Tony Schwartz, co-au­thor of ‘The Art of the Deal,’ says Trump’s pen­chant for self-sab­o­tage is rooted in his past

The Washington Post Sunday - - OUTLOOK - Twit­ter: @TonySchwartz Tony Schwartz is the chief ex­ec­u­tive of the En­ergy Project, a hu­man re­sources con­sult­ing firm. He is the au­thor, most re­cently, of “The Way We’re Work­ing Isn’t Work­ing.”

Why does Pres­i­dent Trump be­have in the dan­ger­ous and seem­ingly self-de­struc­tive ways he does? Three decades ago, I spent nearly a year hang­ing around Trump to write his first book, “The Art of the Deal,” and got to know him very well. I spent hun­dreds of hours lis­ten­ing to him, watch­ing him in ac­tion and in­ter­view­ing him about his life. To me, none of what he has said or done over the past four months as pres­i­dent comes as a sur­prise. The way he has be­haved over the past two weeks — fir­ing FBI Di­rec­tor James B. Comey, un­der­cut­ting his own aides as they tried to ex­plain the decision, dis­clos­ing sen­si­tive in­for­ma­tion to Rus­sian of­fi­cials and rail­ing about it all on Twit­ter — is also en­tirely pre­dictable.

Early on, I rec­og­nized that Trump’s sense of self-worth is for­ever at risk. When he feels ag­grieved, he re­acts im­pul­sively and de­fen­sively, con­struct­ing a self-jus­ti­fy­ing story that doesn’t de­pend on facts and al­ways di­rects the blame to oth­ers.

The Trump I first met in 1985 had lived nearly all his life in sur­vival mode. By his own de­scrip­tion, his fa­ther, Fred, was re­lent­lessly de­mand­ing, dif­fi­cult and driven. Here’s how I phrased it in “The Art of the Deal”: “My fa­ther is a won­der­ful man, but he is also very much a busi­ness guy and strong and tough as hell.” As Trump saw it, his older brother, Fred Jr., who be­came an al­co­holic and died at age 43, was over­whelmed by his fa­ther. Or as I eu­phem­ized it in the book: “There were in­evitably con­fronta­tions be­tween the two of them. In most cases, Freddy came out on the short end.”

Trump’s world­view was pro­foundly and self-pro­tec­tively shaped by his fa­ther. “I was drawn to busi­ness very early, and I was never in­tim­i­dated by my fa­ther, the way most peo­ple were,” is the way I wrote it in the book. “I stood up to him, and he re­spected that. We had a re­la­tion­ship that was al­most busi­nesslike.”

To sur­vive, I con­cluded from our con­ver­sa­tions, Trump felt com­pelled to go to war with the world. It was a bi­nary, zero-sum choice for him: You ei­ther dom­i­nated or you sub­mit­ted. You ei­ther cre­ated and ex­ploited fear, or you suc­cumbed to it — as he thought his older brother had. This nar­row, de­fen­sive out­look took hold at a very early age, and it never evolved. “When I look at my­self in the first grade and I look at my­self now,” he told a re­cent bi­og­ra­pher, “I’m ba­si­cally the same.” His de­vel­op­ment es­sen­tially ended in early child­hood.

In­stead, Trump grew up fight­ing for his life and tak­ing no pris­on­ers. In count­less con­ver­sa­tions, he made clear to me that he treated ev­ery en­counter as a con­test he had to win, be­cause the only other op­tion from his per­spec­tive was to lose, and that was the equiv­a­lent of oblit­er­a­tion. Many of the deals in “The Art of the Deal” were mas­sive fail­ures — among them the casi­nos he owned and the launch of a league to ri­val the Na­tional Foot­ball League — but Trump had me de­scribe each of them as a huge suc­cess.

With ev­i­dent pride, Trump ex­plained to me that he was “an as­sertive, ag­gres­sive” kid from an early age, and that he had once punched a mu­sic teacher in the eye and was nearly ex­pelled from el­e­men­tary school for his be­hav­ior.

Like so much about Trump, who knows whether that story is true? What’s clear is that he has spent his life seek­ing to dom­i­nate oth­ers, what­ever that re­quires and what­ever col­lat­eral dam­age it cre­ates along the way. In “The Art of the Deal,” he speaks with street­fight­ing rel­ish about com­pet­ing in the world of New York real es­tate: They are “some of the sharpest, tough­est, and most vi­cious peo­ple in the world. I hap­pen to love to go up against these guys, and I love to beat them.” I never sensed from Trump any guilt or con­tri­tion about any­thing he’d done, and he cer­tainly never shared any mis­giv­ings pub­licly. From his per­spec­tive, he op­er­ated in a jungle full of predators who were for­ever out to get him, and he did what he must to sur­vive.

Trump was equally clear with me that he didn’t value — nor even nec­es­sar­ily rec­og­nize — the qual­i­ties that tend to emerge as peo­ple grow more se­cure, such as em­pa­thy, gen­eros­ity, re­flec­tive­ness, the ca­pac­ity to de­lay grat­i­fi­ca­tion or, above all, a con­science, an in­ner sense of right and wrong. Trump sim­ply didn’t traf­fic in emo­tions or in­ter­est in oth­ers. The life he lived was all trans­ac­tional, all the time. Hav­ing never ex­panded his emo­tional, in­tel­lec­tual or moral uni­verse, he has his story down, and he’s stick­ing to it.

A key part of that story is that facts are what­ever Trump deems them to be on any given day. When he is chal­lenged, he in­stinc­tively dou­bles down — even when what he has just said is demon­stra­bly false. I saw that count­less times, whether it was as triv­ial as ex­ag­ger­at­ing the num­ber of floors at Trump Tower or as con­se­quen­tial as telling me that his casi­nos were per­form­ing well when they were ac­tu­ally go­ing bank­rupt. In the same way, Trump would see no con­tra­dic­tion at all in chang­ing his story about why he fired Comey and thereby un­der­min­ing the state­ments of his aides, or in any other lie he tells. His aim is never ac­cu­racy; it’s dom­i­na­tion.

The Trump I got to know had no deep ide­o­log­i­cal be­liefs, nor any pas­sion­ate feel­ing about any­thing but his im­me­di­ate self-in­ter­est. He de­rives his sense of sig­nif­i­cance from con­quests and ac­com­plish­ments. “Can you be­lieve it, Tony?” he would of­ten say at the start of late-night con­ver­sa­tions with me, go­ing on to de­scribe some new ex­am­ple of his bril­liance. But the re­as­sur­ance he got from even his big­gest achieve­ments was al­ways ephemeral and un­re­li­able — and that ap­pears to in­clude be­ing elected pres­i­dent. Any ad­dic­tion has a pre­dictable pat­tern: The ad­dict keeps chas­ing the high by up­ping the ante in an in­creas­ingly fu­tile at­tempt to re-cre­ate the de­sired state. On the face of it, Trump has more op­por­tu­ni­ties now to feel sig­nif­i­cant and ac­com­plished than al­most any other hu­man be­ing on the planet. But that’s like say­ing a heroin ad­dict has his prob­lem licked once he has free and con­tin­u­ous ac­cess to the drug. Trump also now has a far big­ger and more pub­lic stage on which to fail and to feel un­wor­thy.

From the very first time I in­ter­viewed him in his of­fice in Trump Tower in 1985, the im­age I had of Trump was that of a black hole. What­ever goes in quickly dis­ap­pears with­out a trace. Noth­ing sus­tains. It’s for­ever un­cer­tain when some­one or some­thing will throw Trump off his pre­car­i­ous perch — when his sense of equilib­rium will be threat­ened and he’ll feel an over­whelm­ing com­pul­sion to re­store it. Be­neath his bluff ex­te­rior, I al­ways sensed a hurt, in­cred­i­bly vul­ner­a­ble lit­tle boy who just wanted to be loved.

What Trump craves most deeply is the adu­la­tion he has found so fleet­ing. This goes a long way to­ward ex­plain­ing his need for con­trol and why he sim­ply couldn’t abide Comey, who re­port­edly re­fused to ac­cede to Trump’s de­mand for loy­alty and whose con­tin­u­ing in­ves­ti­ga­tion into Rus­sian in­ter­fer­ence in the elec­tion cam­paign last year threat­ens to bring down his pres­i­dency. Trump’s need for un­ques­tion­ing praise and flat­tery also helps to ex­plain his hos­til­ity to democ­racy and to a free press — both of which thrive on open dis­sent.

As we have seen count­less times dur­ing the cam­paign and since the elec­tion, Trump can de­volve into sur­vival mode on a mo­ment’s no­tice. Look no fur­ther than the thou­sands of tweets he has writ­ten at­tack­ing his per­ceived en­e­mies over the past year. In neu­ro­chem­i­cal terms, when he feels threat­ened or thwarted, Trump moves into a fight-or-flight state. His amyg­dala is trig­gered, his hy­potha­la­mic-pi­tu­itary-adrenal axis ac­ti­vates, and his pre­frontal cor­tex — the part of the brain that makes us ca­pa­ble of ra­tio­nal­ity and re­flec­tion — shuts down. He re­acts rather than re­flects, and damn the con­se­quences. This is what makes his ac­cess to the nu­clear codes so dan­ger­ous and fright­en­ing.

Over the past week, in the face of crit­i­cism from nearly ev­ery quar­ter, Trump’s dis­trust has al­most pal­pa­bly mush­roomed. No im­por­tun­ing by his ad­vis­ers stands a chance of con­strain­ing him when he is this deeply trig­gered. The more he feels at the mercy of forces he can­not con­trol — and he is surely feel­ing that now — the more re­sent­ful, des­per­ate and im­pul­sive he be­comes.

Even 30 years later, I vividly re­mem­ber the omi­nous feel­ing when Trump got an­gry about some per­ceived slight. Ev­ery­one around him knew that you were best off keep­ing your dis­tance at those times, or, if that wasn’t pos­si­ble, that you should re­sist dis­agree­ing with him in any way.

In the hun­dreds of Trump’s phone calls I lis­tened in on with his con­sent, and the dozens of meet­ings I at­tended with him, I can never re­mem­ber any­one dis­agree­ing with him about any­thing. The same cli­mate of fear and para­noia ap­pears to have taken root in his White House.

The most re­cent time I spoke to Trump — and the first such oc­ca­sion in nearly three decades — was July 14, 2016, shortly be­fore the New Yorker pub­lished an ar­ti­cle by Jane Mayer about my ex­pe­ri­ence writ­ing “The Art of the Deal.” Trump was just about to win the Repub­li­can nom­i­na­tion for pres­i­dent. I was driv­ing in my car when my cell­phone rang. It was Trump. He had just got­ten off a call with a fact-checker for the New Yorker, and he didn’t mince words.

“I just want to tell you that I think you’re very dis­loyal,” he started in. Then he be­rated and threat­ened me for a few min­utes. I pushed back, gen­tly but firmly. And then sud­denly, as abruptly as he be­gan the call, he ended it. “Have a nice life,” he said, and hung up.


Don­ald Trump and Mil­ton Bradley Pres­i­dent Ge­orge Dit­o­massi an­nounc­ing the Trump board game in 1989. In Trump’s view, life it­self is a kind of con­test that he must win.

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