The missing soul is a no Trump trick
“DEEP down he wants to be Madonna,” says one acquaintance of Donald Trump. In this short but sweet book, Mark Singer explores the relationship between truth and fiction in the identity of the man he describes as a “performance artist”. His objective is to “apprehend the person within the persona” of the Republican presidential candidate, whose “appearance is never not, at some level, artifice”. It’s an amusing but also terrifying portrayal of a narcissist with only a fleeting grasp of reality who could soon be the leader of the free world.
Trump and Me is an extended version of an interview Singer did with Trump in 1997 for The New Yorker. Appropriately for the postmodern world of post-truth politics, it recounts the interviewer’s preparation for the encounter and the subject’s response to it.
Trump is furious about the article written by the man he later described in his autobiography as “not much of anything, nondescript, with a faint wise-guy sneer and some kind of chip on his shoulder”. Singer is thrilled by the response: “This affirms, uncontrovertibly, that my life has meaning.” Even more wonderfully for him, Trump then sends him a note: “MARK, YOU ARE A TOTAL LOSER! AND YOUR BOOK (AND WRITINGS) SUCKS!”
All this is amusing, if a little self-obsessed — but what is more interesting is the description of Trump. He is, Singer concludes, a “creature everywhere and nowhere”, a man “with universal recognition but with a suspicion that an interior life was an intolerable inconvenience”. The book’s chilling conclusion is that Trump has “achieved the ultimate luxury, an existence unmolested by the rumbling of a soul”.
Of course, the Republican candidate, who advocates a ban on Muslims entering the US and has called for the building of a wall along the Mexican border, is a bete noire for the liberal Left. What is interesting about this book is its assessment of the character traits that defined Trump long before he thought about going into politics.
From the start, his modus operandi has been clear, according to Singer: “Fly the flag, never budge from the premise that the universe revolves around you and, above all, stay in character.” In this account everything is an act by the man who refers to himself as “the Trumpster”, from the suggestion that Trump Tower in New York belongs to him, although most of it has been sold off as apartments, to his declaration that things are “off the record — but you can use it”.
Having spent years analysing his subject, Singer, a veteran New Yorker writer, portrays a man more interested in image than fact. “It is deeply unfair to say that Trump lies all the time,” he says. “I would never suggest that he lies when he’s asleep. On the other hand, he famously gets by on only four hours a night.”
Throughout his life there have been “deftly choreographed love spats”. Caught out tricking a newspaper into publishing a fictitious story that he had won $US20 million betting on a Mike Tyson boxing match, “Trump never blinked, just moved on to the next bright idea”. In business Trump deliberately sets out to avoid transparency. “It’s always good to do things nice and complicated so that nobody can figure it out,” he explains.
Inside the Trump Organisation, the book claims, there is talk of “the Donald factor”, the amount that Wall Street discounts the share prices of his companies to allow for his “braggadocio and unpredictability”. Singer quotes Alair Townsend, a former deputy mayor of New York: “I wouldn’t believe Donald Trump if his tongue were notarised”.
His alchemy, Singer writes, is to “turn other people’s money into his wealth”. For Trump everything is either “super-luxury” or “supersuper-luxury”. People expect “glitz” from him, he explains, although “in my residential buildings I sometimes use flash, which is a level below glitz”.
There is a wonderful description of Trump’s penthouse apartment in New York, with its rooftop park, living room fountain and twostorey dining room with carved ivory frieze. His private jet has solid gold sinks, seatbelt clasps and door hinges. And in his 118-room Palm Beach castle Mar-a-Lago, a private members’ club with a $US100,000 ($133,200) joining fee, there is a life-size portrait of Trump hanging amid the tapestries, murals, frescoes and a vaulted Corinthian colonnade.
When Singer asks where the resident physician, Ginger Lea Southall, trained, Trump replies: “I’m not sure. Baywatch Medical School? … I’ll tell you the truth. Once I saw Dr Ginger’s photograph I didn’t really need to look at her resume or anyone else’s.”
Trump says his yacht and glitzy casinos are all “props for the show … the show is ‘ Trump’ and it is sold-out performances everywhere”. The presidential campaign is only the latest act in this long-running drama. Although his success depends on people’s perception that he is authentic, an anti-establishment figure who speaks truth to power, in fact, as Singer writes, throughout his campaign “all was artifice”.
As the candidate works the crowds of the disaffected and the disadvantaged, Trump is acting just as he has always been. “Win or lose,’’ Singer concludes, “I wonder how long it will take Trump’s bedrock partisans to grasp that they’ve been played.”
Puttin’ on the glitz: US presidential candidate Donald Trump