Biographer warns Trump will turn criminal trial into a circus: "He is imagining himself as Superman"

"If there is anyone who can perform at a circus it is Donald Trump," Michael D'Antonio told Salon

By Chauncey DeVega

Senior Writer

Published August 25, 2023 5:45AM (EDT)

Donald Trump | Fulton County Jail (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)
Donald Trump | Fulton County Jail (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)

In many ways, Donald Trump is remarkably easy to understand. As shown by his decades of public and private behavior, he is driven by what appears to be pure rage, lacking any real emotional control or self-regulation beyond what is necessary to momentarily appear "normal" as a means of fulfilling his short-term goals and needs. Such a pattern of behavior fits with how mental health and other professionals have consistently described Trump as being a sociopath if not a psychopath, possessing "dark charisma" in his role as a political cult leader and someone who is deeply attracted to violence and corrupt power.

Trump's pathologies – especially his paranoia and projection – were on full display during his "interview" with Tucker Carlson Wednesday night. Trump's ability to intimidate and menace those who would potentially dare to oppose him was also manifest during the first Republican 2024 primary debate, which aired at the same time.

As I observed on Twitter, these Republican candidates are a "Bunch of people trying to out MAGA King MAGA Donald Trump. Why vote for the cheap imitators? Trump is going to destroy these people." In fact, Trump is already destroying Ron DeSantis and his other potential rivals for the nomination, who are for all intents and purposes just auditioning for cabinet positions in his second regime.

Donald Trump is not a riddle or a puzzle. He is who and what he says and presents himself to be. However, given Trump's diseased mind and demonstrated lack of critical self-reflection, he may not even understand his own inner drives and motives. To make sense of such a dangerous mind requires skilled outside observer(s), who Trump trusts enough to speak (relatively) honestly and candidly within his limited ability to do so.

Michael D'Antonio is one such person. He is the author of the biography, "Never Enough: Donald Trump and the Pursuit of Success". His other books include "High Crimes: The Corruption, Impunity, and Impeachment of Donald Trump" and The Shadow President: The Truth About Mike Pence".

We need your help to stay independent

In this wide-ranging conversation, D'Antonio explains that Trump is increasingly dangerous and not broken or cowed because of his criminal trials and upcoming election. D'Antonio also warns that televising Trump's criminal trials will serve as an opportunity for the ex-president to perform and grandstand as he exerts even more power and control over his MAGA followers.

The interview has been lightly edited for clarity:

Donald Trump is much more than a man; he is a character and a symbol. That is how fascism and other such political imaginaries function. Signaling to that, several years ago you told me something that I refer to often as it was so profound and insightful. You said that Trump told you that he is a character in his own story and that he is writing it and is also the main character. Given Trump's multiple criminal indictments — 91 counts so far — and the real possibility of going to prison, how is Trump feeling right now? He is not 100 percent in control of his own narrative anymore.

I believe that Trump is scared. And I also believe that he is imagining himself as Superman suffering under the effects of kryptonite. This is one of the dramatic moments of the story where Superman is on the ground, and his cape is pulled around his shoulders. The reader of the comic book is thinking, "Oh, no, I hope Superman can get up!" Trump imagines himself as Superman in that moment, trying to figure out how to get up, stand tall and defeat this army of enemies. Trump actually told me that his life is a comic book.  He thinks of himself as the star of that comic book story. Donald Trump is also someone who dreamed of being a dramatist. Trump wanted to produce, write, and direct films. Trump has a natural storytelling ability — but his stories are more like comic books and cartoons than film.

What is Donald Trump's personal kryptonite?

Trump's kryptonite is the withdrawal of attention, such a vacuum would destroy him. Psychologically, it would be a nightmare for him. In the course of these upcoming criminal trials, Trump's big mouth and talking too much is endangering him. But he's already established the record that the prosecutors want. Trump has already implicated himself in these conspiracies. I don't know if he needs to say anything more to get in trouble. The judges who are hearing these cases are likely not going to put him in jail for violating their instructions. But Trump's talking too much is going to get him in trouble during the actual trials.

You wrote a biography about Trump. You literally sat across from Trump and got to know him on a human level. How are you feeling watching these truly historic events unfold?

I long ago became afraid for our country and afraid of him. In fact, I was afraid of Trump when I was dealing with him. He has a menacing way about him. Trump easily flips between charm and menace. I believe that those are the only two speeds that are in his gearbox so to speak. Trump wants to charm you; if he can't charm you, he will bully you. Cognitively, it is really hard for me to accept that he is going to be held accountable for his behavior. Prosecuting Trump does not constitute accountability. Convicting Trump is what accountability requires. I have my doubts. These prosecutors have a more difficult task than many people understand. Looking at Georgia for example, Fanni Willis has done a tremendous job, and the narrative of Trump's alleged criminality that she has documented is very important. But with that number of defendants, 19 including Trump, the trial has the potential to be a circus and if there is anyone who can perform at a circus it is Donald Trump. Trump will get on the trapeze, and nobody will be able to get him off.

As I have written about extensively, Donald Trump is a professional wrestling heel and a supervillain. He is a gifted performance artist. As I see it, Trump also has great comedic timing. He knows his audience and how to give them what they want. That is a real skill. Help me work through the following dilemma: Trump's trials need to be televised for the good of the nation. He and his MAGA movement are a sinister threat to the nation's well-being and the American people, and the world needs to see him put on trial and suitably punished. However, I am deeply concerned that Donald Trump is a master performer and that he will put on a spectacle during the trial and that will fuel his followers even more. How are you thinking through the puzzle?

I agree with you. Your observations are especially true if Trump is put on the stand. Everybody seems to think that no defense lawyer would allow him to testify. But I can imagine Trump insisting on it, saying that "I can handle this better than you can handle it". Trump has said that he is a better lawyer than anyone who's ever represented him. He is the same man who when president said that he is a better general than all of his generals. Donald Trump is a man who believes there are no limits to his own abilities. Trump could also take the stand during his trial as a type of political play. This is one of the challenges of putting Trump's trials on television. Trump could be martyred on live television as far as his followers are concerned.  He knows how to play that role. I have to imagine that Trump considers himself to be Christ on the cross. Again, many of his MAGA followers would think of him the same way. There is so much peril, in every direction, by putting Trump on trial and televising it.

I can imagine Donald Trump being on trial and he stands up and gives a Hitler-like speech where he claims to be a martyr, some type of fascist MAGA Jesus-God. Trump tells the camera, speaking directly to his followers that, "I'm being sacrificed for you!" Those themes are already omnipresent in his speeches, fundraising emails, interviews and the like.

It has to make him more powerful. It is a stretch to believe that these trials will be resolved before the 2024 Election — but the one in Georgia may be. Fanni Willis seems to be determined to move quickly. Imagine Trump being able to use his being put on trial in a campaign commercial or online propaganda film. If the authorities won't let Trump have the video footage, then he could use reenactments or drawings of the trial. Trump would be the narrator. He would say something like, "You saw them come after me. You saw how I prevailed and defeated them. So, if I can vanquish this enemy, and they were gathered all around me, how can I not defend America from all the threats that she faces?" Many of Trump's followers would be even more energized than they already are. The religious right is also waiting for that type of drama where Trump is the martyr and victim. It is a great opportunity for them to rally around him.

What is Trump's capacity for critical self-reflection? What is his interior life like during this moment? Does Trump really understand the seriousness of the danger that he's in in terms of being in prison for the rest of his life or sentenced to home confinement? What do you think is going on inside his mind?

I do not believe that Trump would allow himself to think about it deeply for more than a minute or two at a time. Reflection is for weak people. Weak people obsess over what's happening to them. Real men don't do that! Real men take action and vanquish their enemies! Also, Trump has a profound inability to take in and make permanent anything that is not useful to him, anything that's inconsistent with his sense that he is right about everything. Where these legal cases are concerned, he may tremble a little bit for a moment. Remember, Trump is a man, who in his mind, is at war 24 hours a day. In the end, Trump will just go back to thinking about himself as a man in a foxhole as a way of avoiding what is happening to him that is unpleasant or upsetting.

Trump is a fabulist with a troubled relationship to reality. What happens to such a man and personality when and if he is held accountable under the law? When he can't bend reality to his will, and his fantasies can't save him?

I'm thinking about Paul Manafort. If you recall, he had the most expensive suits. He actually had to sell some of his wardrobe to pay restitution. When he was prosecuted, he lost the money and the clothes, and he was brought down low. Manafort was reduced to being a guy who looked like a man who was psychologically, physically and spiritually defeated.

I don't know if this is what would happen to Trump and if he would suffer the same kind of collapse. And I don't think he has the type of goodness inside of him that would allow him to adapt to an outcome he would consider tragic, meaning his being convicted and put in prison or somehow confined. Trump could be reduced to a pathetic presence. Few of us who are good human beings would take pleasure in that. We would be relieved for our country. It would be justice but seeing Trump reduced so low and made so pathetic but wouldn't be something, in my opinion, that a reasonable person would relish. It would be yet another tragic aspect of Trump's presence in our national life.

What do you think it will do to us, the American people and the nation, to see Trump put in prison, humiliated, and brought down like that? He is a former president with all of the symbolic gravity and meaning that has with it.

I'm really afraid that our country's democracy crisis is not going to end even if Trump is removed from the scene. The United States, like every other country, has an authoritarian element to its political personality. If Trump is put in prison — which would be justice done — such an outcome would be a scandal and an outrage to10s of millions of people. It is reasonable to be nervous and afraid. My big hope is that Trump's followers and the other people who are authoritarians and fascists, will lose hope and energy if Trump is gone and just go back to their regular lives. That would allow the rest of us to go back to our lives and have some sense of normalcy. Being on guard against Trump and his movement and what it represents is exhausting.

As we are learning more about Jan. 6, Trump and his cabal's crimes, and what will inevitably come out during the trials, has anything surprised you so far?

When he ran the Trump Organization, it was a very simple vertical operation with him at the top. There were only a handful of operatives who had any authority and responsibility. Trump does not trust many people. In the case of Jan. 6 and the alleged coup plot, the number of people he trusted to make the conspiracy happen was far greater than he's engaged with in the past. What I find particularly shocking is how Trump was able to get attorneys to do his bidding as part of this alleged plot. Presumably, these are people who passed the bar, took constitutional and criminal law courses, and had responsibilities per their oaths as officers of the court. These attorneys were seeing a conspiracy, and then they willingly took part in it. It is a testament to Trump's persuasive and bullying capabilities. Trump is a man who, for a certain kind of person, inspires attachment and loyalty. What's very strange to me is that Trump has made it very clear that he will betray you if necessary, and that he will not reward you as promised. Yet, the world is full of people who are going to try to earn Trump's loyalty at their own peril.

Considering Trump's reaction to the indictments and his lashing out, is he crazy like a fox? Just disturbed? I am of the opinion that this is part of a concerted propaganda and larger communications strategy. Again, Trump knows his public and voters. He is tied with Biden in many polls and basically tied in the Electoral College. Trump is going to be the Republican nominee and he is destroying DeSantis. This is going to be a very close presidential election.

There are occasions when Trump is very calculating and smart. He tests boundaries and ideas to see what he can get away with. For example, calling Fanni Willis a "racist". She is a black woman just doing her job, but is somehow a "racist" against him and his followers for daring to prosecute him? Calling Fanni Willis a "racist" is pretty rabid and crazy. If it doesn't work out to Trump's advantage, he will evade and deny saying it. Or claim he was misunderstood or was just kidding. Trump is almost like a comedian who tries out bits at local comedy clubs before they go on tour because they want to see what works. Trump sees no benefit in taking responsibility for anything. Responsibility is for suckers; evading it is what a champion does. And Trump considers himself a champion, of course.

As has been well-documented, during his time as a real estate and casino developer, Trump behaved like and viewed himself as a type of mobster. He had close affiliations with organized crime in the New York area. Now Trump is being charged under the RICO laws — which were created to bring down the mob. The universe does have an ironic sense of humor as the saying goes.

I wonder if Trump may actually believe that charging him under the RICO laws is actually a good thing. If Trump is a person who admired wise guys and thought of himself as the equivalent of a mafia don, and the authorities are now using a legal means that was devised to go after the mob to go after him, then Trump is going to think, in his twisted mind, that "Well, I'm gonna fight like a mobster." That explains the jury intimidation and the witness intimidation by Donald Trump. He wants to put potential jurors and potential witnesses on notice that if they go after him, he's going to go after them. The same is true with prosecutors and judges. Trump believes that if he can intimidate and threaten them and get his way then he is a Mafioso — "Dapper Don". 

This is an amazing and almost unbelievable story. Imagine Donald Trump's saga is a movie and there is the obligatory scene where Trump calls you, his biographer, from prison. He is seeking your counsel. Would you pick up the phone? What would you say to him?

I absolutely would take the call. I think only a fool would not take the call in that circumstance, because Trump is still someone who has been president, and he's going to be famous and infamous forever. If Trump were to say to me, "Mike, I finally realized what happened and I'm finally really suffering for it". I would tell him that you're experiencing your own humanity for the first time in your life, and you're understanding what it's like to care. Now, you may only be caring about yourself. But I suspect that you're also caring about your legacy, which means that you're caring about what people think about you and what the future holds for your reputation. Maybe what you can do to redeem yourself a bit Donald, is to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth and perhaps the truth will set your mind free. It certainly would do a lot for the country.


By Chauncey DeVega

Chauncey DeVega is a senior politics writer for Salon. His essays can also be found at He also hosts a weekly podcast, The Chauncey DeVega Show. Chauncey can be followed on Twitter and Facebook.

MORE FROM Chauncey DeVega

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Crime Democracy Crisis Donald Trump Election Georgia Interview Jan. 6 Law Michael D'antonio