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 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.
When we first met in 2014, I was a year into research for the biography I was writing about you. I knew about your stern father, your exile to military school at a tender age and your tendency to spin dramatic fantasies. I knew that you considered life a battle for survival and humans to be “vicious” by nature.
In your Trump Tower stronghold, you were attended by aides who looked like soap opera stars and surrounded by ego-boosting emblems: a wall of framed magazine covers, each featuring your face; a boxer’s championship belt given to settle a debt; a stack of clippings delivered with a note that read, “Dad, FYI – All great press. Ivanka.” These totems of greatness, which I haven’t seen in the quarters of other super-rich Americans, made me think of you as desperately, and perhaps dangerously, insecure.
In five interviews that lasted about 10 hours total, you would heighten my fear that despite a life spent in unending luxury and privilege, no amount of wealth and power would move you off the life-is-warfare view. Even worse, you told me that you might run for president because Twitter fans said you should (I wasn’t surprised by your ambition and, given your celebrity, I thought you might win). Then, as we stood to inspect a framed letter you had received from the disgraced Richard Nixon, you said his only problem was that he had left office for the good of the country. In your view, he should have stayed and fought.
You ran for president and you won. And as you visited upon the country more pain than Nixon ever did, you fought on. Unrelenting in your aggression, lies and cruelty, you presided over four years of chaos and conflict provoked by your words and deeds. Though impeached, you escaped conviction and stayed in office to redouble your commitment to ego-driven chaos.
As you refused to mount a serious federal response, the Covid-19 death toll surpassed 400,000. Defeated in your bid for reelection, you spun lies that created an alternative reality so powerful that hundreds of your followers formed a mob that carried out a bloody attack on the United States Capitol. Many there intended to overturn the election, which you had repeatedly claimed was invalid due to fraud that in fact had not occurred.
In the attack, which was televised by news networks and livestreamed on social media, five people – including one Capitol police officer – would die. A DC Metro Police officer, who had been Tasered several times, heard one of your followers say, “Kill him with his own gun.” Although Congress reconvened after the mob was driven out, you stand disgraced as the only president in US history to be impeached twice, and all I can think is that you had finally made your narcissistic nightmare of a constant battle against vicious enemies come true for us all.
The making of an anti-President
Your dangerous narcissism was not widely noted when I interviewed you, but it seemed, to me, to be the hallmark of your personality. I consulted experts and learned that this grandiosity was likely a defense mechanism against a fear of shame and rejection. I came to believe this fear was installed by your father, who, when you were a child, demanded you be a “killer” and a “king.” When you failed to meet his expectations and became a troublemaker, he exiled you to military school, at age 13. Talk about a scarring experience.
The title of my book, “Never Enough,” pointed to your endless drive to prove your superiority, which, ironically, led to bankruptcies, divorces and legal defeats. It’s likely these failures provoked the same sense of shame and humiliation that you must have felt as a rejected child. You once told me you hated to reflect on the past, but in refusing to do this, you were bound to repeat your mistakes. No matter how much you achieved, it was never enough. And so, you went too far. (For more on this see what your psychologist niece, Mary Trump, wrote in her 2020 book, “Too Much and Never Enough: How My Family Created the World’s Most Dangerous Man.”)
As President, your weaknesses posed terrible threats to the country. Your many failures at running businesses such as casinos or the airline Trump Shuttle showed that you were not a nimble thinker capable of leading complex operations. The Covid-19 pandemic has only made this glaring incompetence crystal clear – and despite your efforts to deflect the blame, the country’s death toll speaks for itself. More than 400,000 people have died from Covid-19 in the United States – more than any other country in the world, according to Johns Hopkins University.
Having seen your inability to recognize others as human beings, I have not been shocked by your indifference to the deaths of your fellow citizens. Nor have I been surprised by your encouragement of violence. Violence was what I always expected from your presidency. I just didn’t know what form it would take.
The power of your methods was obvious during your 2016 campaign, when you lied in a way that separated your most ardent followers from reality itself. You promoted many of your old conspiracy theories about 9/11 and climate change and added new ones on the fly. (When an attendee asked – after first stating as fact that Obama was Muslim and not American – about the wildly untrue idea that Muslims were running secret training camps in the United States to kill people, you refused to shoot down his claims, promising instead to “look at that.”
You also whipped people into a frenzy of hatred by describing opponents, critics and the free press as enemies. I recalled reading how your first wife, Ivana, had said you kept a book of Hitler’s speeches near your bed. You once corrected a reporter, telling her it was “Mein Kampf” instead (though Marty Davis, who gave Trump the book, told Vanity Fair it was a book of speeches).
For four years in office, you functioned as a kind of anti-President, inflaming rather than calming passions and attacking rather than negotiating, all while demanding adoration from your Cabinet and constant attention from the media. Having ordered aides to think of each day as an episode in a TV show before you even took office, you tried to gin up as much drama as possible.
As President, you used the authority of your office to spread baseless claims about voter fraud, former President Barack Obama and even of a friendship between former President Bill Clinton and Jeffrey Epstein, the convicted sexual predator who was your Palm Beach neighbor and friend, to name a few. Many of your followers abandoned reason and dove headfirst into the QAnon conspiracy theory movement, which reveres you as a savior and regards the government and much of the news media as evil. Many of those who attacked the Capitol brandished Q symbols along with Trump flags, Jesus banners and the Confederate stars and bars – a mix of powerful symbols that shows the breadth of your influence.
Before the attack, you were among many who called for a big crowd of protesters to stop the Congress from affirming your election defeat. After your lawyer Rudy Giuliani, your namesake son ginned up the crowd, and they heard you call for them to march on the Capitol.
“You have to show strength,” you said, “and you have to be strong.” You promised to go with them but chose instead to view the destruction on TV. I wondered if you understood that the violence that unfolded was real, and not something made for television. Did you order Cokes as you watched? Did you eat popcorn?
I can imagine you snacking because you have played with violence, both real and imagined, for so long that you must be inured you to it. It all started back in the 1970s when you began employing armed guards-chauffeurs, for no apparent reason. I think it was because you enjoyed the sense of menace they added to your presence.
Itching for a fight
During your 2016 campaign one of your security guards roughed-up a picketer outside Trump Tower in New York, while another physically forced reporter Jorge Ramos out of a news conference in 2015. At one rally you told followers, “If you see somebody getting ready to throw a tomato, knock the crap out of them.” When a loud protester disrupted one of your other campaign rallies, you said, “I’d like to punch him in the face.”
Your tough guy image was embraced by followers who traded memes in which you were drawn to look like a superhero or shown brandishing weapons Rambo-style. Your avatar punched out a figure labeled with the CNN logo. Add this to the bigotry you expressed in words and images, which you shared with millions of people on Twitter, and a combustible mix was created. (Remember posting an image of Hillary Clinton, along with a Star of David set against dollar bills, brandishing her the “most corrupt candidate ever?”).
The atmosphere of bigotry you helped create exploded in Charlottesville in 2017 as men chanted “Jews will not replace us” before a White supremacist murdered a counterprotester by running her down with his car.
Heather Heyer was one of the first civilians to die in this charged political context during your presidency. It did not change your behavior. Instead, you declared there were “very fine people on both sides.” By delaying your condemnation of her attackers and resisting efforts to remove monuments to those who fought against the United States to preserve slavery, you sent clear signals about your views on race and violence.
With Charlottesville, questions about your bigotry grew louder. You made your stance clear when you reportedly said Haitian immigrants “all have AIDS” (though the White House denied it), and that people were entering the US from “shithole” countries. Add your vicious comments about Black athletes calling out police brutality, your penchant for slamming individual Black women, and your fearmongering about low-income housing, and everyone understood your perspective. Three years into your presidency, 65% of Black Americans said it’s “a bad time to be a Black person” in the United States, according to a Washington Post/Ipsos poll.
The border wall
It would have been bad enough if your bigotry had been confined to words, but you enshrined it in policy by restricting refugees from entering this country. This led to a sharp decline, from about 85,000 refugees admitted to the United States in 2016 to about 12,000 in 2020. If the “huddled masses yearning to breathe free” didn’t get the message, then they could consider the way you cozied up to strongmen, the likes of which many of them were fleeing. From Kim Jong Un of North Korea to Russian President Vladimir Putin, you showed a consistent admiration for dictators who jail and kill their critics.
Along our border with Mexico, you began separating children from parents who arrived seeking asylum. By May 2019, six children had died in federal custody. In June of that year, Americans were shocked by the photo of a father and child who had drowned attempting to cross the Rio Grande. In December, a surveillance video obtained by ProPublica showed a 16-year-old Guatemalan boy was left alone in his Border Patrol cell in Texas for hours before he died on the floor, of complications from the flu.
How many minors died in Border Patrol custody during the four years prior to your administration? Zero, per FactCheck.org.
The deaths were just one measure of the suffering your harsh policies inflicted on asylum-seeking families. New data from June 2019 reveals there were around 5,500 known cases of children, from infants to teens, being separated from their parents and placed in facilities ranging from foster family homes to cells made out of chain link fencing.
Amid all this pain, it seemed you still weren’t satisfied. You asked about building anti-immigrant moats to be stocked with alligators. You wondered whether soldiers could shoot immigrants who threw rocks. Those ideas were nixed, but the crisis continues. Because of inept recording-keeping, your administration has not been able locate the parents of at least 545 children, according to court documents from last October.
Refugee families, stuck in limbo while waiting for asylum in the United States, are still filling squalid camps on the Mexican side of the border, many of them fearing for their lives – particularly in the midst of a global pandemic.
You got away with cruelty in part because you conditioned many Americans to believe that brown-skinned, undocumented immigrants constituted a criminal horde that required a draconian response.
You promised to build a “beautiful” concrete border wall along 1,000 miles of the frontier and force Mexico to pay for it.
Only about 452 miles of tall steel fence has been completed as of January 5, 2021, according to a Customs and Border Patrol Report, and instead of the $8 billion you estimated for 1,000 miles, $18 billion dollars have already been devoted to the work because – surprise! – Mexico is not paying for it.
Legacy of lies
Hyping the wall was just one example of the exaggerations, false claims and lies that came out of your mouth in such a torrent it was nearly impossible for anyone to react properly. You combined this strategy with denigrating the media as “enemies of the people” and purveyors of “fake news” with such consistency that facts seemed to lose their power. You added an Orwellian flourish when you said, “What you’re seeing and what you’re reading is not what’s happening.”
What has been the effect on journalists? Threats became a part of our daily lives and the lives of our family members. (One of your followers found my wife’s business phone number and called to say that he had located our address and to suggest we be careful.) A “press freedom tracker” run by the Committee to Protect Journalists and the Freedom of the Press Foundation has counted 421 attacks on journalists during your time in office.
Far worse than the impact on journalists is your effect on Americans’ ability to agree upon an established set of facts as they consider critical issues. You are not solely to blame for this problem. However, you have both contributed to it and exploited it. You have made more than 30,000 false or misleading claims, according to The Washington Post, which have landed with the authority that comes with the presidential seal.
The easy way out for someone mired in disinformation is to pick a person to believe and go all in. Many of those who doubled down on their support for you found a sense of belonging amid the slogans, regalia and fervent rallies. They felt they were right. Those who disagreed were not fellow citizens but enemies who, some concluded, should be defeated by violent means.
The loyalty of your followers meant that ordinary politicians feared provoking the ire of your base. When it came to light that you were trying to coerce Ukraine’s President into helping your reelection effort, you were impeached for abuse of power and obstruction of Congress. But this fear helped keep the Republican-controlled Senate in line, and you were acquitted. Afterward, Sen. Susan Collins of Maine defended her vote to acquit you, saying you had learned “a big lesson.” What you learned, it seemed, was that you could get away with anything. Even before you were elected, you claimed you could “stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot somebody,” and not lose voters.
Shortly after the impeachment trial wrapped up, you proceeded to mislead the American people about the novel coronavirus. You downplayed the dangers of the virus so that the vibrant economy, the main bragging point of your presidency, would continue to hum. In late February, at a White House coronavirus task force briefing, you said “It’s a little like the regular flu that we have flu shots for.” But you told journalist Bob Woodward weeks before that the coronavirus was “more deadly than your – you know, your, even your strenuous flus.” Nevertheless, you declined to organize a true national response and undermined public health officials who urged everyone to wear face masks.
You also held mass rallies where people were infected. On May 8, when the death toll was more than 77,000, you continued this charade, insisting, “This is going to go away without a vaccine.” To say that people died as a result of your posture is not mere speculation. Families have told stories of those who followed your lead, got sick and died. Harvard epidemiologists estimate that thousands have died as a result of your example.
Today the Covid-19 pandemic continues to ravage the country. The death toll is now roughly equivalent to a 9/11 each day – but many of your acolytes, even in Congress, still refuse to protect themselves and others with facemasks. Meanwhile, millions are turning to food banks. Mass evictions loom.
When I consider the hungry, the infected, the traumatized and the deceased and hold in my mind the images of the deadly mob at the Capitol, I hear your voice summoning the worst in my fellow citizens. With those words you truly established yourself as the anti-President, a distinction that cancels any claim you might make to the respect normally accorded the office.
When we met you told me to call you “Don,” as if we were friends. You also invited me to examine your hair. I didn’t do either because I sensed that you wanted to establish a bond that you would eventually try to corrupt. This was confirmed when you hinted that my book could make me rich if I abandoned my professional duty and wrote it to your liking.
Thankfully, enough Americans recognized your immorality and incompetence and lack of human feeling so profound that the suffering and death so much a part of your presidency didn’t appear to affect you at all. They chose Joe Biden in November, making you truly accountable for perhaps the first time in your life.
After four years of your chaos, what’s left is a wounded country grieving for its dead and for its innocence. But we will recover, and you now face criminal and legal threats in state courts, along with the harsh judgment of history.
As you desperately summon the remains of your following for comfort and fundraising, your disgrace is growing with the mounting evidence that your words motivated the mob that attacked the United States Capitol. This incitement may be the single worst thing a president has ever done, and it will define you for centuries to come.