Editor’s Note: Michael D’Antonio is the author of the book “Never Enough: Donald Trump and the Pursuit of Success” and co-author, with Peter Eisner, of the upcoming book “High Crimes: The Corruption, Impunity, and Impeachment of Donald Trump.” The opinions expressed in this commentary are his own. View more opinion on CNN.
Confronted directly with America’s tragic pandemic mortality rate last month, Donald Trump simply denied the facts and said, “I heard we had one of the lowest, maybe the lowest mortality rate anywhere in the world.” At the time, the US had the seventh highest mortality rate in the world. When Fox News anchor Chris Wallace challenged him with the facts, Trump flashed a chart showing a completely different metric as if it proved his point and said in a voice that suggested the case was closed, “Number one low mortality rate.”
In this exchange, the President practiced a variety of deceptions. His initial claim was simply false. Then he brandished as proof a piece of paper that referenced not the mortality rate, which adjusts the rate of death according to population but the case fatality rate, or the rate of death among confirmed cases – which experts say is unreliable and misleading. He then branded Wallace’s claims as “fake news.”
The President’s distortion and deflection were especially appalling because they obscured the tragic toll of the pandemic and minimized the pain and suffering experienced by millions of citizens across the country. This display, however, was entirely consistent with Trump’s record.
The President spews lies, misleading claims and conspiracy theories at an astonishing rate. (The Washington Post’s count, as of July, exceeds 20,000 false or misleading claims.) And it’s not just the volume of those claims or theories, but the seemingly automatic way he says something that’s false yet keeps doing it long after he has been disproven.
It’s as if he’s trying to bring us into his alternate universe, in which he is “more presidential” than anyone except for Abraham Lincoln, and his favorite drug, hydroxychloroquine, is a miracle cure for Covid-19.
Poised to accept his party’s nomination for re-election, Trump has given us almost four years to consider his unwavering commitment to a radical form of politics. But all of this raises the question: How did Trump become the President who stands before the American people today?
As Trump suggested when he said he’s “basically the same” person he was in first grade, a person’s character is often defined at an early age.
According to his niece, the psychologist Mary Trump, the President’s tyrannical father Fred Trump played a critical part in forming his son’s character. Fred Trump required his boys to prevail at every turn – they were to be “killers” – and mocked Donald’s older brother when he fell short. Fred was so demanding that lying and boasting made a certain kind of sense for a boy who, like all children, wanted his father’s approval. (The President denies his father was anything but loving.)
For Donald, she wrote in her recent book, “Too Much and Never Enough: How My Family Created the World’s Most Dangerous Man,” boasting became a way to convince others – including his father – that “he was better than he actually was.” One brother, noting his egotism, borrowed from Exodus and called young Donald, “The Great I Am.”
Fred apparently admired the future president’s chutzpah, even after it became so extreme that he sent the 13-year-old to military school for some discipline. There he only grew more deft at manufacturing alternate versions of reality.
In one episode recounted by his schoolmate Sandy MacIntosh, Trump insisted that MacIntosh agree that a lucky hit in a baseball game that went over the third baseman’s head was actually a soaring home run. MacIntosh went along with it, thinking little of it at the time. Having gotten away with it, Trump later added to the mythmaking. Years later, he said that he had been the best player in New York and a Major League prospect.
“Best” is hard to prove or disprove, which makes it handy for advertisers and braggarts. But since baseball is a game of numbers, it is possible to check a boast against the record. In this case, a Slate investigation unearthed evidence that Trump was not even the best on his team, let alone in the state. Of course, by the time Trump was so important that someone would examine his claim, it had been repeated so many times that it had become a durable legend.
The repetition of a claim, preferably one that couldn’t be fact-checked, is a hallmark of the Trump method. After college, he set about selling himself as a real estate whiz before he had built a single project. In 1976, The New York Times reported breathlessly on the successful young Trump in an article headlined, “Donald Trump, Real Estate Promoter, Builds Image as He Buys Buildings.”
The headline was half right. Trump was building an image. However, he had not yet purchased anything. Nevertheless, within a week he was presented as a “tycoon” on a local television talk show. In this case, Trump’s father played the role of his old schoolmate MacIntosh, affirming the myth by saying his son “has great vision, everything he touches seems to turn to gold.”
Hype was no sin in a family that Fred had enriched through aggressively marketing thousands of ordinary apartments as if they were the height of luxury. As Mary Trump recalled, the old man regularly relied on words like “great” and “fantastic” and “perfect,” and he made the lobbies of his buildings extra big to suggest grandeur.
Donald’s variation of the technique sometimes involved adding specific, if false, details to his claims. For example, after he married Ivana Trump, his first wife, Trump proceeded to add some luster to her image so that it would better reflect on him. He told the press that Ivana had been, “The No. 1 model in Montreal for eight years.” In fact, she had only lived there for a few years, and her modeling was an hourly job involving mainly department store gigs. Another claim had Ivana skiing in the 1972 Winter Olympics in Japan. In truth, her native Czechoslovakia didn’t send a team, and Olympic officials have no record of her being there.
In the years that followed, the stories about Ivana’s past were repeated in the press, even after Spy magazine refuted the one about the Olympics. The Trumps could largely get away with gilding their reputations because, it seems, no one put much effort into correcting the record of people who were not public officials. They were also known for being litigious.
For Donald Trump, the big takeaway from childhood – and in his early dealings with the press – was that that he didn’t have to respect the boundaries that contained others. His hyperbole worked, and, over time, his wealth and power would depend more on imagery that the substance of his business activity.
Trump entered the big time as he as became the host of the television show “The Apprentice.” Every episode allowed him to promote himself with various distortions, including the claim that he was New York’s biggest developer. He wasn’t even close to being the biggest, but since he was an entertainer, the hype could be dismissed as mere show biz.
When he turned to politics, Trump was guided by another rule-breaker, consultant Roger Stone, who had long cultivated his own cartoonishly aggressive image and encouraged others to regard him as a “dirty trickster.” Trump began by leading the racist “birther” movement, which challenged the legitimacy of Barack Obama’s presidency by questioning whether he was born in the US, as the Constitution required. Long after others had abandoned birtherism, Trump continued with it, gaining a devoted following among those who didn’t like Obama. (Though Trump eventually backed down from Obama birtherism, he recently said he heard rumors that Democratic vice presidential candidate Kamala Harris did not meet the requirement to serve in the White House. This is false, and Harris is eligible, given that she was born in California.)
Trump leapt from birtherism to presidential campaign rallies where “Lock her up!” was one of the mildest insults hurled at his opponent Hillary Clinton. In rambling addresses where he often abandoned both facts and civility, Trump never reached a point where it seemed to his supporters that he had gone too far. Trump bragged about his business prowess, made outrageous promises about being “the greatest jobs president that God ever created” and famously said, “I alone can fix it.” When Trump won the election despite losing the popular vote by nearly 3 million votes, it was as if Trump had achieved his greatest fantasy – and largely because of a skill he had mastered as a child, the art of exaggeration.
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As he has governed, President Trump has maintained his method. High turnover rates at the top of his administration and his preference for leaving officials in “acting” rather than permanent status have made for excess drama in Washington, which has the benefit of keeping the spotlight on him. His response to public controversies like recent civil rights protests – he sent cadres of officers to disperse largely peaceful gatherings – have also demonstrated a preference for showy demonstrations of authority.
With America suffering more in the pandemic than any other developed nation – 5 million sick, more than 165,000 dead – the flaws in his approach have been exposed in tragic dimensions. However, anyone expecting him to change as a result of a global health crisis would be sorely disappointed.
At this late stage in President Trump’s life, which has thus far been quite successful, one thing is certain – he will not change his ways. And this means America is in for a wild ride until – and perhaps even after – Election Day.