What’s the Key to Understanding Donald J. Trump? Start With Queens.
CONFIDENCE MAN: The Making of Donald Trump and the Breaking of America, by Maggie Haberman
Donald Trump is too much with us. We are stalled, rubbernecking the endless carnage of his road rage. There have been far too many books about him, with far too many “revelations.” After a while, the revelations melt into an indistinguishable muck; his boorish narcissism, a bludgeon. And so it’s hard to assess the news value of “Confidence Man,” Maggie Haberman’s much anticipated biography of the president she followed more assiduously than any other journalist. No doubt, there are revelations aplenty here. But this is a book more notable for the quality of its observations about Trump’s character than for its newsbreaks. It will be a primary source about the most vexing president in American history for years to come.
Haberman is famously formidable. She is a native New Yorker, a competitive advantage given her subject. She has worked for the trifecta of local dailies — The Post, The Daily News and, most notably, The Times (plus a stint at Politico). She was awarded a well-deserved Pulitzer Prize for her work with The Times. The only other journalist who can match her access to a recent president is Lou Cannon, who spent much of a lifetime covering Ronald Reagan, a far less enervating task than Haberman’s. Trump has called her “a crooked H[illary] flunky” and “an unprofessional hack” while giving her endless interviews, including three for this book. She is an exemplar of her craft, relentless, judicious and even-keeled, giving credit, where due, to her colleagues and fellow biographers, while admitting and adjusting her occasional mistakes.
Haberman’s thesis is that you can’t really understand Donald Trump unless you’re familiar with the steamy, histrionic folkways of New York’s political and construction tribes. She devotes nearly half her book to his life before the presidency. “The dynamics that defined New York City in the 1980s stayed with Trump for decades,” Haberman writes. “He often seemed frozen in time there.”
Haberman’s Trump is very much a child of Queens, although of an exotic sort — a white Protestant. I, too, am a child of Queens, and Trump’s use of phrases like “the Blacks” and “the gays” brings back memories of my grandmother denigrating “the Irish” who lived next door. Outer-borough bigotry was endemic, but it tended to be casual, not profound. Ethnic street fights were followed by interethnic marriages; they still are. And always, for all of us — and even for a rich kid like Trump — there was the allure of Manhattan, a place far more glamorous than our humble turf. If we could make it there. …
“I can invite anyone for dinner,” Trump said after his inauguration in 2017. But he remained an outer-borough brat, intimidated by elites. As president, he threw tantrums when he thought people were lecturing or talking down to him. In an infamous meeting with the Joint Chiefs at the Pentagon, “Trump knew that he was being told something he did not fully comprehend,” Haberman writes, “and instead of acknowledging that, he shouted down the teachers.”
Trump was schooled by media-obsessed bullies and assorted wiseguys like Roy Cohn, Rudy Giuliani, George Steinbrenner, various Cuomos and the irrepressible mayor Ed Koch. Cohn taught this lesson: “I bring out the worst in my enemies. That’s how I get them to defeat themselves.” Other lessons were learned the hard way: When Trump tried to threaten Richard Ravitch of New York’s Urban Development Corporation, telling him, “If you don’t give me the tax abatement, I’m gonna have you fired,” Ravitch ordered him to get “out of here before I count to three or I’m going to have you arrested.” And it’s not hard to discern Ed Koch’s influence on the future president’s later Twitter style: When Trump asked for another tax break, Koch replied, “Piggy, piggy, piggy.” Haberman notes, deftly, the similarities between Trump and the Rev. Al Sharpton, which went well beyond tonsorial excess. Indeed, Sharpton expressed admiration for Trump’s manner: “If Trump had been born Black, he would have been [the boxing promoter] Don King. … Because both of them — everything was transactional.” Trump learned from Sharpton, who backed the Black teenager Tawana Brawley even when evidence mounted that her story of a racist attack was a fabrication.
In a more profound sense, Trump was a creature of his times. He traversed the commercial arc of the past 40 years — moving from (failed) business mogul to celebrity to “brand,” just as American free enterprise moved from the production of steel, to casino games on Wall Street, to celebrity “influencers” on reality TV. He wasn’t a very good businessman, but he played one on “The Apprentice,” which was how most Americans met him. An Iowa man explained his reason for supporting Trump: “I watched him run his business.” In fact, there is a perverse truth to that. Trump found his true calling when he started selling his name to foreigners who wanted to put it on buildings. He peddled products like Trump wine and Trump Steaks, and scams like Trump University, to a gullible public seeking gilt by association. “His personal brand mattered more than what was on his balance sheet,” Haberman writes. It sure beat working.
The fantasy of decisiveness — his big line was “You’re fired!” — added to his political appeal, but that was phony, too. Haberman reports numerous occasions when Trump lacked the stomach to sack staffers face to face. At one point, he tried to lure Vice President Mike Pence’s top aide, Nick Ayres, to become his own chief of staff — but only if Ayres agreed to tell the incumbent, Gen. John Kelly, that Trump wanted him gone. Ayres refused to play. So Trump resorted to an old New York modus, backstabbing and rumor-mongering and humiliation, to get Kelly to resign. Trump “enjoyed the chaos of [his staff] fighting with one another,” Haberman writes.
There were two other significant New York lessons. One was that the press — especially the tabloids and TV news, and, later, social media — could be overwhelmed by brazen performance art. Trump managed to gin his divorce from his first wife, Ivana, into a war between competing gossip columnists, Liz Smith and Cindy Adams. He played the tabloids like a pipe organ: The divorce was on the front page of The Daily News for 12 straight days, “a car wreck where the victims repeatedly tried to hurt themselves more instead of accepting medical help,” Haberman writes. Trump eventually came to understand that he could use his own raw, outer-borough resentments to feed the public’s latent anger against the politically correct snootiness of the establishment media. When he cried, “Fake news,” they believed him. During the 2016 presidential campaign, I continually interviewed people who loved Trump because “he sounds like us.” And somehow, in a miracle of salesmanship, the way Trump’s supporters saw him became identical with the way he hoped to be seen.
He was amazed by this. He could shoot someone on Fifth Avenue and they’d still support him, he said. But the relationship was symbiotic and subtle. One of the many services Haberman performs in “Confidence Man” is to set out the process by which Trump came to his outrageous positions — like the ugly notion that Barack Obama wasn’t born here, and the insinuation that most immigrants coming across the southern border were violent criminals. He didn’t just blurt out these thoughts; he was nudged into them by the reactions of his most extreme supporters. Even his desire to build a wall at the Mexican border came gradually: Only when he began to see it as a crowd-pleasing construction project — like his triumphant restoration of New York’s Wollman Rink — did the idea achieve pride of place in his campaign pitch. It becomes clear, as Haberman builds her case, that Trump wasn’t just a grotesque, a lucky nincompoop, but a genius — though not a particularly “stable” one — when it came to reading the terrain of the digital-age media.
The final New York lesson was, perhaps, the most significant: He learned how to stay one step ahead of the sheriff. This was, and remains, his greatest skill. There were numerous ways to do it. The most obvious was political influence. Trump made generous campaign donations to Giuliani and the old-money Manhattan district attorney Robert Morgenthau. They, in turn, never got around to investigating him despite a strong whiff of ordure emanating from his dealings with Mafia-controlled construction unions and casino thugs. (Later, Haberman writes, Trump accepted a $20 million Super PAC contribution from the billionaire Sheldon Adelson to move the U.S. Embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.)
Trump understood that the best defense was, at times, to be offensive. He threatened to out the publisher Malcolm Forbes, a closeted gay man, if he ran a negative story. He threatened lawsuits left and right. He lost occasionally: His corporations went bankrupt; he settled a fraud case with the Securities and Exchange Commission; he paid a variety of paltry fines. But he always managed to muddy the waters when he lost, claiming victory or threatening still more lawsuits.
Most important, he developed a very precise sense of what the traffic would bear. He knew he could stiff his lawyers and the small businesspeople who were his subcontractors. “Do you know how much publicity these people get for having me as a client?” And, for all the sloppiness in the rest of his life, he deployed words with a litigator’s precision — even if it sounded the opposite. Just think of his “perfect” phone call with the Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky. It was, in fact, a master class in veiled intimidation: “The United States has been very, very good to Ukraine.” Just think of his instructions to the Proud Boys, a mixed “Stand back and stand by.” Just think of his speech on Jan. 6: He never said directly, “Go down to the Capitol and try to overthrow the government.” He always gave himself room to duck and cover.
We can hope that Trump is an aberration, not an avatar, but that would probably be delusional. He has created a brutish new standard for American politics, and put a terrible dent in our democracy. Maggie Haberman has been there for it all. The story she tells is unbearably painful because Trump’s success is a reflection of our national failure to take ourselves seriously. We will be very lucky, indeed, if he doesn’t prove our downfall.
CONFIDENCE MAN: The Making of Donald Trump and the Breaking of America | By Maggie Haberman | Illustrated | 597 pp. | Penguin Press | $32
Joe Klein is the author of seven books, including “Primary Colors,” “Woody Guthrie: A Life” and “Charlie Mike.”