a middle-aged woman waiting in the two-mile-long line had shouted. “It’s been proved. Hillary Clinton rapes and murders children.”

Not long before I had learned from a small businessman, a produce wholesaler, that the former secretary of state was “a degenerate alcoholic”—a subtext of Trump’s frequent assertion that she “lacked the stamina to be president”—and that FBI director James Comey was on “suicide watch,” the latter words pronounced sarcastically and to a circle of nodding knowing grins, because of course thus far in their careers “the Clintons have killed at least twenty people.”

The words were tossed off calmly, by people with children and cars and jobs, people who watch television and attend PTA meetings and perhaps even read the newspapers. And of course listen to the radio, which had battened on Clinton conspiracy theories for decades. And so we had passed the hours waiting for him in that aircraft hangar by batting around above our heads two red, white, and blue beach balls with the words “Crooked Hillary” inscribed prominently upon them. Hit it! Hit it harder!

The truth is that after decades of attacks and her own prominent missteps—the e-mails that comprised the perfect symbolic scandal since, with its veritable lack of content, there was no way she could ever be vindicated; the speaking fees that recalled to voters a political couple who had left the White House “dead broke” and had since somehow managed to enrich themselves to the tune of hundreds of millions of dollars—Hillary Clinton was mistrusted by most of the country and hated and despised by those at Trump rallies rather more intensely and savagely than her supporters hated and despised Trump. They feared her; they swore and truly believed that if she were allowed to win “we wouldn’t”—to use the savior’s typically blunt words—“have a country anymore.” And in the crucial states they turned out to vote against her, as her supporters did not turn out for her.

That she lost this closest of close elections more than he won it has become a truism and some of the numbers bear it out. If part of the rationale behind the withering attacks on “Crooked Hillary” was to depress turnout among her most ambivalent supporters then surely the strategy worked, for there was no “Latino surge,” no “women surge,” nothing to offset Trump’s “working-class white surge,” in which he beat her by nearly forty points among white voters who hadn’t finished college, many of whom had voted for Obama. For Trump, it was barely enough. While winning nearly two million fewer votes than Clinton across the country—only the fifth time in two and a half centuries the losing presidential candidate actually won more votes—Trump won the three critical states of Michigan, Wisconsin, and, yes, Pennsylvania by little more than 100,000 votes in all, or 0.09 percent of all votes cast. The 107,000 voters who made Donald Trump president of the United States could have fit into one large football stadium.1

2.

Donald Trump offers such consummate political theater—his gargantuan narcissism makes him so mesmerizing to watch2—that it is to wake abruptly from an all-enveloping dream to realize that much of what he says has no…content behind it. His assertions, framed in simple, concrete, direct language, are not policy statements so much as attitudes, the tireless ranting of the man on the barstool beside you, some of them, for example, on how America is being “ripped off” on trade, going back decades, some of them, on “the disaster” of Obamacare, notably, acquired only upon his incarnation as presidential candidate. He is a master at sharpening and giving shape to deep-rooted class resentments, an artist at shrugging into attitudes as if they were costumes, at reflecting and embodying anger.

He is a supreme performer—the billionaire builder with the outerborough accent and tough-guy talk—and as he surfs the applause and cheers and shouts nothing could be plainer than that he understands his audience. He has been understanding it for more than three decades, as a cartoon hero of the New York tabloids. “When we would talk particularly to immigrants, recent immigrants who were the readers of the Daily News,” a News columnist, George Rush, tells the authors of Trump Revealed, “they would always want to know about Donald Trump.”

He embodied the American Dream to them. Excessive, conspicuous consumption is not a bad thing in New York to a lot of people. It’s kind of comic what he was doing. I’ve always felt like Donald was in on the jokes. He knows he’s over the top, but that’s where he likes to live.

Many in his huge crowds who have watched him for years, firing people on prime-time television, are in on the jokes, too—but only to a point. As I stood waiting outside the aircraft hangar in Moon Township, a sixtyish man behind me wearing sweatpants and a Trump–Pence sweatshirt stepped outside the line and craned his neck, looking back at the thousands behind us, many of them wearing red-white-and-blue, festooned with Trump–Pence shirts, Trump hats, Trump buttons, and pronounced in a tone of long-awaited satisfaction:

Ah, this is it: the white working class in America. The ones paying for all the others. Finally we’re getting someone who’ll do something for us.

For all the talk of the financial crisis of 2008, that sentiment—“The ones paying for all the others”—comes from a much deeper place. “The others” do not work. They are the free-riders on the system, courtesy of the corrupt elite who put in place and then perpetuate programs to support them, in return for which those “others” supply the votes to keep them in power. And most of those others, it doesn’t need to be said—it can’t be said because of that damn “political correctness” that cloaks and stifles us like a blanket—have darker faces and many of them come from somewhere else.

But Trump isn’t afraid to say it. That he shocks the political class was from the start the heart of his appeal. It says he won’t be intimidated, he won’t back down. With his fancy suits and huge plane and helicopter, he is the cock of the walk, a big swinging dick who doesn’t give a damn, who says what he pleases and won’t sell out to the elite—and this is the elite in the broadest sense: the people who run our government, those who write the news stories and the editorials, those who produce the television programs and the movies.

He knows all those people, of course, has risen to the top among them and remains deeply unimpressed by them. He knows they cheat and lie and he says it plainly; his entire campaign is an affirmation of the fact. I was told repeatedly that the polls—which days before the election showed Clinton up by three or four points, an estimate even Trump reportedly believed—were “just bullshit, just like everything else the media says.” Or again: “Don’t you know they lie? They lie all the time.”

And now his election proved that. It was a double repudiation, of the elite and all it stands for, and of what it says, what it had been saying about Trump and the election itself. It was proof of the elite’s self-regarding cluelessness, from Obama and Clinton right on down. It was a statement of mass affirmation proving “they lie all the time.” Look how they lied about the election. We’re showing you that they lie!

Supporters of Donald Trump at the Pittsburgh International Airport campaign rally, November 2016
Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images
Supporters of Donald Trump at the Pittsburgh International Airport campaign rally, November 2016

If Donald Trump is truly “in on the jokes,” as the Daily News columnist said, it seems plain that some of his more ardent followers are not. “Finally we’re getting someone who’ll do something for us.” What exactly would that something be? Will Trump truly be bringing “steel back to Pennsylvania, like it used to be”? How exactly will he go about “putting our steel workers and our miners back to work”? How will he turn back three or four decades of history? By imposing a 35 percent tariff, with the collaboration, presumably, of the staunchly free-trade majority in the Republican-controlled Congress?

No matter. From day one—the first day, immediately—he would give them “real change.” After the opening words about steel and coal jobs came even louder applause lines:

Real change begins with immediately—immediately—repealing and replacing the disaster known as Obamacare…. Don’t worry about it. We’re getting rid of it. You’re going to end up getting great health care at a fraction of the cost. So don’t worry about it.

It has since become clear, if it wasn’t already, that when Trump vowed to give the people “great health care at a fraction of the cost,” as he has at every campaign appearance for more than a year, he not only had no program at all to put in place of Obamacare—a plan that now insures the health of more than 20 million Americans—he had very little idea what Obamacare actually was.

Trump has uttered some of the most baldly ideological sentiments of any presidential candidate in American history, including these remarkable lines that I heard him spit out angrily on October 13—twelve women had just come forward to accuse him of sexual harassment—during a packed rally in West Palm Beach, Florida:

Hillary Clinton meets in secret with international banks to plot the destruction of US sovereignty in order to enrich these global financial powers, her special interest friends, and her donors….

This election will determine if we are a free nation or whether we have only the illusion of democracy, but are in fact controlled by a small handful of global special interests rigging the system, and our system is rigged….

Our corrupt political establishment, that is the greatest power behind the efforts at radical globalization and the disenfranchisement of working people. Their financial resources are virtually unlimited, their political resources are unlimited, their media resources are unmatched.

As many have pointed out, words and sentiments such as these—international bankers, conspiracy, “stab in the back”—would not have been out of place in Germany in the early 1930s. Nor are the echoes of such diatribes as the Protocols of Zion difficult to discern.3 The cheers in the hall were deafening, punctuated by ferocious chants of “Treason!” and “CNN Sucks!” directed at the reporters present.

Hearing such words screamed by thousands of furious voices in this raucous hall on a bright afternoon in West Palm Beach was a rather frightening experience. Crushed amid the crowd while scribbling in my notebook—I had escaped the press pen—I felt more than a little unease at the angry glances and suspicious stares. And yet despite myself I came away impressed by a certain absurdity. There was something theatrically garish and self-regardingly anachronistic about the speech, written by late-blooming white nationalist, former Goldman Sachs manager, and Breitbart News chief Steve Bannon.

The hatred of the Other that Trump had so skillfully cultivated throughout the campaign—the portrayal of illegal immigrants as rapists and murderers, the assertions that the Mexicans and Chinese and others had “stolen our jobs,” the insistence that allies in Europe and Asia were calculating freeloaders usurping the protections of American power—had some precedent in his public rhetoric, and his use of it brought rich political benefits, not only among his working-class white audience but among the appalled elite that ensured his words dominated the news cycle. But the markedly anti-Semitic tropes he mouthed in West Palm Beach seemed to come from somewhere else, in this case an intellectual white nationalist—or “a nationalist, an economic nationalist,” as Bannon prefers—whose calculatedly inflamed rhetoric Trump seemed to unleash opportunistically in a moment of anger and vulnerability.4

Trump, after all, had been attacked, by those who had leaked the notorious “grab them by the pussy” tape from Access Hollywood and by the dozen or so women who had come forward afterward to claim he had assaulted or harassed them. And having been hit, he was following his credo to “hit back twenty times harder.” Yet one felt a disconnect: Donald Trump is not an ideologue. Donald Trump is a promoter: he promotes resentment and he promotes fantasy. “I play to people’s fantasies,” he wrote in his most famous book.

People may not always think big themselves, but they can still get very excited by those who do. That’s why a little hyperbole never hurts. People want to believe that something is the biggest and the greatest and the most spectacular.

I call it truthful hyperbole. It’s an innocent form of exaggeration—and a very effective form of promotion.5

I play to people’s fantasies. Fantasies dark and light. The biggest, best health care for a fraction of the cost. Don’t worry about it. And the rapists pouring over our border. And the international bankers plotting with the traitorous elite to suck dry the “real Americans” who do the work in this country. It is all fodder. It is all a bit, a marvelous bit: great material for the song and dance man.

3.

If problems of the citizens are enduringly hidden in politics, if a political idiom creeps in that no longer means anything to the people, then the time has come for the actor to take to the stage…. The audience is at first astonished…, then charmed and fascinated. Then comes the final step, the transformation of the intoxicated audience into an intoxicated nation.

Regrettably, it is usually the narcissistically damaged actors who become political performers.6

Now the high-flying song and dance man, of manic energy and ravenous narcissism and colossal neediness, will take the oath as our forty-fifth president. The lobbyists are gathering, the would-be courtiers, the place-servers, for his campaign was a ragged pickup team, a tenth the size of Clinton’s, and he was spurned by much of the Republican establishment that would normally stand eager to staff the government—though some of them now are showing themselves eager enough to join. The grasping after emoluments is a great story, Washington in the dawning of the Trump Age a picaresque novel in the making. Even as we watch, political outsiders are rushing in from the wilderness, eager to turn his fantasies, from immigration to trade to national security, into reality, a reality in which swastikas and hate crimes are popping up around the country, and local politicians are talking darkly of “sanctuary cities.”

And yet in a real sense the principal story worth telling is still him. We are now all in the prey of that aberrant personality, of that vast and never-to-be satisfied need. “Everywhere Donald Trump turns, he sees Donald Trump,” said Mark Singer, as quoted by Michael Kranish and Marc Fisher in Trump Revealed.

He doesn’t see the other guy much. It becomes really hard to distinguish [how much] of the promotion and publicity…is good for business and how much of it is to fill that hollowness inside of him.

Now filling that hollowness is our job. No surprise that the president-elect, faced with selecting four thousand reasonably qualified people to fill the government and developing a policy or two that stands a chance of being enacted, has talked about undertaking a “victory tour,” revisiting the states he won, once again surfing those screaming crowds that plainly offer him the real-time affirmation he craves.

When he returns he will have the choice of facing the contradictions he has littered like breadcrumbs behind him. A promise to deport millions of undocumented immigrants while building a “beautiful and impenetrable wall” to keep them out of the country. A vow to bring back the factories and industrial jobs by dismantling trade agreements long since become settled law. A promise to deliver great health care at a fraction of the cost of Obamacare. A threat to “bomb the shit” out of the Islamic State and reinstitute waterboarding and kill the families of terrorists. A pledge to cut taxes by $6 trillion even while spending trillions more rebuilding the country’s roads and bridges and airports, and “rebuilding our military”—while also eliminating the deficit and reducing the national debt.

He is a builder, Donald Trump, or anyway he used to be, before he became a reality television star and a manager of his brand. (“I’m very good at this,” he told Lesley Stahl on Sixty Minutes. “It’s called construction.”) To put people to work across the country pouring cement in his name, rebuilding the country under the grandeur of Trump, may well be his redemption, supplying at least some jobs to the working people who long for a leader who “finally will do something for us.” The program will spotlight his ideological obtuseness, for can he rebuild the country’s roads and bridges, can he build his bright new airports, while also delivering trillions of dollars in tax cuts to well-to-do Americans? Congressional Republicans, for whom the tax cuts count more than anything else, will insist on making compensating cuts in spending. These cannot be found without eviscerating the programs, including Medicare and Social Security, that Trump the populist has vowed to protect. The contradiction is stark and it lies squarely in the distance Trump defined from Republican Party orthodoxy at every rally he held.7 If he is really for working men and women, he will be forced to prove it and to do it very early on.

By such decisions will he define himself. He sees himself as the artist of the deal but he has shown he rarely takes opposition as legitimate, having learned his politics at the knee of Roy Cohn, the exemplar of the “go to hell” philosophy—if they screw you, screw them twenty times harder—and the master of the politics of personal destruction. Trump’s assumption of the mantle of the birther movement, which marked his self-creation as a politician, was pure Cohn, as were the stunningly brutal personal attacks on the Clintons: She lies and she lies and she lies again.

His blithe lack of respect for speaking the truth, his indifference to the strictures of the public record, are unprecedented in an American president and can find their parallels only in European leaders of the 1930s. In this as in other matters, there is no reason to expect a wholesale transformation when candidate Trump becomes President Trump. After all—in that ringing affirmation that he must hear echoing always in his ears—he won. Everyone told him he was destroying himself with feuds and attacks and angry tweets and in the end he won. Why would he change, even if he could?

What will change will be his power. He inherits a presidency that has been vastly inflated by the war on terror policies of George W. Bush and Barack Obama. It is not the least of ironies that Trump will have vast powers because his predecessor has chosen not to restrict but to normalize the powers cultivated by the “wartime president” who preceded him.8 Donald Trump will inherit a government on a permanent wartime footing, actively fighting in six countries (Iraq, Syria, Yemen, Libya, Somalia, and Afghanistan), using means both public and secret—including drone strikes and attacks by covert special forces—and doing so with the benefit of never-ending war powers granted by Congress. He will have all the powers conferred by permanent war, by a greatly expanded CIA and NSA, and by a national security establishment that since 2001 has nearly doubled in size and has long since escaped the gaze of democratic scrutiny.

When he speaks, especially in the face of opposition, he will not be shy to remind the citizens that it is their commander in chief who is speaking. One can imagine those reminders coming fast and loud should there be, for example, the terrorist attacks from which he, the strongman, the law and order candidate, has vowed to safeguard the country. Or even in the face of huge demonstrations that might follow the shooting of a citizen of color, or a series of them, by police.

Donald Trump has been the shatterer of norms. Thus far it has been enough. Will he become the breaker of laws? Will he find it necessary? Scarcely a decade and a half ago George W. Bush, when he determined that the country’s interest demanded that he torture prisoners, simply found a way to have his government declare legal what was not. It may well be that Trump will do the same. At his rollicking rallies across the country, he has made vows to hundreds of thousands of screaming supporters, and now the eager courtiers are gathering, including figures like Bannon and Flynn and Sessions, among others long regarded as extreme, to put his words into policy and law.

We will see how that goes. It seems predictable, though, that as Trump encounters opposition, as he proves unable to fulfill the grandeur of his promises, he will strike back—it is his nature—and we will see American institutions tested. If they prove strong, there are ways for Trump to circumvent them. The enormous rallies offer one way. The cries of “Traitor!” give sign of another way. Trump is an improviser, a performer, a creator of new worlds. The narcissistically damaged actor, the high-flying song and dance man: even he can scarcely know what is to come.

—November 23, 2016

  1. 1

    See Tim Meko, Denise Lu, and Lazara Gamio, “How Trump Won the Presidency with Razor-Thin Margins in Swing States,” The Washington Post, November 11, 2016.  

  2. 2

    See my “The Magic of Donald Trump,” The New York Review, May 26, 2016.  

  3. 3

    See Ron Kampeas, “Donald Trump’s ‘International Bankers’ Speech Leaves Some Uneasy,” Jewish Telegraphic Agency, October 24, 2016, for a comparison.  

  4. 4

    See Michael Wolff, “Ringside With Steve Bannon at Trump Tower as the President-Elect’s Strategist Plots ‘An Entirely New Political Movement,’” The Hollywood Reporter, November 18, 2016. For Bannon’s influence on Trump see especially David A. Farenthold and Frances Stead Sellers, “How Bannon Flattered and Coaxed Trump on Policies Key to the Alt-right,” The Washington Post, November 15, 2016.  

  5. 5

    Donald J. Trump and Tony Schwartz, Trump: The Art of the Deal (Random House, 1987), pp. 56–58; quoted in Trump Revealed, p. 105.  

  6. 6

    See Daniel Schily, “What History Teaches Us About Demagogues Like The Donald,” Time, June 20, 2016.  

  7. 7

    There are strong signs already that Trump’s vaunted infrastructure spending is in fact a bit of a fraud, comprising not direct investment of federal dollars, as Clinton’s would have, but instead “an idiosyncratic proposal for Congress to offer some $137 billion in tax breaks to private investors who want to finance toll roads, toll bridges, or other projects that generate their own revenue streams.” See Brad Plumer, “Donald Trump’s Infrastructure Plan Wouldn’t Actually Fix America’s Infrastructure Problems,” Vox, November 18, 2016. See also Ron Klain, “Trump’s Big Infrastructure Plan? It’s a Trap,” The Washington Post, November 18, 2016.  

  8. 8

    See my book Spiral: Trapped in the Forever War (Simon and Schuster, 2016), reviewed in these pages by Michael Ignatieff, September 29, 2016.