Theses on Trump
“Through the ruin of a city stalked the ruin of a man.” – Terrance Dicks, 1977
Let us accept that categorization is pointless, and that any attempt at it will eventually collapse under the basic fact that he is contradictory and in his own way even contains multitudes. He is what he is, in his own way as deific as that makes him sound. He does not have immediate political analogues in 1930s Germany or 40s BCE Rome any more than he does in 1650s Britain or 2013 Australia. Similarities abound, but every case is unique. That’s what Great Man Theory means.
It is not even useful to call him liberal or conservative. He is right-wing, but only in the sense that he poses an existential threat to the left. On the whole, however, he is not particularly ideological. He is an aesthetic wedded to a perversion. In the end, most people are, and virtually all politicians. Still, one has to start somewhere.
It is not quite possible for anyone who did not grow up in the greater New York area to understand him. It is not that rich idiots in the general case are unique to the Atlantic northeast; the British class system is founded on such people, after all. Rather it is the particular subspecies of rich idiot that he occupies; one that is, so far as I can tell, unique to the white-assimilated second and third generation immigrant populations of New York. Post-Gatsby empire-builders, insistent, often not completely without reason, that an ethos of grit and ambition has driven their success, but where that success is always the expansion of the family business as opposed to starting it. And there’s always a family business, generally one rooted in the idiosyncratic infrastructure concerns of the northeast. Their chief talent is braggadocio. They profess love for Frank Sinatra. Their favorite movie is The Godfather, but they don’t have the patience for Part II.
It would be cruel to semi-immediate family members to recount immediate analogues from my own tri-state area childhood, but they abound. Instead I’ll pick another vivid memory of the region; the day after the Sandy Hook shooting, in a local breakfast-and-lunch diner called King’s that people actually from Newtown still call Leo’s. Poking at pancakes that are blatantly a dessert with an overwhelming sense of the world that isn’t grief or sorrow so much as horror and awe. And from the next table over, this terrible, gregarious white man. He’s so upset about he doesn’t even want to have Christmas. He says it over and over again. It is not just the only opinion he has on the matter, it is the only opinion anyone around him is to have on the matter. His dining companion. The waitress. Anyone who acknowledges his existence (and he makes it difficult not to) will be told this precise interpretation of the murder of twenty-seven people as the definitive take. As he leaves, he gives the waitress his card and tells her if she knows anyone who wants to buy a car, she should send them his way.
That’s what he is.
The most perverse thing about him is that he does not actually value money so much as being rich. As he puts it, money is just a way of keeping score. This is not to say that he does not enjoy the material trappings of luxury, but he enjoys them primarily because they provide constant affirmation of the fact that he is a rich and powerful man. As far as the details, he knows what he likes, and has probably asserted this fact in those exact words. But the way in which this is true is almost base tautology. He recognizes the tingling of his lizard hindbrain when certain things happen to him, and he calls these things great.
These things include but are not limited to: seeing his name in big, gold letters; a steak, cooked medium, with an overpriced California cult wine; telling someone to do something demeaning and having them do it, particularly when black men carry things for him; Dorian columns; when people break eye contact with him; seeing himself on television; groping women; the look in a man’s eye when he knows you’re screwing him over but goes along with it anyway; and Citizen Kane.
That one’s a concrete example (unlike the steaks; he actually prefers them well-done, and would probably prefer Chris Christie getting him McDonalds to either option). He recorded a three minute video for an aborted Errol Morris project in which he provides a brief analysis of the film. It is, of course, terrible; he’s an idiot after all. A highlight is where he discusses the totemic power of Charles Foster Kane’s last words: “The word rosebud for whatever reason has captivated moviegoers and movie watchers for so many years, and to this day is perhaps the single word, and perhaps if they came up with another word that meant the same thing it wouldn’t have worked. But rosebud works.”
And yet his enjoyment of the film is tangibly authentic. He gets genuinely enthused speaking about things as basic as the ever-lengthening table being a symbol of Kane’s growing isolation. He speaks with all the smug vulnerability you’d expect about how wealth “isolates you from other people” because “you have your guard up, much more so than you would if you didn’t have wealth.” It’s clear this is actually a movie he cares about; that he’s actually thought about. He visibly thinks about it in front of you, pausing, taking oddly heartfelt care choosing his words. It’s not hard to see why Citizen Kane would be able to cast such a spell over him; just imagine the swell of emotion and pride he must have felt when he found out that the greatest movie ever made was about people like him. But his love for it is atypical for him; he is not angry at it, it does not benefit him, it does not call him by his name, and yet he loves it without further demand. It’s the Grinch with his heart growing two sizes. Maybe he has the patience for Godfather Part II after all.
And then the camera rolls on, the illusion crashing. “Rosebud works,” someone shouts from off camera, and he chuckles. “Right,” he mumbles. “For whatever reason,” he repeats, instinctively reasserting dominance, reframing the pitch as his again, however diminished it might now be. A jump cut, and the same voice asks, “if you could give Charles Foster Kane advice, what would you say to him?” He doesn’t miss a beat: “Get yourself a different woman.”
Powerful words from a man on his third wife. Two were Eastern European models, one a television personality. All are blondes, an almost painfully inevitable detail. He does not even pretend not to treat them as trophy wives. He’s nearly a quarter-century older than Melania; he’d already started work at his father’s company when she was born. He literally has no idea why you think that’s creepy. Of course he doesn’t: he said he hoped his one-year-old daughter Tiffany inherited Marla’s breasts, expressed a desire to date Ivanka, and raped Ivana.
What is perhaps most interesting here is the idea that the procurement of an adequate trophy wife is presented as business advice. On one level there is an almost medieval sense of marriage as a political act; a transaction undertaken. This fits with Citizen Kane, of course, but speaks to Welles’s flare for the Shakespearean more than anything. Certainly it doesn’t describe his status symbol demonstrations of virility in which women are in effect just another way to keep score. No, what it fits is the brand. He likes his women like he likes his buildings: big and decorated in gold.
That’s gender; what of the other obvious flashpoint, race? Where his sexism is object-oriented, his racism is fundamentally more structural. His positions relative to Muslims, Blacks, and Hispanics appear little more than the huckster continuing to say what the people respond to. That is not to say there’s no substance to them, but they are a byproduct of the larger process of dealmaking. More interesting is where the basic inclination towards racial stereotyping comes from: the material realities of New York real estate, its patterns of historical ethnic migrations geologically stratified across the city’s expansion. The practical result: his career is a decades-long chain of talking about “the Italians,” “the Chinese” and, especially in the Manhattan real estate market in which he established himself, “the Jews,” a fact that explains one of the more idiosyncratic features of his specific racism.
His is, in other words, a psychogeographic racism, psychogeography being a term invented by the French Marxist Guy Debord, who describes its goal as being “the study of the precise laws and specific effects of the geographical environment, whether consciously organized or not, on the emotions and behavior of individuals. The charmingly vague adjective psychogeographical can be applied to the findings arrived at by this type of investigation, to their influence on human feelings, and more generally to any situation or conduct that seems to reflect the same spirit of discovery.” One does not imagine he would like this. No matter; it is essential to understanding the Manhattan real estate market upon which he created himself. His arrival on the public scene came in a redlining lawsuit accusing him of presenting blacks with higher rents than whites, a proper bit of trench warfare in the reshaping of New York’s emotions and behavior.
Real understanding requires we go to the source, however: Jamaica Estates, Queens. Forming the western portion of Long Island along with the formerly independent city of Brookyln, with which it became part of the larger New York City at the close of the 19th century, Queens as a whole is massively diverse – by some reckonings the most ethnically diverse place in the world. Jamaica Estates, on the other hand, at least when he was growing up there in the 1950s, was not. (These days it’s majority minority.) A gated community designed by the Jamaica Estates Corporation and built in part by his father shortly after Queens became part of the city, Jamaica Estates was an attempt to construct a community that felt like the European countryside, but was nestled in the city. The land was left hilly and trees were preserved, so the street structure wound across the 500 acres, with the lot sizes left large and topped with Tudor revivalism. His memories of the place are revealing: “different parts of Queens were rough; this was an oasis.”
You can see where the idea of the Wall comes from, at least. But even more important are his memories of traversing the Wall by taking the F-train down into the city, calling it a “microcosm” that showed him what New York “was all about.” It’s irresistible – the aristocrat riding down the hill to gaze upon the commoners and to be seen in return as the self-proclaimed central image of his entire worldview. He has said, when asked when, exactly, America was great, that it was in the 1940s and 50s, which is to say during his own childhood. This dynamic is precisely what he means.
Let’s back up and look at Tudor revivalism. A camp architectural style, Olde English quaintness in the form of thin boards bolted onto the exteriors of houses to give the false impression of timber framing. There’s an intergenerational narrative of immigration in this. For his father the style was a recreation of European aesthetics in an American context – a recapitulation of old world aristocracy constructed as an enclave of the new world, America viewed as something unclaimed, and thus with room for social mobility. A second-generation immigrant who has succeeded at assimilation fashioning himself a quaint, cartoon version of old world elegance.
He, on the other hand, is third-generation, Germany nothing more than a story, and one largely suppressed after both father and grandfather had played down their heritages during a World War. To him the old world was Manhattan, the new the outer boroughs. Social mobility meant advancing within the aristocracy – proving himself the equal of the old-moneyed Manhattanites. Born assimilated, the ostentatious trappings of wealth that surrounded him were understood purely in terms of their excess, their pastiche having been rendered unintelligible without the accompanying sense of heritage.
As a geographic trajectory, this was as fortuitous as it was inevitable. New York City was on the slow slide from being told to drop dead by Gerald Ford to a summer of blackouts and arson, and Manhattan was an object of faded glory. His target befitted this – the Commodore Hotel, a crumbling relic of the gilded age across from Grand Central Station, once called the Most Beautiful Lobby in the World, where John McEntree Bowman had once hosted a circus, elephants and all, on nothing more than a whim upon hearing the offhand comment of a guest, now a bankrupted rat trap in a seedy outcrop of Times Square’s porn district, its occupancy hovering at 50%, with a brothel taking up retail space on the second floor. The strategy was characteristic: a gut renovation would rip out everything but a single foyer, while the brick exterior would get a glass facade, the illusion of the contemporary bolted onto the classically modern.
Central to the project, however, was the wealth of familial connections, mostly cultivated through his father. Perhaps most important was New York Mayor Abe Beame, the sort of man who clapped his arms around him and his father at a meeting and proclaimed “whatever my friends want in this town, they get.” In this case what they wanted was a bill to pass through the state legislature that would provide for a twenty-year tax abatement for projects such as the hotel, which would become a Grand Hyatt. The bill faltered, however, and so he turned to the time-honored tactic of the upper class and fell upwards, hatching a scheme to use the state’s Urban Development Corporation to buy the property for a dollar and then lease it back tax-free for forty years.
It was here that his father’s connections became truly crucial, as otherwise he’d have completely fucked the deal by waltzing into UDC head Richard Ravitch’s office for a meeting and, when Ravitch offered a lesser deal than he wanted, threatening to have him fired. But pressure from Beame and City Hall eventually turned Ravitch around. With typical regard for the truth, he went on to claim that he’d gotten the forty-year abatement “because I didn’t ask for fifty.” But the dependence on his father’s connections didn’t stop there – it was Fred who guaranteed the $70 million construction loan, and who secured an additional $65 million from Chase when the project went over budget.
Of the numerous cronies surrounding the Grand Hyatt deal, however, one stands out. The point of the UDC, when it was created in the 1960s, was to develop racially integrated housing. And so there is a particularly rich irony in the fact that one of the key brokers of the deal was Roy Cohn, whose association with the family had begun when representing them in a federal lawsuit alleging that they were offering different rental terms and falsely claiming to have no vacancies when blacks inquired about apartments in thirty-nine separate buildings across the city.
The significance of Cohn’s mentorship is an understandably popular angle on our subject. Cohn, after all, is a legendarily repulsive figure. He was in many ways the archetype of the unscrupulous pitbull attorney – a man never troubled by principles or shame who represented his clients with ruthless bluster and a stunning gift for hypocrisy. But more appealing is simply the bizarre scope of his career. He came to prominence in 1951 by threatening David Greenglass into perjuring himself testifying against his sister Ethel Rosenberg. This launched him into becoming chief counsel to Joseph McCarthy on the recommendation of J Edgar Hoover. There he became the primary architect of the Red Scare and helped convince Dwight Eisenhower to ban the federal employment of homosexuals before finally being forced out in disgrace after McCarthy was censured. He returned to New York and continued a law career there, representing at various times the Roman Catholic Church, New York Yankees, John Gotti, and Studio 54. And then for good measure he posthumously became one of the main characters in Tony Kushner’s Angels in America, which portrayed his last days dying of AIDS and vigorously remaining in the closet, memorably played by Al Pacino in the HBO adaptation. He is perhaps the only character in the tale as singular as the man himself; a ragged scar against the post-War American half-century, and the closest thing to an external explanation that exists.
Cohn was, of course, kicked to the curb as soon as his diagnosis became clear.
Having made his foothold in Manhattan, he set out upon his great work: the Tower. It is a cliche to note that the architecture of a skyscraper is largely about fucking the sky. In western culture, at least, this is fundamentally homoerotic, the sky being a traditionally patriarchal figure. As is usually the case with him, this bluntly Freudian approach pays clear-cut dividends, forming a shockingly robust explanation for his actions. What it misses, however, is the foaming excess of it. The Tower’s serrated design does not merely serve to make it look bigger than it is; it makes it so that it appears to fuck the sky with an animalistically barbed penis, its jagged teeth biting in so the firmament can’t escape.
More broadly, the Tower applies the principles of Tudor revivalism to the skyscraper. The word du jour of 80s architectural critics was “tacky,” which is hardly inaccurate, especially once one gets a glimpse of the lobby, but also serves to miss the point, encoding a judgment of taste rooted in aesthetic values that are simply not meaningfully in play. It is more accurate to say that it makes a very pure commitment to the visual essence of the skyscraper while remaining weirdly indifferent to its context or function. The Tower, in other words, cares more about looking like a skyscraper than being one.
This preposterous structure marks what is possibly the most important transition in his life. Up to its completion in 1983, it is basically possible to understand him as a human being in the traditional sense. His motivations in building it, its basic aesthetics, even most of the idiosyncrasies of its construction, all of these things make up a perfectly understandable pathology, a sort of Charles Foster Kane figure whose psyche can be summed up in a single, magical word. He might have had a name. But then he literally built a six-hundred-and-sixty-six foot tower to which he offered up that name, sacrificing it upon its black altar such that the building became a titanic sigil of the sixteenth Major Arcana of the Tarot of the Golden Dawn, symbolizing destruction and ruin, with what remained of the man whose name it ate living within the rotting heart of its penthouse.
Like the Hyatt before it, it was built in the ruins of modernism, this time the remains of fallen department store Bonwit Teller’s 1930 flagship store, which had famously been dominated by art deco reliefs of sphinxes on the exterior walls, which he initially promised to donate to the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Instead, perhaps upon realizing the cost, perhaps out of an always-intended switcheroo, he had them destroyed in the night, literally jackhammering the goddess into the ground to build his Tower upon her corpse. A Ruined Modernism.
So you can’t exactly call the eventual divorce a surprise. Still, this inevitable consequence hurts, if only because it’s expressed in terms he understands – a demand for cash, predicated on his infidelity. It is not an attack on his name but on his image, a tabloid onslaught in which one of his bits on the side provided the famously libel-proof headline “Best Sex of My Life!” But there were other losses at the same time; Cohn, of course, along with one of the last lawsuits he filed, an antitrust case against the NFL that ended in a nominal victory with deliberately insulting damages of $3, increased to $3.76 due to interest during appeals. This was also the period where he began his ill-fated expansion into Atlantic City, which would lead to his first round of bankruptcies.
But it is the tower that anchors the transition, pegged by multiple associates as a turning point in his personality, where he became convinced of his own infallibility. At the heart of it, as Barbara Res, manager on the Tower, puts it, was the fact that “he became a celebrity… as he got more famous, he got nastier.” A common narrative arc, to be sure, but generally lacking the ruthless efficiency of an architectural black mass to sacrifice your name upon the altar of your image.
Certainly its construction anticipates the transfiguration it wrought. It was a conjuring trick from the zoning on. The air rights of the adjacent Tiffany flagship (happy to lose the competition of the Bonwit Teller store) were used to get permission to build a tower in the lot, then an extra twenty floors were gained by declaring the lobby, an ostentatious five-level atrium dominated by pink Italian marble in a multi-story waterfall, a public space. In practice, of course, the lobby was simply a cathedral to his now-eaten name, today occupied by an eponymous Bar (enjoy a “You’re Fired” of house-made bloody mary mix, Absolut vodka, and celery for $15), Grill (from whence the best taco bowls famously emerge), and Shop (hats, these days).
The actual business of erecting the thing, meanwhile, was simply bizarre. By this point a certain obstinate contrarianism had already set in – an instinct that would eventually become his primary means of populist appeal. And so, urged forward by Cohn, he opted to use reinforced concrete as the primary building material, consciously deciding to work with Mafia-controlled companies, presumably on some logic that he could just pay them off and have it end up cheaper than more traditional steel girders.
Augmenting the Mafia-owned union crews were a contingent of undocumented Polish immigrants, something he was apparently more fond of those days. And in the course of threatening someone over that he hit upon one of his most famously bonkers signature moves, in which he acts as his own representative over the phone by making up a stupid name, usually John Barron. In this case Barron was his lawyer, but he’d quickly settle into his more regular role of his “spokesman,” a role in which he gave what is possibly the most suggestive account of himself ever, “I’m somebody that he knows and I think somebody that he trusts and likes.”
It is the John Barron anecdote that best prefigures where things go next. He sold his name, yes, but what did he get out of the deal? The answer, simply put, is what he would hereafter treat as his most valuable asset: his brand. In short, he became a creature of pure image. The image in question is as crassly unsubtle as the Tower; the idea of being rich stripped of any and all content other than the thunder of its own self-existence. Or, more prosaically, he became the sort of person who would want something as gobsmackingly awful as the Tower’s penthouse, which, as numerous journalists given a “private tour” of it have noted, shows literally no sign whatsoever of him living in it. It is the idea of a rich dude distilled to its lowest common denominator and launched as a celebrity.
The first visible sign of this, of course, was The Art of the Deal. His ghostwriter on the project, Tony Schwartz, has offered a suitably chilling account of the book’s composition, describing how he could not get his subject to focus even for long enough to give a short interview about his childhood, and finally ended up researching the book by sitting in on phone calls, an approach that delighted his subject who, Schwartz recalled, “loved the attention – if he could have had three hundred thousand people listening in, he would have been even happier.” Schwartz, for his part, was rather more dispirited by it, especially when it became clear while asking follow-up questions about the phone calls that his subject was lying freely about nearly every aspect of his business operations, noting that “more than anyone else I have ever met, he has the ability to convince himself that what he is saying at any given moment is true, or sort of true, or at least ought to be true.”
It is presumably this ability that inspired Schwartz’s opening to the book, where he has his subject proclaim, “I don’t do it for the money. I’ve got enough, much more than I’ll ever need. I do it to do it. Deals are my art form. Other people paint beautifully on canvas or write wonderful poetry. I like making deals, preferable big deals. That’s how I get my kicks.” He goes on to describe his lack of a typical day, and how he prefers “to come to work each day and just see what develops,” giving the sense of a sort of endlessly freewheeling nature – a thrill at the constant flux of negotiation. The irony is that this was in most regards the exact opposite of the truth: his status as a public icon meant that his life had, in practice, attained a sort of stasis, his newfound existence as a creature of pure image running in a self-perpetuating loop whereby being famous for being a rich asshole could consistently earn him enough to keep being a rich asshole.
The awful nature of this state is perhaps best expressed by the oft-cited anecdote in which, during one bankruptcy or another, he informed Ivanka (or, in some tellings, Marla) that a panhandler had more money than he did before calmly strolling into the marble atrium of the Tower while the panhandler, presumably, froze to death in the winter. The difference was that he was universally understood to be a Rich Man, and thus had the crucial Too Big to Fail sheen needed to simply glide through his string of bankruptcies, the banks (themselves largely just magic tricks of a more traditionally alchemic design) recognizing him as essentially of their kind and taking a series of dramatic haircuts on their loans while offering him ludicrously generous terms like a $450,000 a month “allowance” instead of doing what they would with an actual human being who was that far underwater.
As a result the 90s were a strangely good decade for him. Sure, there were three bankruptcies in four years and two divorces, including his bruising split with Ivana, but all of these served merely to confirm his notion of himself as fundamentally invulnerable. For the most part the years passed in a gentle blur of celebrity. A list of his TV and movie cameo appearances can readily serve as a chronology of low-middlebrow American popular culture across the decade. (To wit: Home Alone 2, The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, The Nanny, The Drew Carey Show, Spin City, Sex and the City.)
It is a tone set by his first book of the decade, The Art of Survival. Music writer Greil Marcus noted the rise of “survivor” as a term of praise in the mid-to-late seventies, eviscerating the vapidity involved in valorizing the most basic act of not dying. But the book’s hardcover title, Surviving at the Top, highlights a second, even lamer approach in which the ability of entrenched power to sustain itself is elevated to the realm of mythology. But mere survival was in the end unsustainable given his competitive streak and zero-sum worldview, and by decade’s end he’d changed from being a survival artist to The Art of the Comeback.
To some extent this was simply necessity. The bankruptcies may have been deftly navigated such that his actual losses amounted to a yacht and an ill-advised attempt to run an airline, but his finances were at times in genuine peril, his meager accomplishment of being born rich and managing not to lose it all having been accomplished in genuinely harrowing ways. The worst of it happened in his Atlantic City casino businesses, where things at one point grew tight enough that he humiliated the staff by standing on the floor anxiously watching a Japanese businessman for fear he might win, and at another that he had his lawyer deposit a $3m check from Fred at the blackjack table and simply walk out with the chips.
All of this was entirely a disaster of his own making. The collapse of his Atlantic City businesses happened for the very simple reason that he was terrible at running them. He set up three separate casinos with three separate companies, burning his partners by trading up to larger venues until he was heavily competing with himself. His last and largest, the Taj Mahal, was an overpriced behemoth that he financed with junk bonds at interest rates that would have required him to produce better turnover than any other casino in the city. He did not merely make bad deals – he recklessly and systematically self-destructed in self-evidently stupid ways.
Given these circumstances it is hardly surprising that scratching the surface of his culturally placid decade reveals a deep well of festering ugliness. One can start with the big picture – things like his 1993 testimony to Congress on the subject of casinos on Native American reservations in which he attempted to fend off the potential competition to his Atlantic City businesses by claiming that “organized crime is rampant on Indian reservations” and that casinos there would be the biggest scandal since Al Capone, noting that it was “unbelievable” to him that anyone would believe “an Indian chief is going to tell Joey Killer to get off his reservation,” a series of claims he then refused to back up with any evidence, answering Bill Richardson’s question as to why he hadn’t reported this rampant criminal activity to law enforcement with “that’s not my job.” (Recall, of course, how he’d built the Tower, a process that gave him no shortage of connections that were essential to his expansion into Atlantic City, which had involved numerous deals with Mafia figures.)
But it’s the smaller scale that is more instructive – the sea of unfulfilled invoices to local Atlantic City businesses, millions of dollars for pianos, bartenders, cabinetry, chandeliers, air conditioning, plumbing, and of course massive and gaudy signage. Clinton’s lined ‘em up for ads, and they’re genuinely heartbreaking – a stream of people screwed out of the profit margin on massive sales that in many cases they’d staked their businesses on. Some of these were legally approved bankruptcy settlements. Others were simple smash-and-grabs – a strategy based on nothing more than throwing Cohn-style legal bluster at small-time businessmen and a bet that he could get away with it more times than not. But more even than them is the fact that whenever he boasts of his comeback and talks about how he got out of Atlantic City at the right time it’s clear that he’s loving it. He relishes it. It’s how he gets his kicks.
By century’s end, though, he was getting restless. Having burnt no shortage of bridges in pursuit of the trail of losers he needed in order to feel like he’d won at survival he was now in the awkward position of having survived. And then, on June 25th, 1999, Fred died. It’s not that this was a surprise; his father had been ill since before the third bankruptcy. But even as deep into his Tower-fueled transfiguration as he was, this must have hit him hard, if only because deep down he knew it marked the final passage of the name of his birth. And so he responded with typically oedipalism, taking to Larry King Live for the full hour not four months after his father’s death to ostentatiously flirt with a run for the Presidency on Ross Perot’s abandoned Reform Party ticket. He assessed the field with ironic pragmatism, reasoning that “I could get the Reform Party nomination. I don’t even think it would be that tough. It’s going to be Buchanan, and I think Buchanan just blew himself out with the book and his love affair with Adolf Hitler,” but worried whether the Reform Party would actually be viable in the general election.
To be fair, this was not his first flirtation with politics. He was supposedly considered by George Bush for the vice president slot in 1988, although it must be stressed that this is the same era in which Princess Diana was considering a Tower appointment and John Barron was telling the press Madonna wanted to date him. But he was clearly happy to be seen as the man who was almost Dan Quayle and developed a taste for weighing in ostentatiously on politics, as he did a year later when he took out an ad calling for the Central Park Five to be executed. But this time was different – he went so far as to form an actual Exploratory Committee. The logic is easy enough to see – almost mistakable for genuine human emotion. A grieving son flirts with obvious folly in a posthumous bid to impress his difficult father. And it’s fair to say there are ways he’s a natural heir to Ross Perot.
All told he stuck around for three months before realizing that Pat Buchanan was skilled at manipulating the material remnants of the Reform Party and that he’d get creamed in the general against Bush and Gore anyway, finally withdrawing via a New York Timeseditorial that randomly pilfered the title of Peggy Noonan’s Reagan-era memoir What I Saw at the Revolution in which he mused that he loved running for president, and might do it again in 2004.
Instead he did The Apprentice. This was an obvious enough move. It was clear he enjoyed celebrity more than real estate, and his basic existence through the 1990s could fairly be described as anticipating the genre of reality TV. But the fact that he slotted so easily into this new role is as much a testament to Mark Burnett’s conception of it as his own skills. Broadly speaking, he was to play a “hard-nosed executive,” but what’s crucial to his being perfectly suited to the part is the broader context of the Bush era with its panopoly of conservative “mavericks” from John McCain to Jack Bauer. The Bush years were fundamentally Reagan-nostalgia played back as a cartoon, and his status as an unironic Gordon Gekko fit perfectly with the awful spirit of the times. Indeed, the first episode of The Apprentice could scarcely be more Bush-era, culminating in the elimination of David, a contestant who obtained an MD and then an MBA in what’s explicitly framed as a triumph of an entrepreneurial attitude over uncharismatic book smarts. In other words, the nerd gets fired, the catch phrase capping off the aesthetic with its unrepentant fetishization of letting the unworthy fail to fend for themselves.
But the real giveaway is the opening credits. On one level they’re just part of Burnett’s perfectly crafted formula. He was fresh off the massive success of porting a Swedish reality competition to the US as Survivor, and he openly subs New York City in for the tropical island, giving his host a monologue that proclaims Manhattan to be “the real jungle” in the midst of a perfectly poised bit of post-9/11 NYC porn for red states. (Watch for the moment when the glint off the Statue of Liberty is synchronized to an imperious-sounding choir, though the real tell is when, during his spiel about his big comeback, the phrase “billions of dollars of debt” is matched to a shot of the National Debt Clock on Sixth Avenue.)
9/11, of course, is the weird interjection – the thing that breaks the smooth narrative from would-be Presidential candidate to reality TV host that would otherwise work here. It is not that the terrorist attack particularly troubled him. Even on the day itself he was calmly remarking that this meant his building at 40 Wall Street was now the tallest building in downtown Manhattan. In the aftermath he made some noise about giving money to charity, didn’t do it, and got on with his life like most people who weren’t directly affected did, eventually inventing a memory about Muslims celebrating in Jersey City. Later he backed the Twin Towers 2, a populist-minded plan to rebuild the Twin Towers only slightly taller, with his usual flair by calling a press conference to complain that the design for “Freedom Tower,” later One World Trade Center, was “a junkyard, a series of broken-down angles that don’t match each other. And we have to live with this for hundreds of years?” But this was just press-hounding; the World Trade Center wasn’t the Woolman Rink, and he was firmly on the outside of the process.
The ironic thing about his response is that he clearly understood something much of the world missed. Aside from the subsequent (and fundamentally separate) war on terror, the largest material effect of 9/11 was the psychogeographic wound dealt to Manhattan – the permanent and traumatic alteration of one of the most iconic skylines in the world. He was a creature birthed from that same psychogeography and understood it instinctively. But this also explains why 9/11 fundamentally derailed his apparent trajectory from 2000 to 2016: it beat him at his own game, manifesting the essence of the Tower better than he could have, and requiring him to become something more monstrous yet before he could appease his awful master.
At almost any point in his life the status of the Bush name is a useful point to contrast him with. On the one hand he rose and fell with it in perfect synchronicity. And in a real sense his dispatching of it is the ultimate accomplishment of his life – a regicidal masterstroke unseen in American politics since the joint work of Lee Harvey Oswald, Sirhan Sirhan, and Jimmy Carter. But beyond that there is the inevitable tension of fundamental similarity. On one level he and George W. Bush were two of a kind: scions of a great name who were in their own ways the second choice to carry that name forward, and who triumphed over their own fundamental incompetence to rise from privilege to greater privilege. But Bush’s story always coupled his ascendency with a deeply traditionalist narrative of born again Christianity. In this approach the period of material power is marked by a kind of personal asceticism, with suitability for power being demonstrated in part by the fact that one no longer indulges in the fratboy fantasies of youth.
He, meanwhile, viewed his Apprentice-fueled ascendency as the occasion for an extended adolescence, entering what we might think of as his “grab them by the pussy” years. Although three of the seven winners of the show were women it’s clear that he viewed the competition as having fundamentally different male and female divisions, with female contestants engaged in something with a clear relationship to his existing line of beauty contests. Behind-the-scenes accounts reveal him repeatedly discussing female contestants’ supposed fuckability with male ones in the “boardroom,” and while there are multiple male contestants along the lines of David there are no female contestants who cannot be described as conventionally attractive young women.
The first episode of The Apprentice makes no effort to hide the fundamentally gendered nature of its construction. The female judge is introduced as “a killer with “many men buried in her wake,” and mere moments later it’s explained that in order to find out whether women have a harder time in business than men he’ll be splitting the sixteen contestants into gendered teams. The first four episodes then have the women sweep their tasks, generally winning via the unabashed use of their sexuality in making sales, and leading to the elimination of four male contestants who are all, like David, portrayed as fundamentally “weak” (as evidenced by their being beaten by women). In the fifth episode the by-then lopsided teams are integrated and the next seven eliminations are women, with the final female contestant avoiding being on the losing team the next week and making it instead to the final four where she was finally fired for not being likeable enough.
But while The Apprentice’s gender issues are most conspicuous its grappling with race was in many regards the aspect of it that better foreshadowed the future. The two finalists in the first season ofThe Apprentice were Bill Rancic, a telegenically anodyne man who would have been played by Walton Goggins if he were for any reason interesting enough to make a movie about, and Kwame Jackson, one of the show’s two black contestants. Mirroring the structure of Burnett’s other hit, the final task involved a number of eliminated contestants returning and working as assistants for the two finalists as they organized large events. Five of the six contestants were roughly as interesting as Kwame and Bill themselves, which is to say not at all, but the sixth was Omarosa Manigault-Stallworth, these days mononymic as simply Omarosa.
Although she was eliminated in the ninth episode, if he can actually be said to have taken on an apprentice at any stage of his career (and certainly if one can be said to have emerged from the show) it is Omarosa. Her role within The Apprentice was as a carefully cast heel – a deliciously disingenuous villain who would ostentatiously backstab her fellow contestants with aplomb. And she did. She’s the best thing in the first season by a mile, considerably outstripping the host, who is frequently awkward and clearly reliant on his script. At the heart of her success is the fact that she embodies his ethos perfectly. She insists she was hard-done by the show’s editing, but if so it’s because of a very basic fact, which is that she unrepentantly lied her head off throughout the competition. She demonstrates not a shred of loyalty to any cause other than her own advancement, which is blatantly constructed only in a moment-to-moment sense of answering the question “am I at this very moment fucking someone over?” If for some unexpected reason the answer is “no,” like him she will go to heroic lengths to change that fact. She is one of the defining pleasures of reality television as a genre. (Both fittingly and ironically, the show emphasizes her experience as a staffer in the Clinton White House.)
So anyway, Kwame drew the short straw and got the second draft of the six assistants, which meant that he was going to end up stuck with Omarosa if Bill didn’t want her, which of course he didn’t. And sure enough during the finale she randomly kidnapped Jessica Simpson so that Kwame couldn’t introduce her to the boss when he wanted to meet her, so that was it for Kwame and Bill became the Apprentice and spent a year managing the construction of the International Hotel and Tower in Chicago. But the real point in all of this is that the black finalist got sandbagged by a character defined by her status as the angry black woman. Which is, in the end, the fundamental reason for his inability to recognize Omarosa as the closest thing to a genuine soulmate he’s ever going to have: he can’t conceive of the possibility that his true apprentice is a black woman.
So it’s no surprise Obama got under his skin. Initially he was complimentary, praising the new president (and specifically his appointment of Clinton as Secretary of State) as late as December of 2009. But he must have looked at the early days of the Tea Party with a certain fondness. Rick Santelli’s famous February 2009 rant that kickstarted the movement would have been right up his alley, for instance – angrily blaming the people who bought subprime mortgages and decrying the valuation of the collective over the individual, complaining that since this happened in Cuba “they’re driving ’54 Chevys, maybe the last great car to come out of Detroit.” Between that and his assertion that the people on the floor of the Chicago Mercantile Exchange represented “a pretty good statistical cross-section of America, the silent majority,” it’s clear he and Santelli are two of a kind.
Past that, his perspective on the financial crisis was at an odd remove. The International Hotel and Tower in Chicago (the building Bill Rancic nominally managed) was the only project into which he’d actually invested enough real money to have any real exposure to the crisis, and he handled that with his usual Cohn-style tactics. Beyond that, sure, he’d managed the impressively dumb feat of starting a mortgage company in 2006, teaming up with a guy named E.J. Ridings who’d been introduced to him by his son, and who turned out to have substantially fabricated his CV, but that was basically a licensing deal. This was how things worked post-Apprentice – he sold his name to other businessmen and sat on the sidelines. Ridings wasn’t even particularly unusual among the people he sold his name to, the pool of people who thought his brand was a valuable marketing tool generally being restricted to those with even less business sense or ethics than he had. So all his flirtations with the mortgage industry would have done was confirm his sense of himself as being above the fray, and of the crisis being other people’s problem. Indeed, in his overall sense of ethics the fact that his company sold the bad mortgages would have proven Santelli’s point: it’s the people dumb enough to buy them that were at fault, not him. His job in such a situation was to make a lot of money, as he was happy to proclaim in the first debate. So to regularly see people like him blamed for what he no doubt thought was the largely exaggerated financial crisis would have made him feel deeply aggrieved. And unsurprisingly he made the primary target for his anger the most visible black man in the situation.
His racism has always been the sort that said things like “I’ve always had a great relationship with the blacks,” and he even means it, which is to say that his affection for them is genuine. It’s not an accident that the intro music to The Apprentice was a version of The O’Jays “For The Love of Money” edited so that it’s no longer actually about money’s evil nature, or that his rallies feature bizarre poetic readings of Al Wilson’s “The Snake.” But his relationship with them is fundamentally framed by the Jamaica Estates – they are the people he goes down the hill from the palace to see. Like money, they are fundamentally a means of keeping score. But this function is performed by their subservience, hence, for example, Season FourApprentice winner Randal Pinkett spending his first day sitting while his new boss meticulously looked through all the press clippings about himself.
And so in 2011 he turned on Obama, flirting provocatively with birtherism in a March 2011 interview on Good Morning America while doing another public flirtation with running for president. He was hardly the first to do so – politicians like Mike Huckabee, Sarah Palin, and Michele Bachmann all flirted with it to various degrees. But he was by some margin the most rawly famous person to indulge in the conspiracy theory, and Good Morning America was among the highest platforms the theory had ascended to. This got him attention, and by mid-April he was getting daily briefings on the “conspiracy” from WorldNetDaily founder and general conspiracy nut Joseph Farah.
It’s hardly surprising that he loved the attention. He always loves attention, after all. If a rush of people cheer on something he says he’s basically incapable of not saying it again or of pushing it further to get more and louder cheers. But it’s a mistake to treat this as a cynically strategic pandering to what would eventually become his electoral base. There was nothing strategic about it. It was nothing more or less than the inevitable consequence of his particular pathologies set loose in the particular political context of the first black president slamming rich real estate speculators.
The 2012 run was another bust, with polling showing that he’d have a tough time getting to the nomination. And past that, the crux of his problem with Obama was that the president existed far outside his comfort zone. For all his venom, he was unlikely to relish the idea of going head to head with him. And so he bided his time, sinking deeper into the morass of nativist conspiracy theories and acquiring a new circle of fringe-right yes-men to hand him his script. Meanwhile, the humiliations piled up. A 2014 Buzzfeed profile in which he gave McKay Coppins access as he flitted about New Hampshire generating hype for another presidential run only to be soundly mocked by a headline calling it “36 Hours On The Fake Campaign Trail” and zingers like that he’s “about as likely to run for president in his lifetime as he is to accept follicular defeat.” Then in January of 2015 an appearance in front of the Television Critics Association winter press tour in which he claimed The Apprentice was the number one show on television only to be laughed at by the audience, walking his claim back to the number one show on Mondays only to be asked by one reporter, “what if I told you you’re losing to Mike and Molly every week?” He was, in effect, backed into a corner – surrounded by a new army of far-right sycophants and painfully aware that he was becoming a punchline. And so he took the only option left to him and, in June of 2015, finally announced an actual, honest-to-god presidential run.
No shortage of people have speculated over whether he actually wanted to win. A perfectly plausible theory is that he was following the same path as candidates like Herman Cain and Mike Huckabee whereby the campaign is mainly a tool for building an e-mail list of people to sell shit to. It’s entirely likely he was planning to do something along those lines, perhaps launching a Fox News competitor at his most ambitious. But this seems impossible – he cannot have wanted to lose. The problem is really that he wanted to win the presidency as opposed to being president. The story of him offering John Kasich control of both foreign and domestic policy while he made America great again may well have been a spot of mischief from the Kasich camp, but is nevertheless devastatingly plausible. Literally no aspects of the job seem likely to appeal to him.
Whatever he may have wanted, his campaign became a runaway success. More than perhaps any other aspect of our argument here, this is a topic that has been extensively picked over in think pieces, the usual argument of which is some variation of “the Republican Party laid the groundwork for his rise.” And that’s true enough – eight years of pure opposition politics, often framed on racial lines, and on top of a decades-long strategy of stoking white resentment left the party vulnerable to a populist insurgent. With a field of candidates that was at once overcrowded and mediocre, 2016 was an obvious year for it to happen. And the result was always going to have a fascist sheen and white nationalist core. The more interesting question is why he, of all people, should be so well-suited to being the figurehead atop the rising tide of horror – why an Ivari International hair weave should come so terrifyingly close to being the toothbrush moustache of its day.
On one level, the answer is that for all his incompetence there are in fact a strange handful of things he is good at, and this is one of them. Like replacing a tropical island in a well-defined reality TV format, quasi-fascist figurehead was a job that suited, if not his talents, at least his perversions. His relationship with any kind of truth or objective reality was by this point completely devastated; he was both willing and eager to throw himself into the passionate belief of whatever bit of outright lunacy the base felt validated by so long as they cheered for him. As a racist, sexist bully himself, he could relate to them. And he was, if nothing else, a genuinely ideological autocrat who really did believe he alone could save America. This was enough to establish a larger base within the narrow pool of Republican primary voters than the flaccid campaigns of Jeb Bush, Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio, or the others, which is in the end the extent of his political success.
On another level, the answer is that this is what the Tower always wanted – what its Ruined Modernism always aspired to be. As forms to grotesquely parody went, the failed Great Man was always going to be its path of least resistance. The man whose name it had eaten had always wanted to play the role of Charles Foster Kane if he’d gotten himself a different woman, oblivious to the fact that this would still be a tragedy. And so the thing to which he was host gave it to him. His downfall was simply plucked from history; the same ruin that modernism itself had faced.
And then the other half of its ruination, its black transfiguration into pure image. A perversion without fetishes, the flimflam man staggers down a late-night cable alley. Steadying himself on the side of the building, he tries to catch his breath, an empty-headed fool with no ideas because there are no things, knowing that there’s a something he should say, the best word, but the language burns to ash in his throat. He’s falling, being without becoming in all its ontological absurdity collapsing into concrete embrace of the wall beside him, the strings of a thirty-year old bad deal coiling down like snakes around the useless thing he thought had been his body, and he can smell the burning flesh of the twenty-first century as he presses down upon it, no puppet, no puppet, you’re the puppet. What else was he ever going to become but this?
Mercifully the answer is almost certainly not President of the United States, nor in hindsight was it ever really likely to be. He was well-suited to the task of winning the Republican primary, but his baseline incompetence was always a good bet to doom him in the general election. The ease with which he could be baited meant that he was all but doomed to something like the bad optics of his public feuds with the Khans or Alicia Machado. His head for policy or ability to focus for more than a few minutes ensured he was going to be easy prey in the one-on-one debates with a practiced Hillary Clinton, whose carefully studied decision to refer to him simply as “Donald” was sufficient in itself to keep him on edge. His campaign would never acquire any sort of discipline or method given his propensity for surrounding himself with chaos, always be lax in ground game and prone to gaffe and scandal. He was fat and lazy prey for a well-honed predator like the Democratic political machine, and he was dispatched with swift and brutal ease.
It is a sufficiently brutal comeuppance that it is fleetingly possible to actually feel a moment of human empathy for him. The debates are perhaps the easiest place to pity him – his performance is at times genuinely pathetic, such as his plaintive riff in which he asked, over and over again, why we can’t attack Mosul without warning so that ISIS leaders don’t flee the city before fighting begins, a question that not only displays a deep lack of knowledge about how attacking a fortified city works but a deep lack of knowledge of how the world works, inasmuch as his complaint is literally that the entire military is “stupid” because nobody but him has thought to “make it a sneak attack.” It’s like that nightmare everybody supposedly has of showing up at school for an unexpected test on material you’ve never seen before, except he honest to god doesn’t even seem to realize he’s in it.
Two things, ultimately, prevent this. The first is simply that he is a genuinely awful person such that the spectacle of him blowing one of his only opportunities to turn a catastrophically bad race around is too unambiguously a good thing to feel even a moment’s sympathy for the jerk. The second is that his ruination is too complete for a tragic ending. These things don’t simply end.
Again this is a subject already well-covered by thinkpieces. First of all, of course, there is the man himself. For all his bluster, he’s probably not the type to commit actual treason. He’ll no doubt continue claiming the election was rigged, but will remain vague as to how and will surely not contest the vote – even an actual lawsuit is probably more than he’s likely to muster. But he’s not going to go away either. He’s known to have made initial overtures towards starting a television network, and given Steve Bannon’s involvement in the campaign some sort of joint venture with Breitbart that might finally solve their “named after a dead guy increasingly few people have heard of” problem seems entirely plausible. He will never reach these legendary heights again – the great work is done, his awful design seared into the flesh of American history. But he will remain. Like all ruins, he’s a survivor.
More broadly, when talking about consequences of his campaign, the phrase “Republican civil war” comes up a lot, and is certainly plausible. The party establishment is still powerful, and without the organizing clarity of their figurehead it’s unlikely that the deplorables are going to retain their ability to form a blocking minority within the party apparatus. Primary rules will be revised to make populist insurgencies harder. But none of that is going to fix the underlying problem that the Republican base is fundamentally more interested in white nationalism than it is in laissez-faire capitalism, religious fundamentalism, or conventionally hawkish foreign policy. The danger comes when candidates come along who share his willingness to pander to white nationalists but who aren’t quite so literally plagued by demons.
And they will. There are no shortage of people inclined to look at him as a pilot program. The presence of people like Peter Thiel making large, late contributions to him long after it’s clear he’s a lost cause suggest that elements of the alt-right are playing the long game. Connections have been made, supporter lists have been assembled, and social norms have been altered. Whether a similar success can be obtained without a candidate who can coast on free media coverage through the primaries due to his ostentatious celebrity is unclear. All the same, there is no way around the fact that the world is fundamentally more favorable to the far right than it was eighteen months ago. This should scare you; it sure as fuck scares me.
Still, there’s an inescapable sense of finality to his defeat – a sense that on balance he marks a point where a wave broke and rolled back, or perhaps the edge of where a stain has spread. If nothing else, he made the 2016 election a genuine democratic choice – a decisive referendum on accelerationism. Numerous commenters have remarked that against a more competent opponent circumstances would not have favored Hillary Clinton to quite this extent, and there is something to that. Like Jeb Bush or a new Fantastic Four movie she is the revival of a brand nobody was particularly nostalgic for. On a fundamental level, we recognize that she offers nothing other than the continuation of present circumstances with all their sense of imminent eschatology. And his sheer destructive potential offers a credible alternative to this. A vote for him is at least a vote for bringing things to a sort of climax. It’s not hard to understand why that might appeal to 40% or so of the electorate.
But as any well-trained spin doctor of the 90s would tell you, it’s all about framing. And against accelerationism the Clinton campaign wisely framed themselves as representatives of basic decency. This was a strong choice – one that he’s personally vulnerable to and one that cuts at the heart of accelerationism’s inadequacy. We don’t want the end of the world at the end of the day. Even if it’s inevitable and necessary, we’re in no hurry. For all its numerological suitability, in 2016 the Tower did not appeal. But there is no denying the awful monstrosity erected across the psychic skyline of the times.
A different metaphor, then. There is a fetish in which a man’s genitals are extensively teased and aroused, edging him to the brink of release over and over again until, in the instant between the point of no return and his actual orgasm, all stimulation is abruptly removed. In one oft-videotaped variation he will ejaculate spectacularly, a massive gobbing of semen arcing uselessly into thin air. In others further negative stimulation (a swift blow to the testicles is common) is applied. In either case, however, the point is the cruelty of an unsatisfying climax – the agonizing frustration of acceleration’s crashing halt. A ruined orgasm for a ruined modernism.