In comparison to most Democratic commentators I think I have written relatively little about Donald Trump here. I prefer to spend more time on the broader historical forces that have lifted him to power, such as the growing power of corporations and wealthy donors, and I don't want to join the wailing chorus of those who simply refuse to recognize that close to half of our countrymen really wanted him in the White House, and probably still do. I also think it's more important to focus on the problems on my own side of the political fence, which have also done a lot to get us into this mess. Today, however, is different. Thinking last night about his virtuoso performance on his European trip--the same day that I had listened to this fascinating interview by Terri Gross about his relationship to Fox News--I suddenly had a moment of clarity about what Trump is doing and what makes him tick. Let's begin with a little history.
Trump began his career as a builder back in the 1970s, but from the very start, he--like Charles Foster Kane--was at least as interested in building a self-image as in building skyscrapers (or newspapers.) That was why he became such a man about town, why he became involved in the USFL (an alternative pro football league), and why he cultivated the tabloids. It was also why he commissioned The Art of the Deal, which marketed himself as an entrepreneurial genius. By the time that he made his move into Atlantic City, he had an image as a miracle worker trailing success in his wake.
We don't really know, of course, how successful Trump had really been in the early phases of his career--although an excellent ESPN documentary, Who Killed the USFL?, makes a strong case tht he did. But we do know that his Atlantic City ventures had all the characteristics of a Ponzi scheme. He financed them with loans at interest rates that the operations of the casinos would never be able to pay, kept borrowing more money for as long as he could, prolonged his survival with a $3 million cash infusion from his own father, and eventually had to let the casinos go bankrupt. All this obviously undermined his claims of financial brilliance--but the primary element of his strategy saved him. He had over 20 years sold the Trump name as a symbol of wealth and power, one that drew investors and consumers--and the banks who held his future in their hands decided that his enterprises were worth more with his name attached than they would be without it. Thus--to the eternal shame of his creditors--he survived.
In the early 2000s, Trump revived his image as a managerial genius and an extraordinary personality on his television show, The Apprentice. Surely this organization must be thriving, since so many bright, attractive young people wanted to work for it? Every week, of course, Donald made the key decision. But he was now overextending his empire yet again, and when the financial crisis hit in 2007-8, no American bank was foolish enough to lend him ore money. The Russian influenced Deutsche Bank did, however, and he remained above water. Then he began moving into politics after 2009, picking up the birther mantle.
When Trump declared his candidacy for President in the middle of 2015, he began selling himself as a political genius in the same way that he had sold himself as a financial genius. The nation, he argued, faced huge problems: criminals pouring over the border, special interests dominating Washington, useless foreign wars, and trade deficits brought about by foolish international agreements. Only he, he declared at his rallies, could fix all this. To realize his destiny, he would also have to triumph over a vast conspiracy of enemies within the mainstream media and the Deep State.
What occurred to me as I watched Trump's appalling performance in Brussels and in Britain was that this view of himself and his role remains the key to his presidency and the essence of his marketing strategy. This is especially true in diplomacy, where he has nearly absolute power--guaranteed by the Constitution--and where he can give his instincts free reign. Trump has now convinced himself--and has tried to convince the rest of us--that his talk of "fire and fury" and his winning personality has convinced Kim Jong Il to give up his nuclear weapons. There is now less than no evidence that this is true, but Trump's self-image depends upon it. In the same way within 48 hours, he announced (and many neutral or hostile commentators have even agreed) that his tough talk has convinced NATO allies to increase their spending on defense. No sooner had that crisis supposedly past, than he excoriated Prime Minister May for leaving the EU on terms that fell far short of a full break, and threatening to abandon a proposed new bilateral trade agreement with the UK as a result. The interview he gave suggests a heightened sense of himself, since he seems now to be trying to bring about the fall of her government (which is threatened already) and her replacement by his ideological ally Boris Johnson. That in turn would probably lead to attempts to bring more right-wing, anti-immigrant governments to power in other European states.
Trump's political and presidential career, like his business career, now depends on selling his self-image to enough American voters. That is why, as the Terri Gross interview (see above) brings out, his relationship to Fox News is so important to him. They are a self-supporting and profitable 24/7 propaganda machine, telling their viewers that Donald Trump is doing wonderful things against the corrupt opposition of the Deep State, the "fake news" media, and Robert Mueller. And Trump has made his brand essential to success within the Republican Party, which is why none of its elected officials will offer any real resistance (unless they are retiring) until the voters have clearly abandoned him. Fox will mercilessly pillory any Republican who criticizes Trump. Fox may also be the reason that Republicans no longer dare advocate for sane immigration policies, even though their corporate benefactors would prefer one. Trump is probably counting on Congressional Republicans treating him the way his creditors did after the Atlantic City meltdown if Mueller exposes serious ties between him and the Russians. He is betting that they will stand by him because they believe that their political fortunes are tied to his name. And he may be right.
And Trump relies upon allies who will fight for him because he obviously believes, as some have pointed out, that the world is an essentially hostile face in which real friendships and real alliances are impossible. It is composed of only two kinds of people, the rulers, who rely largely on intimidation, and the ruled. Every deal has a winner and a loser--there is no such thing, in his universe, as mutual advantage. This is also why he can't trust anyone, and why his White House will continue to look like a revolving door. That view is genuinely dangerous and politically disastrous to our standing in the world, which depends on the recognition and pursuit of common interest. Ironically, the biggest question before us is whether Trump will stick to the manipulation of images or whether at some point he will really try to compel the world to conform to his professed views. The former tactic is making our government almost completely dysfunctional, and seriously compromising everyone who goes to work for this Administration. The latter tactic could lead to real catastrophe.