Magazine | August 10, 2015, Issue

The Art of the Grotesque

Donald Trump and the American id

Oh, you’re goddamned right this is Vegas, baby! because the Planet Hollywood Las Vegas Resort and Casino is the only truly appropriate venue for a show like the one we have right here. For your consideration: the carefully coiffed golden mane, the vast inherited fortune, the splendid real-estate portfolio, the family name on buildings from Manhattan to the Strip, the reality-television superstardom, the room-temperature-on-a-brisk-November-day IQ. The only thing distinguishing that great spackled misshapen lump of unredeemed American id known as Donald Trump from his spiritual soul mate, that slender lightning rod of unredeemed American id known as Paris Hilton, is — angels and ministers of grace, defend us! — a sex tape. The gross thing is, you can kind of imagine a Trump sex tape: the gilt pineapples on the four-poster bed, the scarlet silk-jacquard sheets, the glowing “T” in the background, the self-assured promises that this will be the classiest sex tape the world has ever seen — that it’s yuuuuuuuge! — the cracked raving 69-year-old Babbitt analogue barking inchoate instructions . . . no, no more, that way madness lies.

The awful, horrifying, despair-and-cringe-inducing real-talk truth that is causing the more mobile and proactive among us to start downloading those teach–yourself–Swiss German apps onto our iPhones and to read up on the finer points of immigration law is that the Donald Trump presidential campaign is the Donald Trump sex tape, an act of theater performing precisely the same functions as Paris Hilton’s amateur porn-o-vision escapade: exhibitionism, theatrical self-aggrandizement, titillation, etc., all of it composing a documentation of transient potency to be shorn up against the inevitable passing of that potency. Trump is a post-erotic pornographer, and his daft followers are engaged in the political version of masturbation: sterile, fruitless self-indulgence.

Spend any time around the Trumpkins — the intellectually and morally stunted Oompa Loompas who have rallied to the candidacy of this grotesque charlatan — and you will hear purportedly heterosexual men working up freestyle paeans to Trump’s alleged virility — those “pussies in Washington” aren’t ready for “a real man like Trump,” as one put it — and cataloguing his praises in exuberant gonadal terms, with special attention paid to calculating the heaviness of the Trumpian scrotum relative to the equipment being packed by, e.g., Jeb Bush or Marco Rubio. One says: “He is the only one that has the balls to tell the truth and to stand up for America.” “Trump’s got the balls,” proclaims the headline in a right-wing blog. “Donald Trump is a perfect example of an alpha male,” declares a commenter at (ahem!) “Alpha males lead for a reason,” retorted a Trump admirer when National Review’s Jonah Goldberg called for an “intervention” for the Trumpkins. Members of the GOP establishment, says another, “don’t know how to handle an extroverted alpha male personality like Trump” — ritualistic prostration of the faithful before Trump’s presumptive “alpha” social status being fundamental to the Trumpkin liturgy. Sensing the emergent theme, the left-wing columnist Michael Tomasky declared in the Daily Beast: “Trump’s got the GOP by the balls.”

Speaking in Vegas, his blood-flushed face a hypertensive moon rising against the background of a much larger photographic version of that same violet face, Trump declared: “I’m much, much richer than what they say,” one of the few complete sentences he managed to utter over the course of a performance that inspired Reason’s Matt Welch to observe: “This isn’t a speech, it’s a seizure.”

How the hell did this happen?

‘I’m really rich,” Trump said during the announcement of his presidential candidacy. The scene was — what else could it have been? — Trump Tower in Manhattan, a real-estate development built in part by illegal immigrants, which embarrassing fact obliged one of Trump’s subcontracting minions to take a plea deal including jail time. (But not to worry, Trumpkins — they were Polish illegals, not abominable Mexicans!) Riding an escalator down to the lobby with his chin cocked up like Barack Obama’s or Benito Mussolini’s, Trump entered to the tired sounds of “Rockin’ in the Free World,” by Neil Young, who immediately demanded that Trump stop using his song. That created a typical Trumpian controversy: Trump responded by saying that Neil Young, a Canadian and a Bernie Sanders enthusiast, was looking for a payday. He tweeted (because that’s how we litigate political disputes these days) a message: “For the nonbeliever, here is a photo of @Neilyoung in my office and his $$ request — total hypocrite.” There was indeed a picture of a decrepit Neil Young shaking hands with a decrepit Donald Trump, but the accompanying document wasn’t a request for compensation for the use of Young’s music: It was just the signature page of a preferred-stock purchase agreement, which could indicate anything. Trump later said in sour-grapes mode that the song was just one of many on his playlist (“Music of the Night,” from Phantom of the Opera, and “Memories,” from Cats, are in the rotation, too, because that’s totally appropriate and not at all weird) and went on to disparage the songwriter. That’s the signature Trump move, right there: make a lot of noise, and, when possible, make that noise about money.

“I’m rich,” Trump says, endlessly. How rich? “Very rich.” Very? “I mean my net worth is many, many times Mitt Romney,” as he put it some time back. “Much, much richer.” Critics and opponents? Not rich. “Can’t buy a pair of pants,” he said about Goldberg. That’s most of Trump’s argument, and practically the entirety of the Trumpkins’ argument: How could a guy with that much money — so much more money than a nobody like you, loser! — not have something going on?

About that . . .

Donald Trump is not the source of the Trump family fortune. That would be Frederick Christ Trump, Donald Trump’s father, the self-made real-estate mogul who had controlled more than 27,000 New York City properties by the time of his death in 1999. Fred Trump was in many ways the cultural and financial inverse of his son: He didn’t build gold-hued towers with his name on the front, but built, managed, and developed thousands of modest apartment buildings (some of them exceedingly modest; the line between “low-income developer” and “slumlord” is not a bright and straight one) and row-house blocks, mainly in unglamorous sections of Brooklyn and Queens. Unlike his son, he never put the family name on a strip joint–cum–casino in Atlantic City and never was a party to a series of high-profile bankruptcies. But by the end of his life he had amassed a portfolio worth about $400 million in 2015 dollars.

In his most recent financial disclosures, Trump claimed to have about $300 million in cash and marketable securities. The rest of the vast Trump fortune is . . . vague. Forbes, which has been on the Trump-net-worth beat for a few decades, estimates that his actual worth is about half what he claims. Fred Trump set his son up in business, buying him a decrepit housing development in Cincinnati (what was your college-graduation gift?) and financing its redevelopment. The project went well, and Trump eventually was hired to run the family business. How well he has run that business is not clear. Trump companies have been through a number of headline-grabbing bankruptcies, prominent among them the Atlantic City casino–hotel–strip joint bearing the Trump name. Trump’s inept and debt-happy management resulted in the watering down of his stake in the casino group to about 5 percent, and he no longer serves on its board of directors or in any official capacity. These properties are TINO — Trump’s in Name Only — so don’t expect him to lose any sleep over the recently declared bankruptcy of the Trump International Golf Club or the probable backsliding into bankruptcy of the Trump Taj Mahal, once his pet project and now mostly somebody else’s problem. Trump doesn’t want much to do with these Trump properties.

That’s the odd thing. Trump is always going on and on and on about how rich he is, but his largest asset is an asset only from a certain point of view: He values the Trump brand at more than $3 billion, more than any building, resort, golf club, or financial instrument in his possession. There are more than a few financial analysts who scoff at the notion that he could actually sell the brand for anything near that amount of money. Maybe Trump, or at least his people, understands this on some level: A previous valuation had the brand worth more than $4 billion. And it’s not entirely clear who wants the Trump brand on his merchandise just now, other than Trump.

Macy’s dumped Trump — the store had sold a selection of hideously tacky Donald J. Trump–branded shirts and ties, inevitably made in China and Mexico — when the candidate started bellowing that the Mexican government is intentionally flooding the United States with rapists, a proposition for which there is, unsurprisingly, no evidence. Trump is not very much interested in the world outside the narrow confines of his skull. When Macy’s announced that it was severing its relationship with Trump, Trump had a full-on chimp-out, proclaiming that “Macy’s stores suck and they are bad for U.S.A.” and calling for a boycott. The Trumpkins began circulating claims that tens of thousands of people were boycotting Macy’s and cutting up their Macy’s cards, another claim for which there is — unsurprisingly — no evidence. “Now, Macy’s hurts, because the head of Macy’s I thought was a great friend of mine, Terry Lundgren,” Trump said, falling into his familiar, nearly monosyllabic rhythm. “Now this is a man I played golf with. I was with him all the time. He really was, was, was — you understand, because I don’t forget things.” His response to the CEO’s concerns about the fact that Hispanics are not very keen at the moment on buying stuff labeled “Trump”? “Terry, be tough! They’ll be gone one day.”

That’s Trump’s big idea on the immigration problem: They’ll be gone one day.

Macy’s wasn’t alone in the dump-Trump movement. Trump just announced a $500 million lawsuit against Univision, because the television network, not wanting to be associated with Trump and the horde of Mexican rapists that lives in his head, has decided not to carry the Spanish-language broadcast of the annual parade of Trump-owned vulgarity known as the Miss USA pageant. A bewildered Trump protested that “nothing that I stated was any different from what I have been saying for years.” (Yeah.) Univision dismissed the lawsuit as “factually false and legally ridiculous.” Trump is just paranoid enough to believe that his opponents aren’t political critics, good sense, and decency, but rather a nation-state, namely Mexico: He has said — in public, with a straight face — that Univision, which is based in midtown Manhattan, dropped Miss USA on orders from the Mexican government. “Mexico put the clamps on Univision. Mexico has a lot of power over them.” When an audience member in Las Vegas criticized Trump’s dopey immigration rhetoric, Trump demanded: “Did the government of Mexico ask you to come here?”

Univision, of course, is not alone. NBC followed suit and dropped the English-language Miss USA broadcast. More important, NBC gave Trump the heave-ho from The Celebrity Apprentice, the reality-television show that, unlike Trump-branded casinos in Atlantic City and Trump-branded golf resorts in Puerto Rico, makes a lot of money. Trump was already going to miss one season — running for president is a full-time job, as it turns out — but NBC made it very clear that he is not welcome back. Trump had been contemplating a return to the show — “They wanted me to do The Apprentice,” he says, though who knows whether that is true — but later slipped into his usual wet-diaper-rage thing, proclaiming that NBC could not see the wisdom of Trumpism because its executives are “so weak and so foolish.”

Failing casinos and golf courses, no Univision, no Apprentice, no ugly Macy’s shirts. And still Trump insists his name constitutes a $3 billion brand. Brand of what? Canned tuna?

Nothing succeeds like success — and nothing fails like failure. Trump knows this, which is why Donald J. Trump feels the need to lie a great deal about Donald J. Trump’s success. Example: He has claimed, repeatedly, that his Art of the Deal is the best-selling business book of all time. It has been very successful, selling around 1 million copies since its publication in 1987. But it hasn’t sold a quarter of the books that the relatively recent Good to Great and Rich Dad, Poor Dad have sold, and its sales are barely a rounding error on those of such perennials as How to Win Friends and Influence People and The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People. Walter Isaacson’s recent biography of Steve Jobs has sold three times as many copies at The Art of the Deal. Selling 1 million books is no mean feat, but where Trump is concerned, Trump deals exclusively in superlatives: the biggest, the best, the classiest, etc.

None of that is ever true, of course. Trump-branded shirts and ties at Macy’s weren’t the best, finest, classiest, most stylish shirts and ties to be had; they weren’t even the best shirts you could get at Macy’s. Trump-branded casinos and hotels are not the best, most luxurious, most high-end accommodations in the world — they’re embarrassing, and the people sipping cocktails at the Sky Lobby bar at the Mandarin Oriental in Vegas are not secretly wishing they were at the Trump. Trump Tower is far from the nicest residential building in its neighborhood, much less in all of New York City. Trump-branded golf courses are not the greatest golf courses in the world. The Apprentice isn’t the top-rated reality-television show.

This is what rich-kid’s disease looks like when the rich kid is pushing 70.

Trump’s admirers believe that they have found in their champion a man who tells it like it is, but he is the opposite. A literal Republican in Name Only, Trump holds political views that were, until the day before yesterday, up-and-down-the-line progressive: pro-abortion, pro-Kelo and supportive of other tools of crony capitalism, and, if the words of Donald J. Trump himself are to be believed, pro–amnesty for illegal immigrants, too — not for 11 million, but for the fictitious 30 million he discussed with Bill O’Reilly:

You have to give them a path. You have 20 million, 30 million, nobody knows what it is. It used to be 11 million. Now, today I hear it’s 11, but I don’t think it’s 11. I actually heard you probably have 30 million. You have to give them a path, and you have to make it possible for them to succeed. You have to do that.

Trump has switched between the Republican and Democratic parties more times than he has switched wives (you think his ex-wives would call him a truth-teller?) and is a longtime political and financial patron of Charles Schumer, Nancy Pelosi, Harry Reid, and Hillary Rodham Clinton, the woman against whom he presumably would be running if the Republican party were to lose its damned mind and nominate him.

That Trump for a hot minute is leading in the GOP-primary polls may tell us something useful about the Right, its constituents, and its internal politics, namely that the problem with populist conservatism is that it is populist but not conservative. But what it mainly tells us is that P. T. Barnum was right, and that he has not been forgotten. If Planet Hollywood is booked next time, Trump can always go down the road to Circus Circus.

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