Once again, there seems to be no end in sight to books about Donald Trump, just as there seems to be no in sight to his presence in U.S. politics and the destructive damage done, day in and day out, by his persistent presence. The latest contribution to the Trump genre is Maggie Haberman’s Confidence Man: The Making of Donald Trump and the Breaking of America. Haberman is a long-time, native New York City journalist, who comes from the same New York scene in which Trump emerged and who has accordingly covered Trump for decades, having worked for all three NYC dailies, The NY Post, The NY Daily News, and The NY Times (where she won a Puliltzer). Unsurprisingly, therefore, the primary merit of her book is the attention she pays to the first part of the book’s title – The Making of Donald Trump – the story of Trump before his presidency. We are well into the book by the time we get to the 2016 campaign, but by then we know him well, and we also appreciate how Trump expected to operate as president much the same way he had in his unedifying New York and New Jersey real estate development endeavors.
Like many other non-elite New Yorkers, I really only started paying attention to Trump in the 1980s. That, of course, was a critical moment. When Haberman calls Trump « frozen in time, » the time at issue is 190s NYC. It was in the 1980s that Trump opened Trump Tower, successfully restored the Wollman Rink in Central Park, inappropriately inserted himself into the racial charge Central park jogger case, and he ended the decade divorcing his first wife Ivanna on the front pages of New York’s newspapers. By then I know that he was a rich, seemingly successful, real estate developer who liked attention. I did not yet know the sorry story of his dysfunctional family life. Nor did I know such minor matters about his youth that Haberman mentions, such as that he started at Fordham University while I was in high school nearby, or that what he had really wanted was to study film at USC. (His lifelong successful manipulation of the media suggests he learned whatever he needed to learn without going to film school!)
We are in, by now, very familiar territory when Trump finally, if unexpectedly, makes it to the White House. So we learn how Trump arrived in Washington knowing virtually no one other than fellow New Yorkers like Democratic Senator Chuck Schumer (to whose campaigns he had donated), how « Trump had no idea what he believed in, » how Jared Kushner « sought to establish himself as the most consequential gatekeeper of the presidency, » how liberal groups still « had hopes for a version of Trump that ultimately did not exist, » and how many of Trump’s advisers recognized the abnormality of his behavior. »
Given her focus on New York and Trump’s pre-presidential life, Haberman had expected him to return to New York more often. (I for one had certainly never anticipated his almost complete self-exile from his home in his post-presidency.) At this point, there is little new to be reported about Trump’s White House years, but the author’s New York angle highlights what might otherwise attract less notice – how, for example, « the early stages of the pandemic became real for Trump because they struck the place he knew best, » and how, as NY’s governor grew more prominent in the early weeks of the pandemic, Trump seemed « drawn to Cuomo, a familiar presence from his past as much as someone who was in the news himself. »
When it came to the campaign, given all the nonsense Trump himself and many right-wingers have peddled about Biden’s mental fitness, it is revealing to read how « Biden and Trump spoke briefly at the beginning of April, at Biden’s initiation, to discuss the pandemic. Despite mocking Biden’s mental acuity for months, Trump told advisers he did not detect anything odd during the phone call. »
And, however, shockingly unprecedented in terms of American political culture Trump’s post-election behavior has been, Haberman highlights how coherent it has been with Trump’s pre-presidential story. For example, on his successor’s Inauguration Day, « Trump began his attempted comeback, as he had all of his previous ones, by refusing to concede that anything was wrong. On the flight to Florida, Trump spoke with Republican National Committee chair Ronna McDaniel and vented his fury at her party, suggesting he might form one of his own. McDaniel pointed out all the party resources from which he had already benefited and that those would not be available to him as a third-party candidate. »
And, in one of his post-presidential interviews with the author, he remained as he had long been back in New York. Thus, « reflecting on the meaning of having been president of the United States, his first impulse was not to mention public service, or what he felt he’d accomplished, only that it appeared to be a vehicle for fame, and that many experiences were only worth having if someone else envied them. »
As for his larger impact on American politics, society, and culture, Haberman sums him up with this variation on a famous formula: « When the tide sank, all boats were lowered.«
What more need anyone say?