Trump Has to Be Cruel

An Interview with Michael D’Antonio by Maciej Nowicki

Voters are not in the least bit interested whether he is right or not. They want him to give them their true emotions. This pattern has been described by child psychologists. If a bully appears in any given group, most kids will side with him—says Michael D’Antonio in an interview with Maciej Nowicki.

Donald Trump has made innumerable blunders. Is it going to hurt him eventually?

A number of times it seemed that Trump was destroying himself. For example, when he asked his followers to react with violence to any attempts at obstructing his rallies. Nobody had ever suggested anything like that in America. Or when he appealed to Russians to do away with Hillary Clinton. But all this has not hurt him so far. The problem is that his voters are not in the least bit interested whether he is right or not, whether his lying or telling the truth. Neither do they count on him to present sensible solutions for the future. They want Trump to give them their true emotions, a real spectacle (we have never had that before in America—a campaign which comes down only to emotions). And in this respect he is consistent. In his screaming appearances he acts like a leader of a sect—he says that our times are an apocalypse, that the evil ones will be punished and the faithful rewarded. In America, candidates used to be punished for not being able to control their anger. With Trump it is the other way round. And perhaps he would start losing support if he turned around and started showing restraint. His voters would take it as a sign of weakness. They would decide that he was no longer resistant to blows.

Trump has to be cruel?

I think so. This is a pattern described by child psychologists. If a bully appears in a given group, most kids will side with him. They feel admiration mixed with fear. And this is the role played by Trump before his voters.

Why is Clinton doing so badly? A lot of people hate Trump, but she is also not very popular. Is it because she is Bill Clinton’s wife, a symbol of old times? And, as Obama once put it, “she does not smell like a new car?”

A bit of everything. She is definitely not a new car. For many Americans she is the equivalent of a Toyota Camry. Her greatest trouble is simply that she is Hillary Clinton. To many Americans she resembles a teacher they hated at school. And perhaps if the Democrats fielded another candidate, for example Joe Biden, who has more charisma and is much closer to the working class than Mrs. Clinton, who is out of touch with reality, Trump would have a more difficult task. But in fact, I am not quite sure about that. For everything we have been seeing recently is so crazy… Sometimes I don’t understand it at all.

In Europe there is a widespread fear today. After her visit to the Old World, Madeleine Albright said that significantly more people asked her about Trump than about the consequences of Brexit. And the greatest fear is in Central Europe, ever since Putin started to praise Trump and vice versa.

Trump has always been fascinated with Russia. Even before the collapse of the Soviet Union he said that President Reagan should entrust him with negotiations on nuclear disarmament. He claimed he would solve all of the problems in 90 minutes. Of course, he did not give any details.

Today it seems to Trump that he can manipulate Putin. This is a very dangerous idea. We have ample evidence that nobody is capable of manipulating Putin. The only sensible response to his actions has always been forcefulness and strength rather than concessions. Trump is completely wrong when he thinks that he will be successful in an area where others have accomplished nothing.

Trump’s admiration for Putin seems genuine. And the head of his campaign, Paul Manafort, used to work in Ukraine for the Kremlin-backed Yanukovych. He had a large part in his success.

Trump does admire Putin. But not for his policy in Ukraine or Syria. He sees him as a different version of himself—a strongman who has been very successful. During the campaign he has said similar things about Hussein, Qaddafi, or Kim Jong Un.

As for Manafort’s connections with the pro-Kremlin Yanukovych or Trump’s attempts at investing in Russia, all that can be reduced to one thing—money. And in fact this is incredibly pathetic and discouraging. It is only about earning a few million. A man who wants to be an American president is ready to do almost anything for money. And not for some huge money. After all, Trump says he is a billionaire.

You emphasize in your book that Trump under pressure almost always becomes aggressive. Would he act that way if he became president?

I do not know for certain how Trump would act. He is a man who surprises even those who have known him for decades. I will never forget my conversation with Ivana Trump. Ivana was with him since mid-1970s. And she has three children with him. At the start of the interview she said, “I understand him very well. He is a small boy who demands our attention.” But towards the end she changed her mind. She said, “I have thought this question over and in fact I don’t know anything about him.” I myself have spent many hours with him. I have never met a man who would be as hard to get close to.

But you do have some intuitions?

That’s true. I believe that if elected president, he would behave differently than now. He would perhaps retain the angry rhetoric and keep throwing threats at the world, he would give more fiery speeches than previous presidents, but he would not do the worst things he announces now. He would not start a trade war with China and he would not ask Europeans to pay for military assistance. And should a threat of Russian aggression appear, he would side with the Allies—if only under pressure from the Republicans.

Achieving his aim has always been most important for him. But once he achieves it, he generally does usual, trivial things. It was like that with his business as a developer; when fighting for a contract, Trump was ready to do anything. But then he simply built houses. And they didn’t collapse. Although of course they were not shining with copper or silver as Donald had promised they would do.

Building houses—even luxury hotels—is slightly easier than running the greatest world power…

That’s why I think that Trump would only underwrite a policy invented by his aides. The true work would be done by others. And he would be a figurehead. The Oval Office would in a sense remain uninhabited…

In your opinion Trump has no plan?

I would say even more: he probably thinks that being the US president is not a real job and that it is not particularly difficult. He simply wants to sit behind the desk in the White House and play the greatest acting role in his life. As he once said, “My life is a comic book. And I love the way I live it.” He probably thinks: “Everything will work out somehow. I don’t know how yet, but I will manage—if I become president.” When I wrote his biography, I spent long hours with him. But I never succeeded in learning what he really wanted as a president. He did not go beyond slogans, such as “I want America to be great again.” But when I asked him to explain how he wanted to achieve that, he could not. He is a great marketer. Especially when it comes to the brand “Donald Trump.” But he hasn’t got the slightest idea about the global market or foreign policy.

David Segal once wrote in the Washington Post, “Those who know him well tend not to admire him. Those who know him only a bit, admire him the most.” You said that today his followers forgave him everything. But Trump has been lying for decades. He said that he sold apartment suites to Princess Diana and Prince Charles, that he slept with a countless number of Hollywood actresses. He pretended to be his own PR-man before journalists, he claimed to be a billionaire when everybody knew he did not have even a fraction of the sum. He was caught lying many times. How did he get away with all that?

This is due to several things. First, America has a problem with journalism. Already under the presidency of Nixon the Republican right has started attacking the media. Their credibility was constantly questioned. And it resulted in a situation where a huge part of the public does not believe journalists. Which means in practice that no journalist is capable of discrediting Trump.

On top of that, Trump is masterful in playing the media to his own advantage. He has them toeing the line. He knows how the press would react and he plans his moves several steps ahead. And he understands that if he gives a great show, ripe with controversies, he will find himself in the center of attention. All these outrageous statements about Afro-Americans having a head start in the US or Mexicans being rapists are by no means blunders. This is all calculated. He once told me himself: “I could give some polite answer which would hurt no one. But it would go unremarked.” Trump says what he says precisely with an eye to the media. And the media have played his game, spreading all this crap.

And yet he did alienate many people.

But he does not want his words to be liked by everyone. It has never worked like that. For many years Trump has been one of the most unpopular people in America. He has been a prototype of many a villain, a ruthless capitalist, in Hollywood films. He has always assumed that if 10% or 20% of the public support him, it provides a sufficient market to get rich. This is how he acted as a businessman. He was always happy that the media were speaking about him. Even in the situations when he got a very bad press. And he acts the same way in politics. But unfortunately, his market share here is more than 20%.

And the last thing—he is very difficult to expose. Since the beginning almost everyone regarded him as a clown. So you are not shocked when he says strange things. For it is hardly surprising that a clown says strange things.

Is Trump a racist?

He definitely says racist things. He claims that he was born with a better blood and therefore was doomed to success from the start. He declared: “I don’t want black guys to count my cash. For black guys are lazy by nature. I want my cash to be counted by guys in yarmulkes.” He threw remarks of this kind also with me. But I don’t believe that he really hates Afro-Americans or Hispanics. Like any narcissus, he does not have an ounce of empathy in him. He does not notice that his words could hurt anyone or have an impact on reality. Trump despises almost everyone. And those who lost out he despises even more.

Why has Trump arrived as far as he has? Is it because America is in disarray and is unable to provide a better life for many of its citizens? Or perhaps he expresses an era were narcissism has become a social norm and a super-narcissus is a natural candidate for a leader?

Narcissism is a very important element of this narrative. Trump embodies new cultural norms. In the era of selfies and Facebook we no longer regard such an intense focus on yourself as a symptom of a disturbed personality, but as a very effective and sensible survival strategy.

Besides, we behave exactly in line with the predictions of social researchers in the early years of television: we desire precisely what we see on television (or computer, or iPhone) screens. And when we do not get it, we are frustrated. And then, what is worse, frustration can turn into anger. Today this moment has come. There are more and more angry Americans. And more and more angry white males losing their privileges. For the times when America automatically promoted whites are coming to an end. And white males resist that. Trump has skillfully exploited that with his slogans. Indeed, this is the meaning behind his main slogan, “Make America Great Again.” Donald wants to go back to the 1950s or the 1960s, when America could be perceived as a great country—provided you were born in a white middle-class family.

Do you believe that we are witnessing the end of the Republican Party?

Trump outplayed the Republicans as if they were small kids. He is much more intelligent than people think. He was one of many candidates and he knew that he had to focus attention on himself. And he was very good at it—he achieved it through radical statements. Each Republican candidate tried to outbid him. Except that you cannot outbid Trump for he will say literally anything.

If the Republican Party follows his line, it will lose its significance. But I do not believe it is going to happen. I hope that Trump’s charm is ephemeral. Of course, there are some problems which will remain with us and which play in his hands. Such as increasing inequalities. But there is also the special energy, the atmosphere of the election year. Trump is going up thanks to racist sentiments. But once President Obama goes, this will change. For racist sentiments will lose one of the main reasons for their existence…

Do you think Trump will win?

It is too early to say. Many people will really get interested in the elections in late September, when the debates begin. So far they do not have an opinion. I hope that Americans will conclude that they do not want such a president. For President Trump would prove that America has gone mad.

We assume that Trump is some anomaly, some incomprehensible quirk. But what if we are wrong? The French political scientist Emmanuel Todd told me recently that we were entering a new era, embodied by Brexit and Trump. Great Britain and the US used to be pioneers of globalization and now they are turning away from it. Is Trump a prophet of the new times? What do you think about that?

Unfortunately, this is also possible. I knew that a wave of discontent with capitalism and globalization would come, I expected it since the times of Reagan. After the 2008 crisis I was almost certain that it would emerge in 2012. Obama offered some hope that this wave would be kept at bay, but he was rather moderate. He solved some problems, but he left the basics unattended. And he only delayed this wave of discontent. Interestingly, this anti-capitalist and anti-globalist rebellion arises today from the right. The left spoke about it for many years, but it did not do a lot. And finally it was its opponents who took it up. Nobody proposes anything sensible. We are still stuck in the neoliberal reality—and we are unable to look beyond it.

Maciej Nowicki

Maciej Nowicki is Deputy Editor In Chief of Aspen Review.

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