The True Trump is the part he's always played

Donald Trump's best (and worst) imitations
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Story highlights

  • Michael D'Antonio: The "True Trump" is not "presidential" but is driven by ratings
  • He says the man he interviewed for biography is always playing a role

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)A good salesman believes in his product. His faith -- in a better vacuum cleaner, automobile or set of kitchen knives -- will drive his commissions. A super salesman, however, doesn't need to represent a top-flight company with a solid reputation. He may prefer to offer quality goods, but this part of the deal isn't essential, because what he is really selling his customers is himself.

Decades have passed since young Donald Trump decided that he was the best product on the market and set out to sell himself to the world. Family wealth in huge quantities supplied Trump with the clothes, cars and cash required to polish his product to a shiny hue. As he expanded the family brand from real estate to gambling, golf and consumer goods, the money and its power also freed him from the chore of having to develop true character or sophistication.
    Instead, the more his outrageous words and deeds were rewarded with fame and success, the more certain he became of his own opinions and judgments. With fame as one of his primary goals, Trump viewed every headline as a victory. And these wins affirmed for him that he was the kind of natural leader who might even become president. If anything about his persona was an act, it became absorbed as part of the True Trump.
    "You can be tough and ruthless and all that stuff and if you lose a lot, nobody's going to follow you because you're looked at as a loser," Trump told me in a 2014 interview for the biography I wrote about him. "The most important aspect of leadership is winning. If you have a record of winning, people are going to follow you. You look at President Obama now. He's had so many losses and people don't even want to watch him on television."

    Finding the True Trump

    So who is the True Trump? He is a man who finds affirmation in his ratings, measuring his worth by whether people want to watch him on TV. In his campaign for the White House, this ratings hunger determines which statements Trump continues to express as genuine reflections of his world view and which he discards.
    Trump's anti-immigrant stand and his calls for followers to manhandle protesters have been repeated so often they must be considered authentic. The True Trump can also be seen in the juvenile taunts he lobs at those he considers unworthy of respect. Mocking a reporter's disability, suggesting that Megyn Kelly asked tough questions because she was menstruating, calling an opponent "Lyin' Ted" — it's all The Donald being The Donald. Trump's outrageousness certainly has alienated many in the Republican establishment but it also worked to differentiate him from the 16 other candidates for the GOP nomination and — thanks to the extensive attention it provoked from everyone from the mainstream media to previously apathetic primary voters — propelled him to front-runner status.
    But as he contemplated the final push for delegates and the prospect of a contested convention, the candidate deviated from his blustery true self, hiring Paul Manafort, an experienced, mature political manager to get him through the last primaries and the convention. Last week, one of Manafort's first moves was to tell a party conclave that his man has been "playing a part" and "projecting an image" for the crowds and was about to change.
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    Manafort was intent on debunking the previous True Trump. "When he's sitting in a room, he's talking business, he's talking politics in a private room, it's a different persona," he said to GOP insiders. "When he's out on the stage, when he's talking about the kinds of things he's talking about on the stump, he's projecting an image that's for that purpose ... the part that he's been playing is evolving into the part that now you've been expecting, but he wasn't ready for because he had to first feed the first phase."
    On one level, the idea that a politician might stress one aspect of his personality over another, and change his message to suit his surroundings, is hardly news. However, Manafort was saying something different. He was saying that Trump had been engaged in a kind of fictional role-play -- "a part" -- to appeal to audiences at his rallies. Now he was ready to take on a new role, the one that mainstream Republicans "were expecting." In this new guise, Trump would presumably broaden his appeal and thereby become viable in the general election.

    The Trump I've come to know

    At a deeper level, though, Manafort's claim, made in a forum where he surely knew his words would become public, was so blunt that it seemed calculated to create controversy. Trump then guaranteed that we would be talking about it by resisting or challenging Manafort's suggestion. Like a child who wasn't quite ready to start behaving himself, Trump immediately told a crowd in Pennsylvania, "I just don't know if I want to do it yet." However he did allow that "at some point, I'm going to be so presidential that you people will be so bored."
    By expressing concern that his core followers would be "bored," Trump confirmed Manafort's suggestion that his public statements are a kind of performance. But while someone else might be embarrassed to reveal that he has been playing a role, Trump barely blinks an eye. Given the Trump I have come to know as his biographer, I am not at all surprised that he isn't bothered in the slightest. Trump sees no shame in playing a role for the public. He is, on the contrary, quite proud of the image has devoted so much time, energy and emotion to developing.
    When he talked to me about people he admires, including his deceased brother, he referenced their appearance and their winning personalities, not their values and beliefs. Trump has never demonstrated much interest in these qualities. Then again, he has missed out on many of the experiences that can build a person's character.
    In business Trump has rarely been required to play well with others. As the boss of a privately held empire, he has the final say on every decision, and he has been free to override or fire those who disagreed. The same rule has governed Trump's personal life, where he divorced two wives before settling on a third. On the presidential trail Trump has survived missteps and inconsistencies by insisting he be judged according to a metric of his own making, which elevates personality and inspiration above character and ideas.

    The wisdom of crowds

    There is wisdom in the crowds that respond to Trump so positively. The Trump they hear calling for a ban on Muslim visitors to America, warning of trouble at the party convention, and declaring he may not be ready to calm down, is the real deal; they cheer his performance because they sense in it something authentic. He has always been an unabashedly crude, self-interested, self-promoting and self-regarding man.
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    Trump tried to act presidential after the New York primary, winning approving press coverage for referring to rival Ted Cruz as "senator" and not with some pejorative. However, he returned to the low road a day later, speaking of Cruz as a liar and Hillary Clinton as "crooked." This is The Donald, unfiltered and true.
    Because he is a gifted performer, Trump can feel when his audience is hooked and he can tell when he is losing them. In acting presidential he risks being abandoned by those who like him now, and he's unlikely to persuade those who have rejected him thus far. After so many debates and interviews and rallies and forums, the True Trump persona is so well-established that a substantial change can only make him seem inauthentic and will hurt him more than it helps him.
    This is why the press has begun to report that Trump is displeased with Manafort. Trump knows who he is, and it's not "presidential."