A Short History of the Trump Family
The most enduring blight left behind by Donald Trump, long after he has smashed things up, will be the pile of books devoted to trying to make sense of him. It will grow after investigative journalists have spent years diving for hidden records, exploring subterranean corporations and foreign partners but never reaching the dark ocean bottom. It will continue after political scientists have trekked through mountain ranges of survey data seeking the precise source of his magnetic attraction for the aggrieved white lower-middle and working classes. It will outlast the pundits holding forth on TV, collecting lecture fees and cranking out bestsellers that retail inside dope gleaned, single-sourced and second-hand, from somewhere near the elevators of Trump Tower. It will not be stemmed even after the memoirs of Trump’s associates, unreliable narrators in the spirit of their leader, have been removed from the remainder bins in used bookstores.
A week after the inauguration, Nineteen Eighty-Four and The Origins of Totalitarianism were number one and number 36 respectively on the US Amazon bestseller list, but the true-life Donald J. Trump story has more to do with what Scott Fitzgerald called ‘foul dust’ than with ideas or ideology. Reckoning with Trump means descending into the place that made him. What he represents, above all, is the triumph of an underworld of predators, hustlers, mobsters, clubhouse politicians and tabloid sleaze that festered in a corner of New York City, a vindication of his mentor, the Mafia lawyer Roy Cohn, a figure unknown to the vast majority of enthusiasts who jammed Trump’s rallies and hailed him as the authentic voice of the people.
The notion of a Trump literature begins, appropriately, with an imaginary novel, 1999: Casinos of the Third Reich, contrived by Kurt Andersen, an editor at Spy, a New York magazine of the 1980s and 1990s. Over several months in late 1989 and early 1990, Andersen kept referring to the non-existent Casinos of the Third Reich and its implausible protagonist, Donald Trump, whose narcissistic exhibitionism offered a never-ending source of unintentional self-satire. ‘Who’s my toughest competitor – if not in content, only in style?’ he asked. ‘Prince Charles,’ he answered. ‘I’m thinking of becoming an entertainer,’ he also said. ‘Liza Minnelli gets $75,000 a night to sing, and I’m really curious as to how I would do.’ ‘Yes,’ Andersen wrote, ‘in the blockbuster 1999: Casinos of the Third Reich, it’s nobleman-lounge singer Donald Trump!’ Andersen simply quoted Trump, referred to Casinos of the Third Reich and sat back. Trump did all the work. The fabulous novel had no plot and the protagonist’s character didn’t develop – just like in real life. Spy assumed its readers were in on the joke about the ‘short-fingered vulgarian’. (Marco Rubio flung Spy’s slight against Trump in a debate, without noting its provenance in the defunct magazine, if indeed he knew it. Trump heatedly replied: ‘If they’re small something else must be small. I guarantee you there’s no problem.’ The Trump spectacle often ends with insult imitating satire.)
Fred Trump, Donald’s father, was a king of Queens; the Donald became a joker in Manhattan. In search of fame and greater fortune in the big city, he set out from the family mansion with its 23 rooms, nine bathrooms and, at the front, four white columns adorned with a confected family crest. A Cadillac and a Rolls-Royce were parked in the driveway, guarded by two cast-iron jockeys. Even in Queens, it was a world apart. ‘“Be a killer,”’ Fred Trump, ‘who ruled all of us with a steel will’, told him. Then he said: ‘“You are a king.”’
Trump wasn’t looked down on in Manhattan because he was a parvenu, a dressed-to-kill bridge-and-tunnel bounder from an outer borough. New Yorkers hardly have a bias against aspiring newcomers. The musical Hamilton exalts a classic New York story of a brilliant young immigrant rising in a mercantile culture. (‘I hear it’s highly overrated,’ President-elect Trump tweeted last November after the cast addressed Vice President-elect Mike Pence, as he was leaving the theatre, calling on the new administration ‘to work on behalf of all of us’.) Walt Whitman sang in ‘Mannahatta’ of a city ‘liquid, sane, unruly, musical, self-sufficient’. Trump wished to be more than accepted in Manhattan: he wanted to be adored, there and only there, and came to despise it in all its diversity and cacophony when time and again he was rejected. ‘I want to wake up in a city that doesn’t sleep and find I’m king of the hill, top of the heap.’ The lyrics of Frank Sinatra’s standard ring out like a mocking chorus from the Yankee Stadium when the hometown wins. Poor Trump, who thought the song should be his anthem, could never shake his ‘little town blues’. His humiliation at his failure ‘to make it there’ is at the heart of his vengeful compulsion to wreak humiliation on those he fears will belittle him. The uncontrollable anger that unleashes a regular flood of insults derives from his profound feeling that he has been, is being and will be diminished. In a constant state of alert and hurt, he victimises others because he burns with the feeling that he is the true victim. Every time his outlandish behaviour turns him into the butt of a joke, especially at the hands of sources associated with New York, from Spy’s jibes to Alec Baldwin’s impersonation on Saturday Night Live, his rage is stoked. Portraying himself as the innocent party he lashes out, a narcissistic reflex but also a tactic he learned from Roy Cohn. ...