Donald Trump auditioning for the biggest role of his life

Story highlights

  • Trump has mastered playing roles, including on "The Apprentice," Michael D'Antonio says
  • The one Trump has to play to win the White House is the most challenging, he writes
  • He has repeatedly promised he can be "unifier," but role has eluded him, D'Antonio says

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

(CNN)Not since Ronald Reagan have we seen a presidential candidate so experienced at playing dramatic roles. Yet as the Republican primary season enters its final two months, Donald Trump is being called upon to play a role that has eluded him -- and that could determine whether he follows Reagan's path to the White House.

In October, he said, "I will be a great unifier for our country." After his Super Tuesday wins, Trump struck a similar note: "I'm a unifier. I know people are going to find that a little bit hard to believe, but believe me."
    Thursday afternoon, he tweeted, "Just had a very nice meeting with @Reince Priebus and the @GOP. Looking forward to bringing the Party together -- and it will happen!"
    And ordinarily, party front-runners do play that role, rolling up endorsements from leaders and elected officials and positioning themselves to lead a broad coalition in the general election. Yet Trump hasn't warmed to the role and seemingly does almost precisely the opposite, inflaming the race with a threat to "spill the beans" on Ted Cruz's wife, Heidi; putting forth but soon retracting the idea that women should be punished if abortions were ruled illegal; and carrying on a running defense of his campaign manager after he was charged with battery, accused of grabbing a reporter.
    Trump's difficulty with moving into the new role contrasts with his decades of success at crafting his own image, most notably with his emergence as a flamboyant entrepreneur in the New York political and real estate worlds of the 1980s and with his reinvention as the star of the popular TV show "The Apprentice" in 2004. Even before these exploits, he was fascinated with show business and the theater.
    A true film buff, he has spent his life studying Hollywood movies and developing his own talent as a showman in a series of roles that he has performed for the press, in order to sell real estate, products and ultimately himself to the American public. Now, he's asking voters to cast him as American president. Does he have it in him to unify his party and to lead the world's most powerful nation?
    As we decide whether he's up to the part, it may help to consider his career thus far.

    The Young Tycoon

    At age 23, Trump co-produced a Broadway flop -- "Paris is Out!" -- that starred Sam Levene, who would soon win praise in "The Sunshine Boys," and Molly Picon, whose previous role had been in the hit show "The Front Page." Sadly for them all, "Paris Is Out!" was so vapid and unoriginal that legendary critic Walter Kerr wrote, "I neither hated it nor liked it. I simply sat there and looked at it."
    The failure drove young Trump out of the legitimate theater for good, but it did not end his fascination with performance. Instead, he began a lifelong process of manufacturing identities, which he would present to the media and the public in place of a true self.
    This practice could be seen as the natural outgrowth of Norman Vincent Peale's "Power of Positive Thinking," one of the young's Trump's favorite books, which advised readers to show the world that they were optimistic and successful, even when they were not. "There is a real magic in enthusiasm," argued Peale. "It spells the difference between mediocrity and accomplishment."
    As he played his first self-made part, Trump bought fancy clothes, acquired an expensive car, hired a furloughed cop to be his driver and began spending his evenings at swanky clubs.
    For a young man who hated small talk and didn't drink or take drugs, the club scene was mostly a place to be noticed, hopefully in the company of celebrities or, at the very least, photogenic women. Trump the Super-Successful Young Real Estate Developer appeared in the papers, which led to a TV talk show appearance in which he was billed as a young "tycoon" on the rise.
    All this happened in 1976, before Trump had built a single project. However, the image-making served him well. When he finally did pursue the right to renovate an old hotel at Grand Central Terminal, Trump was associated with success.

    The Glamorous Rich Guy

    With the completion of the Grand Hyatt renovation and then the famous 68-story Trump Tower on Fifth Avenue, Trump was a married man of 37 with two children and a third on the way. Time for a new role: Glamorous Rich Guy.
    In his second big part, Trump surrounded himself with celebrities, many of whom -- Michael Jackson, Steven Spielberg, Johnny Carson -- bought apartments in the tower. He bought a football team in the soon-to-fail United States Football League and opened his home to Robin Leach and his "Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous" TV show. It was the 1980s of Big Hair and "greed is good," and Trump seemed like a character from "Dallas."
    Although he was occasionally skewered by the likes of Spy Magazine, which originated the claim that Trump was short-fingered, Trump was more often portrayed in the press as a fabulously wealthy and successful man. He was also a master at attention-seeking, which he proved with the publicity campaign for his 1987 book "The Art of The Deal."
    Begun with a faux exploratory campaign for president, the assault on the media included a helicopter ride for Barbara Walters and a publishing party where outlandish boxing promoter Don King pronounced Mr. and Mrs. Trump "The king and the queen!"
    The Glamorous Rich Guy reached the top of his story arc in the late 1980s, when Trump acquired the partially built Taj Mahal casino in Atlantic City, bought New York's famous Plaza Hotel and took over the Eastern Airlines shuttle to operate under the name Trump Shuttle.
    Over-leveraged, Trump would see the casino go bankrupt in 1991. The airline ceased operating in 1992, and he lost the Plaza in 1995. In the middle of these very public losses came a sex scandal involving an aspiring actress named Marla Maples that ended his marriage. As they fed the tabloid press juicy quotes, the story of Trump; his wife, Ivana; and Maples turned into a lurid spectacle. Publicly humiliated and besieged by creditors, Trump retreated to rebuild.

    The Comeback Kid

    True to form, Trump didn't leave it to anyone else to declare that he was "back." Instead, he invited a crowd of friends, acquaintances and associates to a party in Atlantic City where they were serenaded by an Elvis Presley impersonator. When the theme from the movie "Rocky" blared from the loudspeakers, an announcer declared, "Let's hear it for the king!" and Trump burst through a large paper screen. He wore a red boxer's robe draped over his tuxedo and sported boxing gloves on his hands.
    As the crowd applauded, Trump casino executive Nick Ribis offered a salute to his boss in the style of Muhammad Ali:
    "He was tough and resilient
    and he had no fear.
    He made the comeback of the year.
    Against all odds, his opponents
    buckled with a thump.
    The winner was, Donald J. Trump"
    With this gaudy display of showmanship, Trump insisted that he was once again on top. Evidence for this claim was scant, but it set the tone that Trump the performer wanted establish. He then turned himself to the task of rebuilding his empire. Finally, in 1996, he returned to the annual list of the 500 richest people of America, published by Forbes magazine.
    Trump had long pointed to the Forbes list as proof of his success. This time, he was ranked No. 373. He called the editors to complain that his net worth was much bigger than their estimate of $450 million: "I've got that much in stock market assets alone," he told them.
    In 1997, he returned to the billionaires' club -- $1.4 billion -- and almost cracked the top 100. Still, he wasn't satisfied. He insisted, "The real number is $3.7 billion."
    The pattern continued for the next couple of years. In 1999, he said the Forbes estimate of $1.6 billion was off by almost $3 billion. "We love Donald," said the Forbes editors. "He returns our calls. He usually pays for lunch. He even estimates his own net worth ($4.5 billion). But no matter how hard we try, we just can't prove it."
    With nearly all of his wealth privately held, Trump could say anything he wanted about his net worth, and no one could access the data to confirm or refute the figure. The public didn't seem to care. It was enough that he was a billionaire, and in true Trump fashion, he played the role well.

    The People's Billionaire

    Trump got the chance to solidify his new image when he was offered a starring role in an actual TV show, "The Apprentice," that brought his act into America's living rooms. On the show, a cast of hopefuls competed for his favor and helped him cement himself in the public mind as an authority figure.
    Seated in a chair elevated to make him seem more powerful, he played the character of "boss" to the hilt. Trump demonstrated his leadership style with gestures and clichés. He used a dismissive hand gesture he called "The Cobra" to punctuate the moment when he said, "You're fired!"
    Like many other reality TV shows -- "Survivor," "Big Brother," "The Real World" -- "The Apprentice" offered viewers a distorted version of events. Days worth of filming were compressed into minutes, and scenes were cut and spliced in order to tell a story that may or may not have been true.
    Extra value was attached to salesmanship and scheming, two of Trump's own principal traits. Winners have been photogenic and, in the main, pursued post-contest careers that involved public speaking or media appearances. Not surprisingly, a few including Omarosa Manigault and Andy Dean have turned up as Trump boosters in the current political campaign.

    Trump's campaign is a screen test

    In his presidential campaign, Trump is using a dangerous demagogue routine, which he performs in arenas filled with adoring fans, as a kind of screen test for his ultimate role as leader of the most powerful nation on Earth. In these performances, Trump evokes Forest Whitaker as the charismatic but menacing Idi Amin in "The Last King of Scotland," who proclaimed for the people that despite his high status, "in my heart, I am you." Trump makes a similar appeal as the billionaire who gives voice to the struggling middle class.
    As a performer, he deploys every tool in the dramatist's kit, including his face, his body and his tone of voice. When he wants to make a point, his flashes an extreme expression of disgust, rage, revulsion or glee and holds it for a few beats so that everyone in the audience, and the cameras recording the moment, get what he wants to communicate.
    Trump uses his body like a comedian doing standup -- think Robin Williams -- to amplify his emotions and say things that words cannot communicate. This is what he is doing when he contorts his arms as he talks about a disabled reporter or raises his right hand to invite a crowd to pledge allegiance, not to their nation but to him.
    If you are chilled by the sight of Trump's raised hand and thousands of hands raised in response to his call, this is the response he intends. No current campaigner one is more skilled at the practice of creating powerful and even frightening scenes. In his choice of gestures, as well as words, Trump is doing what what works on TV.
    When he announced his candidacy, Trump used the kinds of words candidates almost never utter -- "rapists," "murderers," "killing" -- to provoke fear and outrage. From that moment forward, he offered ever coarser, ever more provocative remarks to hold the nation's attention.
    Then, in addition to demonizing foreigners, he started demonizing fellow Americans, especially protesters at his rallies. His rallies have come to resemble pro wrestling matches, with the crowd getting so riled up that they become part of the performance. It is no surprise that violence has broken out at these events.

    Can he play president?

    Trump has never shown the temperament that anyone would call "presidential." Devoid of diplomatic charm and disrespectful of his adversaries, he has appalled many world leaders and alienated officials in his own party. If charming communicators like Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton struggled to find support in Congress, what could we expect of a charmless President Trump?
    And then there's the matter of Trump's loose association with facts and ideas. As a candidate who confesses that he doesn't read books and gleans most of his knowledge from the very same press that he scapegoats at his rallies, Trump doesn't inspire confidence in those who want a president who understands the world.
    His views on the issue of trade deficits make one wonder what he learned while studying finance at the University of Pennsylvania, and his anti-terrorism plans sound like they are drawn from the TV show "24." Nothing in Trump's record suggests a man who is willing to take advice from a wide range of people or one who knows how to accommodate competing concerns like human rights and security.
    Of course, Trump's appeal has never been to our intellect or our political principles. He has sought the presidency -- his role of a lifetime -- by presenting, instead, his personality and his emotion. The personality is marked by extreme self-confidence and simple conceptions of leadership. The emotions are drawn from a repertoire that would be the envy of any actor and include anger, disgust, rage, contempt, pride and paranoia.
    The trouble with Trump's tryout so far is that all that he's shown us is his ability to appeal to the darker side of human nature. Americans have never settled for such a limited version of a leader. Instead, we have wanted presidents who can comfort the nation in times of loss, bridge our divisions and call upon the better angels of our nature when we need to pull together for a higher purpose.
    Can Trump show us these qualities as he stakes his claim to be the No. 1 star in the world? His performance thus far, in the campaign and in the course of his life, suggests that he doesn't have the range.