Politics & Policy

How Much Does Trump Really Want to Be President?

(Reuters photo: Jonathan Ernst)
Maybe Americans don’t want to elect a grown man who acts like a 13-year-old boy.

Donald Trump does know how to act in a serious, restrained way that impresses people. The fact that he isn’t displaying those qualities in his presidential race raises questions about just how much he cares about winning.

There was a time when he really cared about the art of one deal. In 1990, Trump nearly went bankrupt and was forced to ask dozens of banks to whom he owed $4 billion to change the terms on their loans and forgive some of his debts. In describing this deal, Trump has said he focused on it with more intensity and purpose than anything he’d done in his life to that point.

In The Choice 2016, PBS’s recently aired two-hour documentary on the election, Gwenda Blair, author of The Trumps, reports that “bankers held gigantic meetings at Trump Tower with, like, 40 banks all sitting around in a room, Donald very sober, looking like not quite penitent perhaps, but serious.” Blair says that Trump escaped collapse by convincing his creditors he was more valuable to them “financially alive rather than dead.” He proceeded to recoup his losses by shifting from real-estate deals to licensing his well-known name.

But Trump isn’t acting with that seriousness of purpose now. He blew off holding traditional practice sessions before the first debate last week — and it showed. Then he spent days counter-punching against Alicia Machado’s accusation that Trump had humiliated her 20 years ago over her weight gain shortly after she was crowned Miss Universe. Trump’s heated back-and-forth with Machado and her supporters in the Clinton camp culminated in a tweet storm at 3 a.m. on Friday in which he urged followers to check out her “sex tape.” (She appeared in a controversial reality show on Spanish TV that seemed to show her having sex under cover of blankets.) Tweets about how exactly he would help average Americans or “make America great again” have been scarce of late. Despite warnings that he should cool it, Trump proceeded on Friday to imitate Hillary Clinton buckling at a 9/11 memorial service last month and suggested she might not have been “loyal” to her husband.

All this juvenile behavior has caused Trump to slump in polls. Fox News found that after the first debate, 67 percent of likely voters said Hillary Clinton had the temperament to serve as president. Trump’s temperament number fell a point to 37 percent — a 30-point gap.

Why is Trump having such difficulty changing his behavior when he should know he is hurting himself? He has provided the answer. Last year, financial journalist Michael D’Antonio published Never Enough: Donald Trump and the Pursuit of Success. The book was bolstered by ten hours of exclusive interviews with the mogul.

Some of the quotes are very revealing. When asked if he is ever introspective, Trump replied, “I don’t like to analyze myself, because I might not like what I see.” When queried about his temperament, Trump said: “When I look at myself in the first grade and I look at myself now, I’m basically the same. The temperament is not that different.” He said he “loved to fight” as a child, “any kind of fight, loved it, including physical.”

Well, assuming Trump is telling the truth, there’s the answer. As a grade-schooler Trump threw cake around a birthday party and gave a teacher a black eye because he was ignorant. His behavior was so out of control that his parents exiled him upstate to a military academy. His experience there only cemented his bully-boy traits. Trump has described the students and the drill sergeants there as people who would “smack the hell out of you,”

Of course, Trump also can turn on the charm. “Fortunately, in many settings, Trump has controlled his childish tendencies,” D’Antonio writes. But his success in capturing the GOP nomination against all odds seems to have created a belief in his own invincibility and reinforced his traits. “He is like a 13-year-old teenager who can stay up as late as he wants, eat junk food; there’s no adult who has the right to take away his phone and stop the tweeting.”

#related#Yes, Trump’s lack of impulse control has also been an asset to him. He comes across as spontaneous, funny, and unscripted — the opposite of most politicians. “It’s the paradoxical effect of the bad little boy,” D’Antonio wrote in an article for CNN in March this year. “Yes, he’s out of line and must be taught to respect others. However, the sight and sound of someone behaving with such an unbridled enthusiasm is also thrilling.”

But unless Trump comes across as a little less thrilling and a lot more responsible, he will never be able to persuade swing voters he won’t embarrass the country in the White House. If Americans on Election Day think that Donald Trump has the maturity of a 13-year-old boy, undecided voters will conclude he is 22 years shy of the age requirement for president stipulated in the Constitution. They won’t vote for him, and he will be shipped back to the gilded cage of Trump Tower. The way he’s acting, it seems as if he might prefer the comfort of that safe zone over the responsibility of the Oval Office.

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