The Power of Positive Thinking

Never Enough: Donald Trump and the Pursuit of Success BY Michael D'Antonio. Thomas Dunne Books. Hardcover, 400 pages. $26.

The cover of Never Enough: Donald Trump and the Pursuit of Success

The unseemly origins of Donald Trump’s presidential aspirations can be traced back to at least 1985, when the chairman of the New York State Republican Party visited him in his Trump Tower office, hoping to recruit him to run for governor. Trump responded that he’d only consider running for president. It was an idea encouraged by his driver and bodyguard Tom Fitzsimmons, a former cop. As Wayne Barrett writes in his classic and still definitive (as far as it goes) 1992 biography Trump: The Deals and the Downfall, it was Fitzsimmons who introduced Trump to Marla Maples: The notion was that Ivana Trump’s Czechoslovakian origins would alienate Commie-fearing voters, whereas the all-American Maples could help him win the South.

Fitzsimmons had been dating Maples himself since she arrived in New York as an aspiring actress. In exchange for his relinquishing her to Trump and serving as the couple’s beard on helicopter rides and at boxing matches, Trump indulged Fitzsimmons’s Hollywood aspirations, paying $15,000 to commission a screenplay for a film called Blue Gemini that would star him, his twin brother, and Maples, “whose biggest prior credit,” Barrett writes, “was as the victim of a watermelon avalanche in the otherwise forgettable Maximum Overdrive.” Fitzsimmons went on to serve as a driver for Catherine Zeta-Jones and Gwyneth Paltrow. He’s self-published a few thrillers with titles like Confessions of a Suicidal Policewoman and Confessions of a Catholic Cop (the latter features a Trump-
like character called R. J. Gold, something Fitzsimmons regrets, on his Goodreads blog, that Trump hasn’t yet noticed). Maples, the mother of Tiffany Trump, divorced the Donald in 1999. She now records music for yoga practitioners. As of this writing, Trump is leading his nearest rival for the GOP nomination by five points in national polls, with 27 percent.

It’s near impossible to fashion a coherent theory of an amateur politician whose campaign sails on its—his—own incoherence. Trump’s presidential aspirations may have begun in vanity, but they’re now partly fueled by spite. In August, Gabriel Sherman reported in New York magazine that Trump believes Jeb Bush, in league with the Mexican billionaire Carlos Slim, caused Univision to cancel a $13.5 million contract to broadcast the Miss USA pageant, which Trump owns. “If I’m going down, then Bush is going down with me,” he said to an adviser. “He’s not going to be president of the United States.” Trump may save us from another Bush presidency, and do permanent damage to the Republican Party in the process, but not without stoking the racism, sexism, and general nastiness of the crowds that flock to him.

The last election cycle was lacking in enemies sufficient to rate a Trump run. In Time to Get Tough: Make America Great Again!, the non-campaign book Trump published in 2011 and reprinted without much apparent updating this past August, he explains why he didn’t put himself forward for the 2012 Republican nomination. While flirting with a run, he gave a speech in Las Vegas that made national news because he cursed repeatedly. On Saudi Arabian oil, he suggested that Washington needed someone who would say, “You’re not gonna raise that fucking price.” On tariffs for trade with China, someone had to say, “Listen, you motherfuckers, we’re gonna tax you 25 percent.” “I’m not a big curser,” Trump writes, “but it did take place, and I will say the people in the room loved that speech, because we’re not living in a baby world. It’s a rough mean world where everybody’s out to get everybody else and where other countries are out to get the United States, and they are doing a pretty good job of it.” There is also “a very stupid law—called equal time—that prevents someone with a major television show from running for political office.” So he chose instead to sign on for another season of The Celebrity Apprentice, for which he was reportedly being paid $3 million an episode.

The pleasure of reading the anti-baby-world candidate’s books—the only pleasure, and one that expires fairly quickly—is in his ghostwriters’ steadfast refusal to shy away from putting his instantly recognizable, superlative-spewing, contradiction-friendly voice on the page. This has been true since Trump: The Art of the Deal (1987), coauthored by then–New York journalist Tony Schwartz, who went on to do similar service for Michael Eisner and now runs a consultancy called the Energy Project, advising the likes of Google and Coca-Cola on how to maximize their exploitation of employees. Trump’s style of bragging confession goes back almost to the cradle:

Even in elementary school, I was a very assertive, aggressive kid. In the second grade I actually gave a teacher a black eye—I punched my music teacher because I didn’t think he knew anything about music and I almost got expelled. I’m not proud of that, but it’s clear evidence that even early on I had a tendency to stand up and make my opinions known in a very forceful way. The difference now is that I like to use my brain instead of my fists.

But the toughness is also strictly for show: Like most aspects of the coherence-resistant Trump persona, his racist and xenophobic tactics have an air of superficiality and opportunism. After a homeless Hispanic man was assaulted by two Boston men who said to the police, “Donald Trump was right, all these illegals need to be deported,” Trump told the Boston Globe, “I will say that people who are following me are very passionate.” In that passion, they stand in contrast to Trump himself, who, in his most repulsive moments, as a birther and undocumented-immigrant-baiting demagogue, seems little better than a disingenuous troll, occupying a political space vacated (if erratically so) by Sarah Palin.

A more honest Trump would be arguing for fluid borders that would allow him to exploit cheap labor more easily. In July, the Washington Post reported that, among the laborers employed by contractors at his Old Post Office Pavilion site in Washington, DC, several admitted to being undocumented or having entered the country illegally before becoming citizens by marriage or otherwise. Then there’s the fifteen years Trump spent fighting a class-action lawsuit, settled quietly in 1999, that sought back pay and benefits for two hundred non-union Polish laborers, many of them undocumented, who carried out the demolition job that cleared the way for Trump Tower. Reuters reported in August that Trump’s businesses have sought visas to import more than a thousand foreign workers since 2000, eight hundred and fifty of them on little-supervised H-2B visas. As Marco Rubio likes to point out, 40 percent of undocumented immigrants arrive legally and then outstay their visas. Trump’s railing against birthright citizenship and the Fourteenth Amendment has a whiff of the new landlord trying to evict his tenants before he tears the building down.

Donald Trump, 2011.
Donald Trump, 2011. Gage Skidmore/Flickr

Still, the coded racism that fueled Trump’s notoriety as a birther has been serving him well since the episode that first brought him to the public eye. In 1973, Trump, then twenty-seven and working essentially as a rent collector for his father, Fred, on his Brooklyn and Queens properties, put himself forward as the family’s face when the federal government charged them with discriminating against African Americans seeking to rent apartments. The younger Trump had recently connected with Roy Cohn, Senator Joseph McCarthy’s notorious House Un-American Activities Committee henchman turned New York City political fixer. As Michael D’Antonio writes in his new biography, Never Enough: Donald Trump and the Pursuit of Success, “Cohn understood that legal proceedings were rich with opportunities for contact with the press—lawsuits were often newsworthy—and it hardly mattered whether one was making an accusation or defending against one.” With Cohn’s coaching, Trump accused the Feds of trying to force him and his father to rent to “welfare recipients.” The alliance with Cohn, who later advised Trump to sign an innovative prenup with Ivana, solidified the family’s relationship with Mayor Abe Beame, who allowed young Donald to bring investors in at a moment’s notice for meetings in his office at City Hall. Trump’s racism, though, seems easily suspended in the face of celebrity. In 1999, when he briefly sought the presidential nomination of Ross Perot’s Reform Party, he liked to float Oprah Winfrey as a possible running mate. (She would no doubt have been fabulous, but Trump dropped out in February 2000, and the party nominated Pat Buchanan.)

D’Antonio’s book is as damning as Barrett’s (and indeed draws on Barrett’s reporting), even if D’Antonio, who for a time enjoyed his subject’s cooperation, tries to be sympathetic where Barrett is oppositional. D’Antonio spends pages contextualizing Trump’s times and the figures who shaped him, including the Reverend Norman Vincent Peale, author of The Power of Positive Thinking, who officiated at Donald and Ivana’s wedding. “Donald would demonstrate positive thinking throughout his life,” D’Antonio writes, “as it became a true habit of his heart. His projects and creations would always be, in his words, ‘the best’ and ‘the greatest,’ and when reminded of failures or inconsistencies in his claims, he would respond with phrases like ‘Yeah, whatever’ and race on to describe another of his achievements.” In other words, it was from Peale that Trump learned both to bullshit and to believe his own bullshit. But Tony Schwartz, who became a “confidant” while working on The Art of the Deal, told Barrett that Trump does have his darker moments: “He’s very fatalistic. He will say . . . as fast as you skyrocketed up is how fast you can plummet. . . . One of the people he looks at as a perfect example is Jimmy Carter. Here’s a guy who was President and the day Ronald Reagan took over consigned him to a level of anonymity you might associate with a traveling salesman.”

In one of his philosophical moods, Trump told D’Antonio, “When I look at myself in the first grade and I look at myself now, I’m basically the same. The temperament is not that different.” On this score, he is absolutely right. Any immersion in Trump lit yields the impression of a static character: a bloated six-year-old bully, vain and in his way charming but friendless and ultimately uninterested in friendship, surrounded by sycophants conniving to climb on his shoulders; an embittered builder given to writing nasty letters to architecture critics, like Paul Goldberger, who don’t like his towers (“You can tell he has bad taste,” Trump told an interviewer. “Look at the way he dresses”); a pleasureless teetotaler interested in women mostly as trophies, permanently in the throes of a family psychodrama somehow projected on a citywide, then national, and finally international stage; somebody who watches too much television, often alone, and is happiest (if you can call it that) when it’s himself he’s seeing on the screen. His life story is the march of this unchanging character through a series of tediously documented deals—for the Commodore Hotel, the West Side rail yards, the Wollman skating rink in Central Park, the Plaza Hotel, the United States Football League, the casinos of Atlantic City, the career of Mike Tyson, the Mar-A-Lago estate in Palm Beach, the golf courses of Scotland—toward his present campaign, which, wherever it ends, has already succeeded in elevating a mood of ambient hostility and violence in America.

I’d never watched an episode of The Apprentice until Trump announced his run for president. I waded in midway through season thirteen, technically The All-Star Celebrity Apprentice. The fourteen players of varying levels of has-been-ness included Dennis Rodman, Gary Busey, Marilu Henner, and La Toya Jackson. They split into two teams and competed in fake corporate chores, then spent half an hour in a mock boardroom, boasting and groveling in front of Trump and two of his advisers (usually his children). Like all reality-show contestants, these onetime stars are tasked with undermining each other in pathetic bids to keep themselves on television for another week or, nominally, win money for their selected charities. I was surprised to find the unhinged Trump of the campaign trail absent; in his place was a reasonable, patient, often generous man making what were made to seem like hard decisions weekly about which celebrity to can. The Trump tendencies to brag and hurl petty insults had been transferred to the retired athletes and aging performers sucking up to him. The Trump self-advertisements (every spared contestant is told to “go back to your beautiful suite in Trump Tower”) pervaded the show as much as the unceasing tension-building sound track—but the Donald Trump the show presented seemed, if not presidential, at least in control. (By at least one contestant’s account, this is the result of judicious editing of his boardroom rants.)

Trump must have sensed in the spring that the candidates lining up for the GOP nomination could be played like a row of washed-up celebrities, because his campaign has proceeded on exactly that model. By October, his rallies and interviews were less about the illegal immigrants he’d be stopping with his beautiful wall than about narrating his own success in the polls and the backbiting of his dwindling rivals. With three nonprofessionals leading the race (Trump, Carson, and Fiorina combined were commanding more than 50 percent of Republican support nationally at the time of writing), GOP voters seem to have mirrored their elected officials’ contempt for government with their own contempt for elected officials. And perhaps, in this, Trump is a harbinger of the future of right-wing politics. Funding the campaign out of his own pocket (and by selling baseball caps), he eliminates the awkward dance between the sock-puppet candidate and the billionaire donor, unfettered after Citizens United. No need to go door-to-door or organize at the grassroots level, when you’re running on a preestablished celebrity brand. And he doesn’t have to adhere to the pieties of the party or its libertarian fringe. He can be as ideologically promiscuous as he likes, praising single-payer health care in Scotland one moment and blasting George W. Bush for not keeping America safe on 9/11 the next. The press and the networks can’t look away, because as Trump never stops saying, he’s good for ratings. When the editors of the Huffington Post tried to cover Trump’s campaign not as news but as entertainment, they hadn’t realized that he’d already eliminated the distinction in the nation’s mind. And, indeed, it’s all good for ratings, until somebody gets elected.

Christian Lorentzen is an editor at large of the London Review of Books and book critic for New York magazine.