Long before Donald Trump was a name in New York real estate or the star of a reality television show or a candidate for president, he harboured the ambition of becoming a movie or theatre producer. Now Mr. Trump will have a chance to play out a drama on the biggest stage in the world starting on Jan. 20, his Inauguration Day. What will Mr. Trump do with that power and attention?
To find out what makes him tick, last month The Globe and Mail’s Joanna Slater interviewed four of his biographers: Gwenda Blair; Michael D’Antonio; Timothy O’Brien; and Wayne Barrett. The man who is about to become the 45th president of the United States, they said, is a person with unusual strengths and potentially crippling weaknesses, a man with a cinematic personality who has sought the spotlight his entire life
You’re experts in the art of ’Trumpology.’ Has anything surprised you about how Mr. Trump has acted since he won the election?
Blair: He’s really conducted himself exactly in the same way, by which I mean his performing style which he honed over 40 years of being in business, but much more specifically over 10 years of The Apprentice in its various avatars. He always showed himself as the boss, the guy in charge, and you never knew what was going to happen next. Unpredictability is rule No. 1 of holding on to your audience.
D’Antonio: I have not been surprised by his continued tweeting. I don’t think he can resist. Attention is his drug. The attention he gets from tweeting is the crack version of it and he doesn’t have to go to a dealer to get it. In the past, the press would be the middleman. Now he can access this high by pushing a button. I knew he was addicted to attention. I knew that he was going to have trouble controlling himself. But this is just extraordinary.
When did you first meet him in person? What is he like?
Barrett: This goes back to ‘78. He was building the Grand Hyatt [in New York] and I decided to do a story about him. This was an investigative piece. So I was in the offices of the state urban development corporation looking at a ton of records. I’m sitting in the conference room, alone, looking at these records and the phone on the table starts ringing. I don’t know whether to pick it up or not, but finally, I pick it up and the voice on the other end says, “Wayne!” Like we’ve known each other forever. “I hear you’re doing a story on me! You gotta come by and say hello!” So somebody had not only told him I was there, but had given him the phone number in the conference room.
O’Brien: I met him for the first time in person in the mid-1990s. He’s essentially Mr. Id. He will speak about anything that crosses his mind – really no subject is off limits. You have to truth-squad every other word that comes out of his mouth, but he’s entertaining. He can be a very, very refreshing presence to be around because he’s very candid. He’s authentically curious about a lot of things. He’s always interesting to talk to.
D’Antonio: You know how palaces have ceremonial reception areas? He has a ceremonial reception area in his apartment. It’s not a place you would ever relax in, it’s designed for presentation. He does everything with a modicum of stagecraft. He never appears anywhere out of costume. His makeup is always perfect. His coiffure is always perfect. He does that with the people around him as well, they’re all expected to strike a certain fashionable appearance. Everything he’s ever done in his life has been done with a sense of how the audience will receive it. So if you go to interview him, you become the audience of one. He has said that his life is a comic book and he’s the star of it.
O’Brien: He has a very cinematic sense of himself. He’s a big student of film. When we flew around on his jet, we would often screen movies together. He would offer a running commentary on the strengths and weaknesses of a given film. These ran the gamut from Jean-Claude Van Damme movies and Pulp Fiction to Citizen Kane and Sunset Boulevard. He’s fascinated by stardom and celebrity. He’s maybe fascinated by that more than he is fascinated by anything else. He’s very aware of the power and the influence that goes along with it and he always looks for tutorials in movies. He considers Clint Eastwood one of the greatest movie stars ever. I think Donald’s signature scowl is modelled after High Plains Drifter. I think he has spent a lot of time in front of a mirror somewhere practising that glare.
What do you think will motivate him as president?
O’Brien: The same thing that has motivated him, I think, since he was about seven years old. He loves being the centre of attention. He likes tipping over the apple cart. He is profoundly anti-institutional and anti-establishment and yet he also craves the establishment’s blessing. That’s a tension inside of him.
Blair: Being the alpha guy in the room, building, city, nation, planet. The only principle, really, is winning and success. Probably in unexpected moments he is going to be flexible, because he wants to win, he wants to make the deal. He’s very impatient with dickering around about stuff. There’s perhaps a certain kind of pragmatism and a certain kind of flexibility that will come into play at times, but those are in service of complete control.
D’Antonio: I suspect that he has some love of country. The country he imagines is probably fixed someplace in 1958 or 1959, but he does love that idea of America. When he has talked in a way that suggests that he wants to restore that, I think he was telling the truth. He really believes in the power of cheerleading. For example, he told me that he liked [President Barack] Obama when Obama was a good cheerleader, but that Obama failed at that eventually. Again, this is an element of showmanship. He thinks that a president should rally the country emotionally. The problem with this is that he doesn’t have a broad emotional vocabulary. If you look at what he does in an authentic way, he’s good at menacing, he’s good at showing disgust, he’s good at boasting and preening. But I really wonder what he’ll do when the country experiences a tragedy. What’s required in those times is authenticity and empathy at a level he’s never shown. It doesn’t mean he can’t do it.
Who were the main influences in his life?
D’Antonio: There are a few men who determined his outlook on life. The first is his father, who was a very demanding and strict person. The most crushing thing I think he did was send Donald off when he was 13 to this place called New York Military Academy. It was an abusive environment where the adults who ran the place beat up the kids and the kids beat up each other. Humiliation was the order of the day. His contemporaries describe it as a sadistic place. And Donald thrived there. [Another] person is this really awful character named Roy Cohn. Roy became Donald’s surrogate father in Manhattan in the late 1960s and then onward until he died in 1986. [Cohn] first became famous as [Senator] Joe McCarthy’s henchman, ruining people’s lives with innuendo and smears. He continued to do that in New York City, where he represented mobsters in addition to other clients, but spent most of his time putting in the political fix on things. He was loathed and feared and taught Donald how to play rough and also how to manipulate the media.
Barrett: In 1973, Donald is like 28 years old and he meets Roy Cohn – and he’s drawn to him! This was a guy who was the ultimate fixer. He was a professional liar, a pugnacious liar, an aggressive liar. I think [Trump’s] lying thing, it’s in some ways a brilliant political tactic. If you lie that often, no one can keep up with it, no one can fact check it.
Blair: The trail I went down was to look into the family history. His grandfather, who was from a little village in Germany, had a restaurant in the Klondike. He saw what he needed to do and where the market was in the Yukon. Trump’s father, Fred, saw where the market was in New York real estate and how to exploit the government subsidies that were available. He was really sharp and shrewd about sniffing out loopholes and pushing them to the absolute margin. It’s the exact same way of looking at things as Donald Trump: He had four corporate bankruptcies using borrowed money, and then on the basis of that borrowed money, he didn’t pay his own personal income tax for nearly 20 years. There’s a kind of shrewdness about where the loopholes are and asking what works for me, what’s to my advantage.
What do you think his strengths might be as president?
Blair: He may well be more flexible than one might anticipate from his extreme stances on a lot of things, because he wants to get it done and he doesn’t seem to have any aversion whatsoever to contradicting himself. There’s a built-in deniability to what at first glance seem like very strong positions.
D’Antonio: I think he has a lot of nerve. He is not afraid to take a risk and he won’t feel intimidated by very many people. He does have gut instincts that can be accurate. He knows how to size up people. I think he smells vulnerability in individuals. If you think of the world as a dangerous place where America may be in conflict, that ability might be something good in a president.
O’Brien: Donald’s strengths are he is incredibly persistent and single-minded. He’s very good at focusing on one thing and drilling down on that until he gets it. He’s a classic survivor. He survived the adversity he faced when businesses collapsed around him. He survived the wreckage of two marriages. He survived a very brutal 2016 presidential campaign.
Barrett: Depending upon how it’s framed, I’m very encouraged by his infrastructure [program]. I do think he measures success in some way in physical terms. He would see a “Trump bridge” in every town as a worthy goal. If we call them all Trump bridges, then he’ll make sure it gets through the Congress. Seriously. That seems consistent with his history and it’s something which the country desperately needs and would be a real job generator.
And how about the weakness you find most worrisome?
Blair: He seems remarkably confident in his own knowledge, his own discernment, his own judgment and is unwilling to actually study anything in any detail. Donald Trump thinks his hunches are top drawer.
D’Antonio: I think he has a temper. I think that he’s a poor student. By that I mean, when it comes to formal acquisition of knowledge and facts. He’s not as receptive to contradictory points of view as he needs to be. He resists information that challenges his pre-existing beliefs. It’s good for people to have firm principles but it’s bad for them to deprive themselves of information that will let them make a good decision.
O’Brien: He hasn’t demonstrated a respect for the historical dignity that the office represents, which is necessarily important in order for it to be an office that people 100 years from now can inhabit comfortably. He’s wildly ill-informed about public policy. He’s more concerned with getting attention and short-term hits than he is with building long-term solutions to complex problems.
Barrett: He has built this fire around immigrants and he has fed it with a fierceness that’s really hard to dim. I think he’s going to do some terrible things to some very decent people in this country.
Do you think he will meaningfully separate himself from his business holdings while president?
Blair: I don’t think he can conceive of doing that.
O’Brien: Has Donald Trump taken any meaningful steps to release his tax returns? No, he hasn’t. Do I expect him to take meaningful steps to separate himself from his businesses? No, I don’t. Do I think that he’s going to be able to do that without consequence over the next four years? No, I don’t. This could become one of the biggest Achilles heels of his administration. He’s a very short-term thinker. He likes to make quick money. He’s often injudicious about the people that he partners with. To the extent that his children are cut from the same cloth, they’re all going to be jointly engaged in a mix of public policy making and deal making that potentially demeans the office of the presidency and could land him in a bit of trouble.
Barrett: I see him now, in interview after interview, saying, “I don’t care about [the business] any more, I’m just going to be president.” Well, this is all he’s cared about all his life. Does anybody seriously believe that he no longer cares about it?
What did you find revealing about him as a person?
O’Brien: He is particularly thin-skinned about a small subset of issues that involve how he thinks about himself. Those tend to be his wealth, his intellectual and academic prowess, and his desirability to women. It’s one of the reasons he always brags about those subjects. You’ll often see him in interviews and public appearances saying, “I went to Wharton, I’m really smart, okay?” “I’m worth $10-billion, that means I’m really rich, okay?” Any time he ends a sentence with “okay,” it’s almost like a poker tell.
D’Antonio: During the Academy Awards [in 2014], he tweeted something cruel about [actress] Kim Novak. He said that she should sue her plastic surgeon. At that time she was in her 80s and reclusive and had really almost trembled while on stage. I thought it was a very cruel thing to do, so I actually confronted him about it in person. His response was: “I didn’t think I got in very much trouble for that.” Almost like a little boy. Who says that at age 68? But he’s the kid who’s always got his hand in the cookie jar or just threw a ball through the window and is more concerned about whether he gets caught than about whether he did the right thing.
Blair: He’s calculating and absolutely unsentimental. He looks at the market, the target audience – in this case, the voters – and there’s no Vaseline on the lens, there’s no wishful thinking. Is that a good thing or a bad thing? Do you want such unfettered observation coupled with such an unconstrained, self-interested response? That’s the bargain that we’ve made. Whether or not that’s what we knew we were doing, it is the bargain we’ve made.
These excerpts have been edited and condensed.