He's so dominated American politics of late that many observers, including this author, have taken to referring to this past summer as the "Summer of Trump." Yet as much as it may feel like Donald Trump is the defining figure of this particular moment in American politics, the truth is that "the Donald" has always been with us. (Or rather those of us born since World War II.)
Which is not to say, however, that Trump's public persona has not changed in the past 30-odd years. It has. From profligate hyper-capitalist in the Reaganite '80s, to top reality TV star in the George W. Bush years, to presidential candidate today, Trump has maintained his relevance in no small part because he's been willing to adapt to the times. And because he carries an understanding of how mass media works that is second to none.
At least that's how the Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and author Michael D'Antonio depicts Trump in "Never Enough: Donald Trump and the Pursuit of Success," his new biography of the celebrity billionaire. Recently, Salon spoke about Trump over the phone with D'Antonio, who explained why he believes Trump is more than a mere political oddity or tabloid favorite. Our conversation also touched on Trump's childhood, his titanic self-regard and his underrated skills at the dark art of politics and media. An edited transcript of our talk can be found below.
So where did the idea for this book come from? Trump is, obviously, more famous than ever right now. But what about him and his life story interested you enough to write a book?
About three years ago, long before he announced that he would run for president, a publisher came to me and said [Trump] was worth a look because no one has been so prominent for so long and for so many reasons. This is a guy who took the public stage in about 1975. From that generation, he is the only one left. That staying power is remarkable to us.
The more you dig into his story, and discover how he was regarded in the ‘80s, often making it onto the list of the 10 most-admired people in the country; and how he recovered in the ‘90s from financial disaster, and then refashioned himself in the earlier 2000s as an entertainer and celebrity; the more astounding his life seemed to me. It was all those factors, and really not his political activities, that interested me at the start.
Tell me more about how he's shifted with the times?
I really came to see that he represented something both generational and [part of] the evolution of "American-ness," for lack of a better word. He was born in the first year of the "baby boom," came to adapt to every change in the culture — especially changes in the mass media — and either anticipated or accommodated to the changes better than anyone else.
He was an avid movie buff and thought about going into film and theater before he went into his father’s business. He then exploited the rise of the tabloid style of journalism when the "pornography of wealth" became important. He was the second person to appear on Robin Leach’s program “Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous." And now, with social media, he is engaged, he is ahead of the curve — and somehow makes the most of it.
Let's start at the beginning. He doesn't discuss his childhood or his relationship with his parents all that much. What was his early life like?
It’s a really great question. He says he is the same person that he was at age 6. Few of us would say that. I think what he means is, he has the same temperament.
We’re all a combination of nature and nurture. Trump is very sensitive to the nature part. He and his son Donny both talked to me about the genetic transmission of traits; his son talked about it as the "racehorse theory of talent." Donald himself even said to me that he had a genetic gift for land. In terms of nurture, his father emerges as a very distant person (although Donald would say he was loving).
He worked all the time; when he came home, he was on the phone working some more. He worked on weekends. If the kids wanted to be with him, they would have to tag along as he made the rounds of his buildings.
I think that he was a very severe disciplinarian — not that he hit the kids, but he had very high expectations and expected them to meet them. Trump's mother was quite sickly and, notably, an immigrant from a very poor family. Donald described her to me as a person who had a dramatic flair and liked the spotlight. He got some of his theatricality from her.
What kind of kid was he? Was he brash and combative in his youth, too?
He was a pretty unruly kid. He told me that he loved to fight and when I pressed him on it, he said [he meant] all types of fighting — including physical fights. He was so unmanageable that his dad sent him away to military school for the eighth grade, where he stayed until he graduated high school.
A mother who was sick, a father that worked so hard and was gone so much of the time, and then to experience this shuttling away to boarding school — I think there were a lot of losses for him. There was absence, where his parents were concerned. As much as they loved him, I think he missed out on some stuff. I don’t see how he couldn’t have. And that’s hard.
His first wife, Ivana, talked to me about how much Donald wants attention. It’s clear that he is attention-seeking; and you sort of get the feeling of a needy kid when you’re with him. Marla, his second wife, described that to me, too. She felt like he acted out like a kid who really needed attention.
As you said just a moment ago, Trump has been famous for decades. You attribute that, in part, to his skillful manipulation of mass media. Tell me more about that, because we can forget sometimes that holding media's attention can be real work.
He is doing work. I’ve been thinking a lot about this. One of his mentors — and, really, the person who mentored him the most, other than his father — was Roy Cohn. Roy is a mysterious and somewhat menacing figure from politics ... and he kind of practiced the "dark art" of politics, first with Joe McCarthy, as his lead attorney and enabler.
What did Trump learn from Cohn regarding how to use the press?
Cohn witnessed McCarthy’s manipulation of the press. McCarthy was a consummate manipulator of tabloid columnists. Roy then did that. Roy always had information, and he traded in information. He was reliable in his own way. I think Donald saw this.
Before he had built a single thing, [Trump] managed to be profiled in the New York Times (by a society columnist who compared him to Robert Redford). The article talked about him as an up and coming power player in New York real estate when hadn’t really done anything. But it established him, in the paper of record, as someone to be reckoned with.
Does he care how he's portrayed? Or is he more of the belief that there's no such thing as bad press?
I think that he believes that there’s something good in all attention and that long after people forget what was said, they’ll remember something was said about him. So he sees the value of it, simply for itself — just having "Donald J.Trump" printed.
But I also think that he believes in staying on the right side of reporters. Like everyone who bemoans Congress but votes for their member of Congress, he’ll castigate the mainstream media but happily pick up the phone for any reporter who calls. So a specific reporter is not one of the bad actors but, in general, the mainstream media is bad. There’s a strategic approach that he takes almost at all times. I do think it’s become second nature.
What do you make of his becoming a politician after being a reality TV star first?
I think it’s somewhat inevitable that Donald Trump — or someone very much like him — would run for president. I do see a little bit of [former Italian prime minister and media mogul] Silvio Berlusconi in Trump. Both of them are larger than life in their affect and more than what you might think is natural and real in their appearance.
If you had to guess, how much of the Trump campaign is simply about his wanting attention, rather than it being a consequence of strongly held political beliefs?
I think it’s very difficult to separate the personal from anything policy-oriented with Donald. When he offers an argument or point to back up an opinion, it’s almost always personal. If he talks about vaccines, for example, he uses a story about a person that he is in contact with and then uses that personal experience and broadens it to make a general point. Everything is personal with him.
He must be intrigued — even enthralled — by the idea that he might take possession of the Oval Office from Barack Obama, who tormented him at the White House Correspondents’ Dinner. And there is something personal in that. I think that his critique of Obama and the president’s policies is very deeply held; it’s very personal. He speaks of him in really scathing terms.
He’s super patriotic and is concerned about America. But I also think that, interwoven in all of this, is a personal sense of grievance toward Obama and others in the ruling class; and a strong belief that, no matter what it is, he can do it better. Simply because of who he is.