Donald Trump is a loser

Story highlights

  • Michael D'Antonio: Trump has played many roles in long career and knows how to be a loser, too
  • Now he has to decide if he wants to play role of a more conventional politician, he says

Michael D'Antonio is the author of the new book "Never Enough: Donald Trump and the Pursuit of Success" (St. Martin's Press). The opinions expressed in this commentary are his.

(CNN)Donald Trump is a loser. He plays the role well.

As they handed victory to Ted Cruz in their 2016 caucuses, Iowa voters forced Trump to deliver a concession speech. He offered up three minutes of thank yous (12) and love yous (seven) and a handful of congratulations for his competitors. Gone were the snarling, the insults and the bellowing. Instead the man who once asked, "How stupid are the people of Iowa?" mused about returning to buy a farm.
If you are wondering which man is the real Trump, the bellicose ranter who wants mass deportations or the mellow loser who insisted "we're so happy" on the night of defeat, the answer is both, and neither.
    Trump, whose first endeavor was in the theater (he co-produced a Broadway play), considered attending film school as he applied to college.
    As a businessman, he developed into a first-rate actor who will reliably inhabit a role whenever he appears in public. He has been doing this ever since he played the part of the "well-dressed, man-about-New York tycoon" at a time when he had achieved exactly zero in the Manhattan real estate business. From there it was on to "rich man" and "very rich man" and, when his first marriage imploded, "most eligible man."
    In the aftermath of Iowa, Trump surely feels wounded. But at his core Trump is an actor who is always preparing for the next show and the next big role. After he first experienced bankruptcy (losing by anyone's measure), Trump announced he was the "comeback kid" well before reality confirmed it. But the playacting was followed by genuine success, and the brash and brassy Trump was again on top. Post-Iowa, expect him to start crowing about his lead in New Hampshire.

    Playing many roles

    At every stage in life, Trump has created and delivered to the public a persona designed to benefit his ego first and foremost and then his bottom line. He has played "author" of books written by other people and "candidate" in two previous presidential campaigns that were really promotional tours.
    Finally with the reality TV show "The Apprentice" Trump got to be an actor in full. He developed an iconic style of "firing" contestants that included a hand gesture he called "the cobra." In truth Trump dreads the task of actually dismissing workers. But on TV he did it with relish.
    In private, Trump is an obsessive businessman who really does like making deals. He can be irritated by the boring task of running complex entities, which helps explain the bankruptcies and the campaign's failing ground operation in Iowa.
    On a personal level, he can be warm and charming. Watch him at work, in his Trump Tower aerie, and you see a focused, attentive executive. He keeps his office door open. He welcomes interruptions.
    But before he was a success, Trump played one. This fake-it-till-you-make-it approach is the essence of good salesmanship and gave him both tangible achievements in the form of real estate developments and an actor's skills and instincts.
    Having faced thousands of audiences, from small crowds of bankers to stadiums full of fans, Trump is a confident performer. In a TV studio, he comes alive when the red light blinks on a camera. If he senses the energy lagging at a campaign event, he will reach for a line to jolt the crowd. As he told The New York Times, "... (I)f it gets a little boring, if I see people starting to sort of, maybe thinking of leaving, I can sort of tell the audience, I just say, `We will build a wall!' and they go nuts."

    Trump's method

    Trump's method involves little preparation and content-free lines -- "there's going to be so much winning" -- that he has been delivering for decades. It works best with people who seek inspiration at seminars where he tells folks how to get rich in real estate and at rallies where he offers angry citizens an outlet for their rage.
    Other politicians, especially those who have actually been elected, possess the same skills. The difference is that they also possess genuine facts about issues and detailed policy ideas, which they can draw upon at will. Trump's mind is not cluttered with the same kinds of information. In the end this may be why Cruz won in Iowa.
    Donald Trump thanks Iowa, congratulates opponents
    Donald Trump thanks Iowa, congratulates opponents

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    A motivational speaker may give you a shot of adrenaline, but when you leave the theater you face all the challenges that filled your life when you walked in. Like them or not, Cruz offered many policy prescriptions.
    Ever the actor, Trump offered himself and little more. Still, his confidence was a marvel to see. He was certain that he wouldn't be harmed by skipping the last pre-Iowa debate, and he even boasted that he could shoot a man on Fifth Avenue and not suffer a loss of support. This hubris may have hurt Trump, but don't expect him to say so.
    After Iowa, Trump is in the position of a man or woman who attended one of his old, get-rich-in-real estate speeches. The few who turned inspiration into wealth did it by mastering the profession, and not just playing a role. As a campaigner who wants to be elected, Trump is challenged to play a new role as a man with real ideas about everything from economics to foreign policy.
    Developing this character will require him to learn more about the actual work of political leadership and the complex issues presidents face. Will Trump be able to transform himself from actor to genuine politician? No one can say, but he is likely to make the effort because "loser" is his least favorite role.