[Publisher's Note] | Trump's Handicap, by John R. MacArthur | Harper's Magazine

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If Trump is so dishonorable that he cheats at golf, it’s safe to assume he’ll do the same in politics.

A version of this column originally ran in Le Devoir on March 6, 2017. Translated from the French by John Cullen.

Does Donald Trump cheat at golf? This may seem like a trivial question; there are worse things to fear from a patently unstable man who has the nuclear codes. Nevertheless, I think the answer is essential for understanding the new president’s mentality and for evaluating his ability to keep his campaign promises, or at least to respect his own slogans.

The Donald is first and foremost a player: a player not only in the real-estate and financial markets but also on the greens of the golf clubs situated in the posh suburbs of New York, New Jersey, and Florida. He’s proud of his prowess in both of these domains, where he claims to be, without exception, a winner. As a salesman/entrepreneur, the great man has a real interest in declaring himself the victor at all costs, at all times. In September 2015, at the beginning of the presidential campaign, the Washington Post’s investigation into the subject of Trump’s alleged cheating used an ironic tone. Back then, nobody believed in the possibility of a Trump presidency, so commentators could indulge in displays of wit that didn’t have to be taken too seriously. In one of these displays, Post reporter Ben Terris presented numerous instances in which eyewitnesses, from the rockstar Alice Cooper to the sports journalist Rick Reilly, accused Trump of cheating at golf. As is his habit, Trump responded with insults: he denounced Reilly as “a terrible writer…a very dishonest writer” whom he had “absolutely killed” when they played each other. In the same vein, he implied that one of Terris’s quoted sources, Mark Mulvoy, the former managing editor of Sports Illustrated, was a liar by saying, “I don’t even know who he is.” According to Mulvoy, Trump had offered an excuse for his behavior during their game: “Ahh, the guys I play with cheat all the time. I have to cheat just to keep up with them.”     

The incidents recounted in the Post occurred in a friendly, easygoing atmosphere. According to my own source, however, Trump sometimes bets money on his golf games, and this is where his sporting predilections take on greater pertinence for the American electorate. My informer is a New York businessman, formerly in the clothing industry and now in the financial sector. When we met on a flight to Miami, this gentleman expressed great interest in my work as a journalist, whereupon the conversation turned to Trump, who was then a week away from his inauguration. “He’s a very bad guy,” my new acquaintance declared. At first, I thought he was referring to some kind of financial corruption, or to some particularly nasty behavior. But no. “He cheats at golf,” the businessman said solemnly, naming what was apparently, in his milieu, an unpardonable sin. He belonged to a prestigious golf club in Purchase, a wealthy hamlet in Westchester County, just north of New York City, and he had invited Trump to play on the course there. Trump “shanked a ball in the rough and went off in his golf cart,” out of his host’s view. Moving toward the hole after his own shot, my companion found Trump standing over his ball, which had miraculously found its way back to the short grass.

And so Trump hit his approach shot as if nothing had happened, and—more importantly—without adding a single stroke to his scorecard. Too polite to confront his famous guest, my travel companion remained silent, but at a price: the two men had bet $500 on their game. When it was over, Trump’s host paid up without saying a word. Later, however, he described Trump’s fraudulent behavior to a friend. “You’re lucky,” the friend declared. “He did the same thing to me, but it cost me $10,000.” But because this golfing enthusiast couldn’t prove that Trump had cheated, there was nothing he could do.

Obviously, the ordinary people who in their desperation cast their votes for Trump will never find themselves golfing with the president on one of his courses. But if Trump is so dishonorable that he cheats at golf, it’s safe to assume he’ll do the same in politics. This billionaire exploiter of illegal workers, who has suddenly been transformed into a champion of Americans victimized by the North American Free Trade Agreement and by the “normalization” of trade with China, isn’t at all convincing when he promises a new order. Already we have the Chicago police complaining about the lack of federal assistance in their struggle against their city’s high murder rate, which Trump harped on incessantly during his campaign. Already we have a return to the Obama-Clinton foreign policy, which candidate Trump promised to break with. The stupid and useless American military intervention in the Middle East continues, and it has provided the new government with its first martyr, Navy SEAL chief petty officer William “Ryan” Owens.

And the NAFTA renegotiation? Having attacked Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto on the subject of the border wall between the United States and Mexico, Trump has—for the moment—postponed the fulfillment of this campaign promise, heretofore designated as absolutely essential.

Well then. According to the Post article, despite his cheating, Trump makes a companionable golfing partner. In the end, though, it’s people like the caddies and the grounds crew who will get stuck with the bill.

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