Donald Trump wants to be president again. What makes this man so successful? The Economist describes him as having a bleak view of human nature and adept at exploiting it – up to a point.
Donald Trump has always understood better than his opponents how the world works, or at least how to make it work. Possibly possessing such traits in abundance himself, his understanding of man’s greed, cowardice, selfishness, and other weaknesses has led to an unshakable belief in man’s corruptibility. Over the decades, and during his tenure as President, that assumption has been confirmed more often than disproved.
“History is not kind to the man holding Mussolini’s jacket,” Texas Senator Ted Cruz told a staffer in 2016, explaining why he did not support Trump, according to Maggie Haberman’s new book, Confidence Man However, Cruz caved in – even though Trump had attacked his wife Heidi so viciously that even a Republican whose name wasn’t Cruz but Rudi Giuliani said he couldn’t support him, although Giuliani later ruined his reputation for serving Trump.
How can a man who lies so blatantly and displays such incompetence be so successful? Ever since Trump worked in real estate and when he moved into entertainment and politics, or worked in all three at the same time, decent people have been asking themselves these questions and similar ones. The answer to that says as much about them as it does about all of us, as well as about him.
Ms. Haberman of the New York Times and CNN stands out among journalists covering Trump, not only because she covered him when he was a contractor in New York and she at the New York Post, a tabloid, worked. Ms. Haberman has always taken Trump seriously as someone who, she writes, “was more perceptive and shrewd than his critics realised, and possessed of a survival instinct arguably unparalleled in American political history.”
Haberman makes a special contribution with her book. She describes how the smooth interplay of politics and business in New York in the 1970s and 1980s endowed Trump with the low expectations and cynical beliefs that would get him far: that racial politics is a zero-sum tribal game; that allies as well as enemies must be controlled; that everything in life can be seen as a bargain, that one lie or controversy after another can completely confuse the media, that celebrity confers power, that not only politicians but also prosecutors are suggestible.
But these beliefs have only helped Trump so far. They doomed his presidency to failure. After Trump was elected, James Comey, director of the FBI, warned him that a dossier was circulating alleging that he had compromised himself in Russia. New York had taught Trump that harmful information is leverage, so he assumed Comey was threatening him.
“Comey was oblivious to the depths of Trump’s paranoia and the long history of intimidation by which Trump sought to influence government officials,” Haberman writes. Trump later fired Comey, with disastrous results for himself. According to Haberman, the first conflict determined ” the “conditions” for Trump’s subsequent interactions with intelligence and law enforcement officials.
Trump has harassed and humiliated senators and generals. “You are losers and babies,” he said to America’s military leaders, who brought him to the Pentagon to convince him of the usefulness of the post-war order. He could reward submissive MPs by tossing them candy bars and then watching with satisfaction as they quarreled over one.
But he also found that foreign and even domestic policy could not be settled solely through bilateral deals and tactical measures, and that he couldn’t buy everything with his money. He was amazed when a New York Democrat to whom he had donated money years before supported his impeachment.
Because Haberman sees Trump in his entirety, she also pays tribute to “the good Trump” — the one who keeps checking on his sick friend and who is “humorous and entertaining, diligent and dedicated.” People used to his Twitter personality or his portrayal in the press were often surprised when they met him at the White House. He could be calm and charming.
Confidence Man: The Making of Donald Trump and the Breaking of America
But over the course of his tenure, that side of Trump has become less and less visible. During the 2020 election campaign, then-Attorney General Bill Barr asked Trump to use his charm “to convince people you’re not a bugger.” But Trump was convinced his core constituents “wanted a fighter.”
Trump’s consideration for his regular constituency also set limits. After a 19-year-old killed 17 people at a Florida high school in 2018, Trump met with parents and students at the school and vowed to take action to regulate gun ownership. “We’ll make it,” he promised, and he could have done that too.
However, after speaking to representatives of the National Rifle Association, he backed down. Haberman explains that her protagonist doesn’t think highly of his key supporters (“they’re freakin’ crazy,” he told his assistants). But as an upstart from Queens, he’d come to believe during his time in New York that the establishment would never accept him, and he didn’t want to risk alienating his core constituency by leaning toward the political center.
The “Confidence Man” is forced to tread some well-trodden paths. For example, Trump raised his profile by asking if Barack Obama was born in America. It hurts to be reminded of all the Trump-era scandals, if only because one suspects we’ve lost the capacity for outrage, such as when a candidate refuses to release his or her tax return.
Haberman rightly deplores Trump’s influence, writing that he seemed to herald “a new era of behavior expected of politicians.” Her scathing verdict on Trump’s failure should deter imitators. Trump has not escaped his own history, but other Americans certainly can if they have behind them a leader with the wisdom to capitalize on the people’s strengths rather than their weaknesses.
The article first appeared in The Economist under the title “What Donals Trump understands” and was translated by Andrea Schleipen.
Originally translated as “Donald Trump Understands the Dark Side of Man” comes from The Economist.