No one has more chutzpah than Donald Trump. He is instantly recognizable with his flame-red hair and flamboyant personality. Now the real estate tycoon is running to be the Republican candidate for president of the United States. Journalist and author Michael D’Antonio probes Trump’s life in Never Enough: Donald Trump and the Pursuit of Success. Our conversation has been edited for length.
I was amazed to learn that Trump co-operated with you during the research of your book. Not only that, he encouraged his family to talk.
I don’t think he can resist journalists’ requests, so I had a hunch he would say yes. He lives for the attention. The surprise interview was with Ivana (his first wife), who seemed almost shell-shocked to me. She is frail, her voice is weak and her answers were kind of opaque. I found it poignant and sad. She eventually deviated from her suggestion that Donald needed a lot of attention to the sense that after all these years she really hadn’t figured him out.
Did getting so much access to him tie your hands? Were you more careful in criticism of him?
Anyone who writes about Donald Trump has to be concerned because he is so litigious. There is always a legal team nearby. He wants people to fear him, and I was ultra-careful. Before my book was published his chief lawyer called me and threatened me with legal action if Trump didn’t like the book. It was like talking with someone on The Sopranos who had a law degree.
I don’t think my book is an attack on Donald. It honours all his accomplishments. If you do a complete iteration of Donald Trump you are going to encounter a lot of controversy and a lot of unseemly behaviour.
Trump’s father, Fred, also a real estate developer, is the one who taught his son all about braggadocio.
He did. Fred wasn’t as gifted as his son when it came to self-promotion, but he tried. He outfitted himself in the best clothes and for a brief period tried to be a public figure who expressed opinions about the events of his day. But his personality wasn’t as outgoing as Donald’s. I think Fred took a Dale Carnegie course in hopes of becoming more comfortable with public speaking, and he had his troubles with various levels of government, so that put a chill on his public appearances.
Trump’s mother (Mary Anne MacLeod Trump) had more of a theatrical style than Fred, and Donald recalls her as a person who could tell a story or joke and enthrall a room. She was interested in the monarchy, which is a strange focus for a Scotswoman, but she was really taken with all the pomp. She taught Donald the value of things that look like they were made of gold. That is why his name Trump is presented in shiny brass and gold on his buildings and he has gold fittings on his planes or his lavatories.
It’s hard to take Trump seriously. He stretches the truth. You call it “outlandish claims” but they are really wild fibs such as Queen Elizabeth using Trump’s helicopter when she visits the States. How does he get away with it?
He has worked at positioning himself as the guy who says things that may or may not be accurate. The other day he was questioned about his sagging poll numbers and he said he didn’t think it was true. It is almost like the kid you catch with the hand in the cookie jar saying he is not stealing the cookies. He figured out he can play this character who is not expected to tell the actual truth and people will give him great leeway.
I think the majority of Americans reject Donald Trump as a political figure and the majority is more likely to laugh at him than applaud him. A substantial number do think he is a buffoon, but I think that is all right with him. A good illustration is his hair. It is a strange phenomenon, that hair. It is a construction. He has flipped it into something that works for him because it is an identifier. Who else has hair like this?
Right, that’s the closest you could get. For some time we thought of just using his hair, rather than a photograph of his face, on the cover of the book. He is entrapped by his hair and empowered by it.
Trump has been eyeing a presidential run for years. He has been slipping in the polls but I’m astonished at how well he has done despite his motor mouth and racist comments. Could he become president?
I don’t think he could become president. It is possible he could be the nominee of the Republican party or be put in the slot of vice-president. It is hard to discount what he has done so far. Americans often have summer flings with unusual candidates prior to settling down for someone more serious. The dynamic is unusual this time around with so many candidates and the loyalty of the voters being so divided.
The average voter isn’t reading the New York Times every day. I’ve had people tell me the only thing they know about Donald Trump is that he is the television host of The Apprentice. If they perceive him to be a successful business person with a high profile who speaks authoritatively, and nothing else, they may vote for him. While I think Donald could work the system to get the nomination, I don’t think he could possibly win the White House. I would be really shocked if that happened.
At the end of your research, what did you think of him?
He was smarter than I expected. I was surprised at his ability to think ahead and to reach a goal, at manipulating the press. I think he has become fully the character he created.
So he really is “The Donald,” Ivana’s nickname for him.
I didn’t get the sense he was happy or felt safe. I think he is a person who is always alert to threat, whether there is a threat or not. He talks about everything as a fight and a battle for victory and says people are vicious. It seems so stressful. I would not want to live that way.
He has really kind-hearted kids, wonderful grandchildren. At age 69 he is not at peace and that’s why we title the book Never Enough. I think there is something pathetic in his life. Yes, he is bullying and completely over the top in many of his statements. He’s an exceedingly bizarre character. It was hard for me to reach a single condemning conclusion about him. I recognize there is pain and suffering that is sad.
But he refuses analysis, even the self-reflective kind.
To really analyze yourself requires a lot of courage and I think he told me the truth when he said he was afraid of what he would see.