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The rise of Trump

Discussed in this essay:

Trump: The Art of the Deal, by Donald Trump with Tony Schwartz. Ballantine Books. 384 pages. $16.99.

Crippled America: How to Make America Great Again, by Donald Trump. Threshold Editions. 208 pages. $25.

Not many facets of the Trump apparition have so far gone unexamined, but I can think of a significant loose end. I mean his sanity: what is the prognosis for his mental health, given the challenges that lie ahead? We should bear in mind, at this point, that the phrase “Power corrupts” isn’t just a metaphor.

There have been one or two speculative attempts to get Donald to hold still on the couch. Both Ted Cruz and Bernie Sanders have called him a “pathological liar,” but so have many less partial observers. They then go on to ask: Is his lying merely compulsive, or is he an outright mythomaniac, constitutionally unable to distinguish non-truth from truth — rather like those “horrible human beings,” journalists (or at least spiteful, low-echelon journalists), who, Trump claims, “have no concept of the difference between ‘fact’ and ‘opinion’ ”? PolitiFact has ascertained that Donald’s mendacity rate is just over 90 percent; so the man who is forever saying that he “tells it like it is” turns out to be nearly always telling it like it isn’t.

Donald Trump, 2001 © Polly Borland/Exclusive by Getty Images

Donald Trump, 2001 © Polly Borland/Exclusive by Getty Images

With greater resonance, and with more technical garnish (lists of symptoms and giveaways), Trump has been identified as a “pathological narcissist,” a victim, in fact, of narcissistic personality disorder (or N.P.D.). Certainly Trump’s self-approbation goes well beyond everyday egocentricity or solipsism. “My fingers,” he recently explained, “are long and beautiful, as, it has been well documented, are various other parts of my anatomy.” He really does remind you of the original Narcissus, the frigid pretty boy of Greek myth who was mortally smitten by his own reflection. Narcissus is autoerotic; he is self-aroused.

Cynics will already be saying that these two “diseases” — chronic dishonesty and acute vaingloriousness — are simply par for the course. In recent years the G.O.P. has more or less adopted the quasi slogan “There is no downside to lying” (itself a clear and indeed “performative” tall tale: how can you debauch truth, and debauch language, without cost?). And such voices would also argue that a laughably bloated sense of self is a prerequisite, a sine qua non, for anyone aspiring to public office. Well, we’ll see. President Trump won’t get away with too much pathological lying in the Oval Office and the Situation Room. But we may be sure that his pathological narcissism, his poor old N.P.D., will become unrecognizably florid and fulminant once alloyed with what Maxim Gorky — referring to its effects on his friend Lenin — called “the filthy venom” of prepotence. Even Lenin confessed that it “makes one’s head spin.”

Our psychological exam cries out for hard evidence. Now, the written word is always hard evidence; and I have before me “two books by Donald Trump.” That phrase is offered advisedly, particularly the preposition “by.” But we can be confident that Trump had something to do with their compilation: it very quickly emerges that he is one of nature’s “reluctant” micromanagers, having discovered (oh, long, long ago) that every single decision will hugely benefit from his omnicompetence. “By” is tentative, and even the epithet “books” is open to question, because Trump always calls his books his “bestsellers.” Anyway, almost three decades separate The Art of the Deal (1987) and Crippled America (2015). I suppose a careful study of the intervening bestsellers — among them Surviving at the Top (1990), How to Get Rich (2004), Think Like a Billionaire (2004), The Best Golf Advice I Ever Received (2005), and Think Big and Kick Ass in Business and Life (2007) — might have softened the blow. As it is, I can report that in the past thirty years Trump, both cognitively and humanly, has undergone an atrocious decline.

Insofar as it is a memoir, The Art of the Deal resembles a rags-to-riches story from which the rags have been tastefully excised. Donald’s dad, Fred C. Trump, did the rags bit, becoming the man of the house at the age of eleven (Donald’s grandfather was “a hard liver and a hard drinker”); so it was Fred, toiling away in the outer boroughs, who shined shoes, delivered fruit, and hauled lumber. Even at sixteen, though, Trump Sr. was starting to get ahead, “building prefabricated garages for fifty dollars apiece.”

By the time Donald appeared, Fred was a grand master of what we would now call affordable housing; and little Donald was his father’s sidekick as together they toured the sites, checking up on builders, suppliers, and contractors, and intimidating penniless tenants when they fell behind on the rent. But “I had loftier dreams and visions,” Trump writes. Not for him the little redbrick boxes, nor yet the “three-story Colonials, Tudors, and Victorians” that Fred went on to erect. In the early 1970s, fortified by that “small loan” from his father ($1 million), Donald strode across the Brooklyn Bridge and started to traffic in unaffordable housing: skyscrapers.

If you have ever wondered what it’s like, being a young and avaricious teetotal German-American philistine on the make in Manhattan, then your curiosity will be quenched by The Art of the Deal. One of the drawbacks of phenomenal success, Trump ruefully notes, “is that jealousy and envy inevitably follow” (“I categorize [such people] as life’s losers”); but the present reader, at least, felt a gorgeous serenity when contemplating Trump’s average day. Nonnavigable permits, floor-area ratios, zoning approvals, rezoning approvals (“involving a dozen city and state agencies, as well as local community groups”), land-rights and air-rights purchases, property-tax abatements, handouts to politicians (“very standard and accepted”), and, if push came to shove (“I’m not looking to be a bad guy when it isn’t absolutely necessary”), coerced evictions.

On the other hand, think of all the exceptional human beings he is working with. Alan “Ace” Greenberg, CEO of Bear Stearns; Ivan Boesky, crooked arbitrageur; Arthur Sonnenblick, “one of the city’s leading brokers”; Stephen Wynn, Vegas hotelier; Adnan Khashoggi, “Saudi billionaire” (and arms dealer); and Paul Patay, “the number-one food-and-beverage man in Atlantic City.” And on top of all this there’s Barron Hilton, “born wealthy and bred to be an aristocrat,” and “a member of what I call the Lucky Sperm Club.” (An ugly formulation, that: I respectfully advise Mr. Trump to settle on a more demotic alternative — the Lucky Scum Club, say.)

Then you have the social life. A sustaining can of tomato juice for lunch (“I rarely go out, because mostly, it’s a waste of time”); a minimum of parties (“Frankly, I’m not too big on parties, because I can’t stand small talk”); and an absolute minimum of hanging about in cocktail bars (“I don’t drink, and I’m not very big on sitting around”). But of course there are treats and sprees. Take the dinners. A dinner at St. Patrick’s Cathedral with John Cardinal O’Connor and his “top bishops and priests.” A dinner, chaired by Trump, for the Police Athletic League. A visit to Trenton “to attend a retirement dinner for a member of the New Jersey Casino Control Commission.”

It is thus exhaustively established that Trump has a superhuman tolerance for boredom. What are his other commercial strengths? Nerve; tenacity; patience; an unembarrassable pushiness (indulgently known as chutzpah); a shrewd aversion to staking his own money; the aforementioned readiness, at a pinch, to play the villain; the ability to be “a screamer when I want to be” (but not when he senses that “screaming would only scare them off”); and the determination to “fight when I feel I’m being screwed.” Above all, perhaps, his antennae are very sensitive to weakness. Looking to buy an old hotel in Midtown, Trump rejects the Biltmore, the Barclay, and the Roosevelt as being “at least moderately successful,” and goes instead for the “only one in real trouble,” the Commodore, which he can pitch as “a loser hotel in a decaying neighborhood” and so flatten the price. Similarly, his long and apparently hopeless campaign to get Bonwit Teller, store and building, suddenly takes fire when he learns that its parent company has started “to experience very serious financial problems.” And he gets Bonwit Teller. Perhaps that’s the defining asset: a crocodilian nose for inert and preferably moribund prey.

Trump can sense when an entity is no longer strong enough or lithe enough to evade predation. He did it with that white elephant, the Grand Old Party, whose salaried employers never saw him coming, even when he was there, and whose ruins he now bestrides. The question is, Can he do it with American democracy?

And so we turn to Crippled America: How to Make America Great Again, a bestseller so recent that it includes a dig at Megyn Kelly. But first a word about the cover.

“Some readers,” writes Trump sternly in his opening sentence, “may be wondering why the picture we used on the cover of this book is so angry and so mean looking.” Only the other day, he “had some beautiful pictures taken” — pictures like the one that bedizens The Art of the Deal — in which he “looked like a very nice person”; and Trump’s family implored him to pick one of those. But no. He wanted to look like a very sour person to reflect the “anger and unhappiness that I feel.” And there he is in HD color, hammily scowling out from under an omelet of makeup and tanning cream (and from under the little woodland creature that sleeps on his head).

Harper’s readers will now have to adjust themselves to a peculiar experiment with the declarative English sentence. Trump’s written sentences are not like his spoken sentences, nearly all of which have eight or nine things wrong with them. His written, or dictated, sentences, while grammatically stolid enough, attempt something cannier: very often indeed, they lack the ingredient known as content. In this company, “I am what I am” and “What I say is what I say” seem relatively rich. At first, you marvel at the people who think it worth saying — that what they say is what they say. But at least an attitude is being communicated, a subtext that reads, Take me for all in all. Incidentally, this attitude is exclusively male. You have heard Chris Christie say it; but can you hear a woman say, in confident self-extenuation, that she is what she is?

Fascinating. And maybe there’s some legible sedimentary interest in “Donald Trump is for real.” Or maybe not. As well as being “for real,” Trump has “no problem telling it like it is.” To put it slightly differently, “I don’t think many people would disagree that I tell it like it is.” He has already claimed that he looks like a very nice guy, on page ix, but on page xiv he elaborates with “I’m a really nice guy,” and on page 89 he doubles down with “I’m a nice guy. I really am.” “I’m not afraid to say exactly what I believe.” “The fact is I give people what they need and deserve to hear . . . and that is The Truth.” See if you can find anything other than baseless assertion in this extract from the chapter “Our Infrastructure Is Crumbling”:

In Washington, D.C., I’m converting the Old Post Office Building on Pennsylvania Avenue into one of the world’s greatest hotels. I got the building from the General Services Administration (GSA). Many people wanted to buy it, but the GSA wanted to make sure whoever they sold it to had the ability to turn it into something special, so they sold it to me. I got it for four reasons. Number one — we’re really good. Number two — we had a really great plan. Number three — we had a great financial statement. Number four — we’re EXCELLENT, not just very good, at fulfilling or even exceeding our agreements. The GSA, who are true professionals, saw that from the beginning.

That’s the way the country should be run.

Before we turn to the naked manifestations of advanced paranoia, we had better tick off the ascertainable planks in Trump’s national platform; they are not policies, quite, more a jumble of positions and intentions. On climate change: he would instantly desist from any preventive action, which is “just an expensive way of making tree-huggers feel good.” On immigration: he tries to soften the edges, but the nativist battle cry is intact and entire (“Construction of the wall needs to start as soon as possible. And Mexico has to pay for it”). On health care: he would stoke up interstate competition among insurers, and let the market sort it all out. On governmental style: he would restore “a sense of dignity to the White House,” bringing back the old “pomp and circumstance.” On religion: “In business, I don’t actively make decisions based on my religious beliefs,” he writes, almost comatose with insincerity, “but those beliefs are there — big-time.” On gun control: here, Trump quotes that famously controversial line about the necessity of “well regulated militias,” and then appends the one-word paragraph, “Period.”

But by now the one-word paragraph has taken up long-term residence in Trump’s prose:

People say I don’t provide specific policies. . . . I know that’s not the way the professional politicians do it. . . . But there’s nobody like me.



I have proven everybody wrong.


If we agree that referring to yourself in the third person is not usually a sign of psychological well-being, how do we assess the following?

Donald Trump builds buildings.

Donald Trump develops magnificent golf courses.

Donald Trump makes investments that create jobs.

And Donald Trump creates jobs for legal immigrants and all Americans.

Well, Martin Amis thinks, for a start, that the author of Crippled America is a lot crazier than the author of The Art of the Deal.

Martin Amis is aware that Crippled America was published on November 3, 2015, at which point only a couple of blatant no-hopers had quit that crowded field.

Martin Amis is sure that Crippled America, if updated by Trump the nominee, would be dramatically crazier.

And Martin Amis concludes that after a couple of days of pomp and circumstance in the White House, Trump’s brain would be nothing more than a bog of testosterone.

Emotionally primitive and intellectually barbaric, the Trump manifesto would be a reasonably good sick joke — if it weren’t for one deeply disturbing observation, which occurs on page 163. Every now and again Americans feel the need to exalt and heroize an ignoramus. After Joe the Plumber, here is Don the Realtor — a “very successful” realtor, who, it is superstitiously hoped, can apply the shark-and-vulture practices of big business to the sphere of world statesmanship. I will italicize Trump’s key sentence: after he announced his candidacy, “A lot of people tried very hard to paint a bleak picture of what would happen.” New paragraph: “Then the American people spoke.” We remember the bitter witticism about democracy: “The people have spoken. The bastards.”

Who are they? Paradoxically, the constituency of America’s foremost Winner is to be found among America’s losers. White, heterosexual, and male, they have discovered that the prestige of being white, heterosexual, and male has been inexplicably sapped. At the same time they imagine that their redemption lies with Trump, Inc., which has the obvious credentials (“We manage ice-skating rinks, we produce TV shows, we make leather goods, we create fragrances, and we own beautiful restaurants”) to turn it around for the non-rich and the non-educated (as well as for the non-colored, the non-gay, and the non-female).

Telling it like it is? Yes, but telling what like what is? What he is actually telling us is that the residual Republican hankers for a political contender who knows nothing at all about politics. In 2012, Joe the Plumber, Joe Wurzelbacher, failed to win his race for the Ninth Congressional District in Ohio. In 2016, as I write, Donald Trump has odds of nine to four (and shortening) for the U.S. presidency.

In valediction, two characterological footnotes.

First, Trump and violence. As we know, he has championed mass deportations, torture, and murderous collective punishment; and then there are the bullying incitements at his Nuremberg-like rallies. . . . When did Trump become a fan of the kinetic? There is nothing substantial on this question, or on any other, in Crippled America. In The Art of the Deal he describes one of his rare interventions in the fine arts: he gave his music teacher a black eye (“because,” Trump bafflingly clarifies, “I didn’t think he knew anything about music”). But otherwise he comes across as someone naturally averse to the wet stuff of brutality; the chapter-long reminiscence entitled “Growing Up” quite convincingly suggests that it was the father’s rough way of doing things (rent collecting in assault conditions) that made the son decide to quit the outer boroughs. I think the taste for violence has come with the taste of real power. It is something new in him — a recent corruption.

Second, the connected topic — Trump and women. This isn’t new. This is something old that has recrudesced, an atavism that has “become raw again.” This is a wound with the scab off. And now he just can’t hold it in, can he, he just can’t stop himself — out they come, these smoke signals of aggression. And he is being empirically stupid. The question you want to ask Trump is clearly not “If you’re so smart, how come you ain’t rich?”; it is “If you’re so rich, how come you ain’t smart?” Has something very grave happened to Trump’s I.Q.? He’s been worrying about it, too, it seems. Responding on the air to David Cameron’s opinion of his ban on Muslims (“stupid, divisive, and wrong”), Trump touchily (and ploddingly) shot back: “Number one, I’m not stupid, okay? I can tell you that right now. Just the opposite.” Don’t you blush for the lavishness of his insecurity? But Trump is insecurity incarnate — his cornily neon-lit vulgarity (reminding you of the pinups on Lolita’s bedroom wall: “Goons in luxurious cars, maroon morons near blued pools”); his desperate garnering of praise (Crippled America quotes encomia from Travel and Leisure, Condé Nast Traveler, BusinessWeek, and Golf Digest, among many other outlets); his penile pride.

To Democrats at least, “Crossing the Line: How Donald Trump Behaved with Women in Private,” the detailed analysis in the New York Times (fifty interviews with “dozens of women”), was a sore disappointment. All we got from it was Miss Utah’s “Wow, that’s inappropriate” (Donald’s introductory kiss on the lips). Trump was born in 1946. Almost every reasonably energetic baby boomer I know, women included, would be utterly destroyed by an equivalent investigation; we behaved far more deplorably than Trump, and managed it without the wealth, the planes and penthouses, the ownership of modeling agencies and beauty pageants. The Times piece, in effect, “flipped” the narrative: the story, now, is one of exceptional diffidence — and fastidiousness (obsessive self-cleansing is a trait he twice owns up to in The Art of the Deal). A gawker, a groper, and a gloater; but not a lecher. In Trump’s Eros one detects a strong element of vicariousness. Once again he resembles that Greek antihero: “What you hope / To lay hold of has no existence. / Look away and what you love is nowhere” (Ted Hughes, Tales from Ovid).

Trump’s sexual bashfulness is an interesting surprise. But where, then, does it come from — the rancor, the contempt, the disgust? It is as if he has never been told (a) that women go to the bathroom (“Disgusting,” he said of a Clinton toilet break), and (b) that women lactate (“Disgusting,” he said of a lawyer who had to go and pump milk for her newborn). Has no one told him (c) that women vote? And I hope he finds that disgusting too, in November. This race will be the mother of a battle of the sexes, Donald against Hillary — and against her innumerable sisters at the ballot box.

Visitors to the United States in an election year are touched by how seriously Americans take their national responsibility, how they vacillate and agonize. They very seldom acknowledge that their responsibility is also global. At an early stage in Trump’s rise, his altogether exemplary campaign staff decided that any attempt to “normalize” their candidate would be futile: better, they shruggingly felt (as they deployed the tautologous house style), to “let Trump be Trump.” As a lover of America (and as an admirer of the planet), I offer this advice: Don’t shrug. Don’t stand by and let President Trump be President Trump.

has published fourteen novels, most recently The Zone of Interest and Lionel Asbo: State of England.

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August 2002

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