The Truth About Trump
Author: Michael D’Antonio
Publisher: St. Martin’s Paperbacks
In 1980, when a building was being demolished on New York’s celebrated Fifth Avenue to make way for a gleaming skyscraper called Trump Tower, there was much outrage when two Art Deco sculptures and an elaborate frieze were destroyed despite a commitment by the developer that they would be preserved. An art dealer had judged the sculptures to be of architectural importance. The Trump Tower architect had wanted them included in the façade of the new building but the new owner wanted a more modern look.
After the destruction of the sculptures, a certain John Baron, who identified himself as a vice-president of the Trump Organsiation, answered media queries on the phone, explaining that the works had been judged by other appraisers to be “without artistic merit” and if sold, would fetch not more that $9,000. Baron never appeared in public before the media. He simply did not exist — it was a name that the head of Trump Organisation used when he did not want to be held to his words.
That same person may be sworn in as the 45th President of the United States of America on Inauguration Day in January 2017. The anecdote about the sculptures is one of many troubling glimpses that Michael D’Antonio’s The Truth About Trump provides into the mind of the man who is now the Republican presidential candidate, and who, according to the opinion polls, is evenly matched, or even ahead of his Democratic opponent Hilary Clinton in the race for the White House.
But D’Antonio’s biography of Trump, which came out last year, is also a powerful treatise on how America got to the point where they are prepared to vote in a person like Trump, who, as even the Republicans realised too late, is not really a Republican. Trump’s ideology, if it can be called that, is I, Me, Myself, and he has dedicated his whole life in the service of that. But, as D’Antonio writes, Trump did not come out of a vacuum. He is a product of an era in the evolution of the US as the capitalist capital of the world, where greed was legitimate and the wealthy were celebrated, even if their affluence was made on the back of dubious means.
“I’ve been very successful and people are starting to find out I’ve been much more successful than people even admit. People are starting to figure that out. Much more successful,” Trump, who fought with Forbes editors when the magazine excluded him from its 100 Most Wealthy list, said once.
Among those who contributed to the rise of Trump in American public life was the venerable New York Times, in whose columns back in 1979, much before he had even owned any property of significance in New York, he was adoringly described as a Robert Redford lookalike. Trump told the reporter he was publicity-shy but revealed anyway that he was worth more that $ 200 million. D’Antonio said that the overall effect of the Trump profile in the newspaper was a “picture of wealth, danger, sex and boyish enthusiasm as if Trump were the James Bond of real estate”, who dated glamourous women and belonged to “the most elegant clubs”. The only doubtful voice in the report, D’Antonio notes, was an architect, who said Trump “will exaggerate for the sake of making a sale”. Trump was never short of publicity after that, his wealth growing as his fame grew, his fame growing as he amassed more wealth.
D’Antonio, a Pulitzer prize-winning reporter, spent three years researching and investigating this book, and had five interview sessions with Trump. He has mined deep into his subject’s childhood for insights about the man who many across the world fear may actually end up as president. He delivered newspapers in his father’s limousine, was a bully at his school, targeting both his classmates and his teachers. A later stint at a military academy run by World War II vets, where students were taught about hierarchy and discipline through physical and pyschological punishment, reinforced two qualities that his father, Fred Trump, had already ingrained him — competition and aggression, a play-to-win spirit, a “killer” who would be “king”.
Even the John Baron trick was a ruse he had learnt from his father, who built the family fortune building housing for middle-class Americans in post-war United States. Fred Trump was a Republican but established deep connections with Democratic Party politicians who controlled New York at that time to get what he wanted to make money.
D’Antonio’s book also shows flashes of a humane Trump amid all that greed, such as the time when a 10-year-old boy with terminal cancer wanted to be on his show Apprentice, and be “fired” by Trump (his signature line in the popular show was “You’re fired”). Trump could not get himself to say it and instead gave a cheque for thousands of dollars, and said: “Go and have the time of your life”. But this was not the normal Trump.
The book documents how Trump flirted with presidential ambitions by getting in with Reform Party, founded on the premise that Bill Clinton had won the 1992 and 1996 presidential elections because the Republicans were not Right enough in their politics. By that time, Trump had understood that anti-intellectualism and identifying with people’s prejudices took you far with a class of Americans whose insecurities about the “other”, whether that was foreigner, black, or affiliated to another religion, or economic class, could take him far.
As early as 1989, he had said in an interview that “[I]f I were starting off today, I would love to be a well-educated black because they have an actual advantage.” The statement, writes D’Antonio, resonated with all the insecurities of ill-educated white people struggling to keep their heads above water in an economy in which wealth was concentrated in the hands of a few Americans.
He ditched his campaign to be nominated for the 2000 presidential elections in February that year, prompting Reform Party insiders to conclude he had jumped into the fray only to promote a book he had written around the same time called The America We Deserve. He never addressed any political meetings, and instead spoke at events dubbed as “seminars’, where people paid to attend, and Trump himself earned $100,000 for his appearance.
In this presidential campaign, Trump has played to people’s fears about Islamist terrorists, about foreigners taking away jobs from Americans, and white America’s insecurities about blacks. Antonio’s book is a must read for those who are still in shock about Trump’s rise and want to understand both him and the circumstances that helped him to get this far. It is certainly a book that will become compulsory reading if he actually makes it to the White House.