Michael D'Antonio: Trump has long been like a boy in a plastic bubble -- untouched by views that challenge his own
Now he needs to govern and create policies for those whose lived reality he has willfully avoided, D'Antonio says
Editor’s Note: Michael D’Antonio is the author of the book “Never Enough: Donald Trump and the Pursuit of Success” (St. Martin’s Press). The opinions expressed in this commentary are his.
In the 1976 TV movie “The Boy in the Plastic Bubble,” the main character, played by John Travolta, is a kid who lacks an immune system to protect him from infection. He suffers from the isolation of life inside a sealed environment. Based on a true story, the tragic elements of the tale were heightened by the fact that all he knew of the outside world came to him via television.
For much of his life, Donald Trump has suffered from his own form of isolation, protected from the challenges of life as most people know it, in a bubble of his own. It was one of private schools and great wealth, and a lavish gilded lifestyle with armed guards who kept the world at bay. Of course all that was valuable could be had inside the Trump empire.
In the Trump calculus, this close circle only makes sense: As Donald Trump Jr. told me, the family believes in the “race horse theory” of human development, which holds that they are superior to others by virtue of genetics.
Thus endowed, our President has had little reason to study issues or the world at large. He was, at birth, better than those whose ideas or backgrounds caused him any discomfort. Why bother to know any more? Now that he is President, the answer to this is obvious. He leads a vast and diverse country challenged by the most complex problems imaginable. But if his long history of detachment from the lived reality of America is an indication, none of this is obvious to him.
The President’s biography – which is a story of utter isolation from those who walk the sidewalks, drive their own cars, and wash their own dishes – helps explain the astounding worldview laid before us in his bizarre response to the racist rallies in Charlottesville last weekend, one he continues to punctuate with inflammatory Tweets on the incident.
The protests culminated in a deadly vehicular attack on anti-hate demonstrators. Heather Heyer died, many more were injured. But in the aftermath, Trump seemed guided not by empathy for the victims or the needs of the nation, but by his desire to maintain connection with the extreme elements of his base.
After two false starts, on Saturday and Monday, a President who believes he is never wrong threw aside the advice he had been given and, in a combative appearance before reporters, blamed almost everyone involved, excusing hate groups and those in his base who are partial to them. “But you also had people that were very fine people on both sides,” Trump added.
He appeared to parrot a line from Fox News, one of the few cable news stations permitted in his bubble, as he complained about efforts to remove Confederate statues. “I wonder, is it George Washington next week?” he said. “And is it Thomas Jefferson the week after? You know, you really do have to ask yourself, where does it stop?”
As Buzzfeed noted, Fox host Martha MacCallum had raised a strikingly similar point the night before. “You could make an argument for Thomas Jefferson or George Washington,” she said. “Are you going to change the name of the Washington Monument?”
As the relationship between the comment on Fox and the President’s words suggests, Trump tries to limit what enters his echo chamber to praise and affirmation. He assumed this practice as a young businessman, when he began each day with a stack of positive press clippings, gathered by his assistants, who had circled his name.
As he told me, he has never been a reader of books, and his favorite method for gathering information involves quizzing the people whom he might see in a day. For much of his life, nearly all of these folks have depended on him for a paycheck or business deals, so you can imagine the kind of feedback he has received.
In the White House, Trump has held onto his avid TV watching habits, gleaning talking points from the same outlets who backed him as a candidate – and sometimes repeating them, via Twitter, almost instantaneously.
But long before Fox News was around to supply his prompts, Trump was surrounding himself with familiar and agreeable faces who validated his perspective – including on issues of race, which would rear up in Trump’s response to Charlottesville.
Indeed Trump’s suggestion that some who marched to Nazi and anti-Semitic chants – “blood and soil!” and “Jews will not replace us!” – could also be “fine people” was consistent with the kind of racial insensitivity he first expressed at a young age.
In his debut as a public figure, Trump announced he would fight federal fair housing laws, which, from his entitled perch, he resented as “reverse discrimination.” His lawyer, Roy Cohn, likened the Justice Department to a bunch of Nazi thugs. A Jew who expressed both anti-Semitic and racist ideas, Cohn lived inside Trump’s bubble, becoming his political mentor. Cohn’s currency was gossip and threats. He relished his reputation as a shadowy figure who represented mob figures and always seemed to be just one step ahead of the law himself.
Upon Cohn’s death, this duty of offering political advice to Trump was assumed by a similarly notorious character named Roger Stone, who has had Trump’s ear since the 1980s. Stone’s rules, which he freely explains to anyone who asks, begin with “attack, attack, attack – never defend.” And “admit nothing, deny everything, launch counterattack.”
The Stone method was a fit for Trump, who has always preferred pugnacity to nuance – prosecuted, of course, from within a protective cordon of lawyers. Stone was an adviser when Trump complained in the 80s (from his view above Trump Tower, overlooking Central Park) that young black men are specially advantaged due to affirmative action. He was there, too, when Trump paid for full page advertisements in four New York papers demanding – long before any trials – that five teenagers arrested in the famous Central Park jogger assault be given the death penalty.
When DNA evidence cleared the accused and they were released after serving years in prison, an echo of Roger Stone’s modus operandi could be heard in Trump’s complaint about the millions in compensation they received from New York City. “The police doing the original investigation said they were guilty,” said Trump. “The fact that that case was settled with so much evidence against them is outrageous.”
More outrageous, of course, was Trump’s perverse “birther” crusade, which found him questioning the legitimacy of America’s first black president by suggesting he was foreign-born and thus ineligible for the office he held. Long after others abandoned this notion, Trump remained impervious to the racial animus it encouraged.
As it is with ideas in his bubble, so it is with human contacts. In his business life, Trump hired with an eye to loyalty first and experience second. Those who challenged him were soon dismissed; those who joined the amen chorus thrived.
Trump has had only two executive assistants for his entire business career, and when he went to Washington he brought with him a security man he has employed for decades. Noticed by Trump when he was a guard at a tennis match in 1981, Matthew Calamari has been with Trump ever since and is now chief operating office for his business organization.
Can you imagine that any of these denizens of the Trump Bubble have made it a habit to counter his assumptions?
As President, Trump has rarely traveled outside of the states he considers part of his political base, ignoring his responsibility to hear and serve all Americans. His need for the comforting cocoon seems to be greater in moments of stress.
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And despite Trump’s much reported penchant for telephone chats, there are few he gets on the line with; friends like Tom Barrack and Chris Ruddy get much attention. Senators who might be useful new allies, but not necessarily yes-men and -women? Not so much.
Others who have occupied the White House have complained of the bubble it creates around them. Trump (who is, incidentally, a self-described germaphobe) seems to enjoy it.
But this isolation is a big problem. As President, Trump continues to play with the fire of bigotry, as he always has. The Bubble allows him to do this with little apparent regard for how it affects the lives of the people he now governs.
In the aftermath of Charlotteseville, the President has shown he would rather frighten his fellow Americans – possibly, as his now ex-chief strategist Steve Bannon has said, for political advantage – and degrade the nation’s standing in the world than admit he is mistaken and serve the country he has sworn to lead.
He seems oblivious to the pain felt by others, as if he has spent so much time away from or ignoring those with different points of view that he is no longer aware that they exist.