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Review of “Trump Revealed: The Definitive Biography of the 45th President” by Michael Kranish and Marc Fisher

Nine months into the presidency of Donald Trump, no outstanding biography of him has yet appeared. But Trump Revealed: The Definitive Biography of the 45th President  by Washington Post (WP) journalists Michael Kranish and Marc Fisher, with the aid of many other WP reporters and staff, provides much useful information and is well written. The Kindle edition reviewed here offers about 375 pages of text, plus extensive endnotes.

It begins with Trump’s German paternal immigrant grandparents and Scottish mother and ends a few weeks after the November 2016 election with the following summation of the new president-elect’s behavior: “Again and again in the first weeks after the election, Trump’s awkward attempts to appear presidential butted up against his peevish insults and his overnight tweets about the elites who were unfairly attacking him.”

The subtitle of an earlier hardback edition (August 2016), “An American Journey of Ambition, Ego, Money, and Power,” reflects the approach, tone, and viewpoint of the authors. They often point to Trump’s own words and actions to demonstrate their main points.  For example, in Trump: Think Like a Billionaire, Trump attributed his success to an “unrelenting focus” on achieving his goals “even if it’s sometimes at the expense of those around” him. “Narcissism can be a useful quality if you’re trying to start a business. A narcissist does not hear the naysayers.”

As the authors recount Trump’s life, we come across few close friends or humane interests. Except about himself, he reads very little and is unconcerned about literature, history, or the arts. He does, however, display some athletic skills. At the military school he attended before college he excelled at baseball and football, and has continued playing golf up to the present. The authors note that “Trump claimed eighteen club championships,” but also quote sportswriter Rick Reilly and others about Trump’s alleged cheating on the golf course: “When it comes to cheating, he’s an eleven on a scale of one to ten.”

Except for his business interests abroad, Trump evidenced little interest in foreign countries or their cultures. A rare exception was a 1987 ad he placed in several papers criticizing U.S. spending to protect such countries as Japan and Saudi Arabia: “Tax these wealthy nations, not America. End our huge deficits, reduce our taxes and let America’s economy grow unencumbered by the cost of defending those who can easily afford to pay us for the defense of their freedom. Let’s not let our great country be laughed at anymore.” Before and after announcing his presidential candidacy in 2015, Trump expressed admiration for Vladimir Putin and believed U.S.-Russian relations could be improved.  But his biographers have little else to say about Trump’s probable foreign policy approach—a more helpful book in that regard is Donald Trump: The Making of a World View (2017).

Although the authors do not stress any connection he has with what I called in one essay “the Ugly Side of American Life,” and in another, “What America Has Gotten Wrong,” I came across much in his biography that further enlightened me on this subject. In my latter essay I mentioned slavery and our horrendous treatment of Native Americans and also asked, “Who better in contemporary life reflects the ‘getting and spending,’ the spirit of the Gilded Age and Robber Barons, and the willingness to use war and weapons to maintain the consuming ‘American Way’ than Donald Trump?”

The only dealings with Native Americans that are mentioned in his biography are hostile ones, occurring as a result of his opposition to their operation of casinos, which he viewed as a threat to his own. (The authors do not mention Trump’s admiration of President Andrew Jackson, who initiated the removal of 46,000 Native American from east of the Mississippi, was a slaveholder, and referred to the anti-slavery movement as “the wicked design of demagogues.”)

As a college student in the late 1960’s, first at Fordham and then at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton’s School  (real estate department), Trump displayed little interest in two of the most pressing issues of the day, civil rights and the Vietnam War.

In 1973 “the Justice Department announced the filing of one of the most significant racial bias cases of the era: United States of America v. Fred C. Trump, Donald Trump and Trump Management, Inc.” The department charged the Trumps with “refusing to rent and negotiate rentals with blacks, requiring different rental terms and conditions because of race, and misrepresenting that apartments were not available.”

Despite that charge, Trump declared in 2011, “I have a great relationship with the blacks. I’ve always had a great relationship with the blacks.” His claim, however, is belied by the overwhelming black vote against him in 2016 and his more recent criticism of NFL players who have “taken a knee” during the playing of the national anthem as a protest against racial injustice.

Considering that Trump’s mother emigrated from Scotland as a young lady and that his paternal grandparents were German born, one might expect a certain degree of empathy for American immigrants. But empathy has never been a noticeable Trump trait. And despite changing immigration laws from 1885, when Donald’s paternal grandfather, Friedrich, first came to America, to 1930, when his mother arrived, his biographers note that his ancestors were of the favored type—“the proper white European ethnic stock.” Ironically, when one considers Trump’s later harsh words about “illegal immigrants,” grandfather Friedrich is labelled as one—because he left his homeland illegally.

While at Fordham, Trump sometimes complained “that there were too many Italian and Irish students” there.  In 1980, much of the construction on his Trump Tower “was done by hundreds of undocumented Polish immigrants,” who “were paid less than $ 5 an hour, sometimes in vodka. Many went unpaid and were threatened with deportation if they complained.”

Trump’s view of immigrants is related to his view of “winners” and “losers.” His biographers cite one of his employees who thought “Trump had a simple mind-set, winners versus losers, and that his chief motivation was winning, even when he didn’t need the money.” To Trump’s mind the winners were those who were financially successful, and the losers those who weren’t. He admired certain go-getting immigrants who came to this country and became prosperous, men like his grandfather Friedrich, who in the 1890’s spent some time in Seattle and later “joined the Klondike gold rush in the Yukon.” In both areas, he invested in establishments that Donald Trump’s biographers suggest catered to rough crowds including prostitutes in the Yukon. “Friedrich sold his shares in the [Yukon] business just as authorities began cracking down on drinking, gambling, and prostitution.”

After moving to New York City, Friedrich worked as a barber and then hotel manager, and when he died in 1917 left his “family with a considerable estate.” His widow, Elizabeth, made herself the head of the family real estate business, which she called E. Trump & Son. That son was Donald’s father, Fred, who eventually became very wealthy from his real estate dealings.

The type of “go-getting” displayed by Friedrich and Fred Trump was complemented by “Algerism,” which historian Christopher Lasch called “the dominant ideology of American politics” of the late nineteenth-century’s Gilded Age. The term implied the rags-to-riches success narratives characteristic of the many popular novels of Horatio Alger (1832-1899). As Lasch adds, “Failure to advance, according to the [Alger] mythology of opportunity, argues moral incapacity on the part of individuals or, in a version even more implausible, on the part of disadvantaged ethnic and racial minorities.” 

In Peter Edelman’s So Rich, So Poor:  Why It’s So Hard to End Poverty in America (2013), he indicates that “throughout history there has been an instinctive belief among some that the poor have no one to blame but themselves.” He suggests that certain U. S. developments have contributed to this belief: America’s pioneer spirit, rugged individualism, and the “Horatio Alger mythology that one makes it (or doesn’t) on his or her own.” In other words, if you’re not successful in the USA, the “land of opportunity,” you must be lazy. In 1985 Fred was honored as the year’s Horatio Alger Award winner.

Besides his father, two other prominent individuals who influenced Trump were Norman Vincent Peale, the Protestant minister who in 1977 officiated at the first of Donald’s three weddings, and lawyer Roy Cohn, who became famous in the early 1950’s working for Senator Joseph McCarthy, who was feverishly ferreting out suspected U.S. communists and their sympathizers.

Peale authored the 1952 bestseller The Power of Positive Thinking, and “predicted Donald would become ‘the greatest builder of our time.’” And Donald considered the minister an important mentor, who taught him “to win by thinking only of the best outcomes.” (See here for a recent assessment of Peale’s influence on Trump.)

Trump’s biographers devote a whole chapter to Cohn’s influence on Trump and entitle it, “Roy Cohn and the Art of the Counterattack.” After meeting him in 1973, Trump adopted his style of dealing with enemies and critics: “When attacked, counterattack with overwhelming force.” Cohn often acted as Trump’s lawyer, sometimes using disreputable tactics. In 1986, “his unethical behavior as a lawyer caught up to him. The Appellate Division of the New York State Supreme Court accused him of ‘dishonesty, fraud, deceit and misrepresentation,’” and he was disbarred.

Trump’s frequent use of Cohn, with his sometimes “unethical behavior,” was in keeping with Trump’s general approach to business, as his biographers often point out. Although he had his failures—like three of his Atlantic City casinos declaring bankruptcy, his unsuccessful Trump Shuttle airline, and his losing efforts in the 1980’s as owner of the New Jersey Generals of the United States Football League to make the league more prominent—he also had many money-making successes. And there is no evidence in his biography that he gave much thought to ethical considerations.

Not just in his business dealings, but also in his private life, ethics played little role. His biographers devote considerable space to Trump’s three marriages and his attitude toward women. He began his affair with Marla Maples (his second wife) while still married to Ivana (his first wife). About two dozen times, he appeared on Howard “Stern’s popular morning talk show . . . . [where] Stern and Trump developed a rollicking patter on the air, rating women’s tops and bottoms, debating the merits of oral sex, and egging each other on about whether they would like to go to bed with famous women from Cindy Crawford to Diane Sawyer. Trump seemed to love the game.” The biographers also mention the October 2016 revelation of a 2005 “video in which Trump explained to TV host Billy Bush how he would grab women by the crotch,” and how he tried to “to seduce a married woman.”

What comes across repeatedly is Trump’s addiction “to publicity and recognition,” his “focus on getting his name onto products, buildings, and news stories.” For decades, his “morning routine included a review of everything written or said about him in the previous twenty-four hours.” He also “tried to punish those who questioned the image he wanted the world to see. Legal threats were as much a part of Trump’s business tactics as brash talk, publicity stunts, and the renegotiation of deals.” In “over three decades, Trump and his companies filed more than 1,900 lawsuits.”

Trump’s role as host and part owner of the TV hit “The Apprentice,” from 2004 until he declared his run for the presidency in 2015, greatly enhanced his fame. “The show was built as a virtually nonstop advertisement for the Trump empire and lifestyle.” 

The biography’s final chapter indicates some of the reasons Trump won the presidency. “He understood that his outrageous behavior and intemperate comments only cemented his reputation as a decisive truth-teller who gets things done. And he won because he had spent almost forty years cultivating an image as a guy who was so rich, so audacious, and so unpredictable that he would be beholden to no one.” Many of his supporters—exit polls indicated he won “78 percent of ballots cast by white evangelicals,” and his “margin among people with little or no college was a massive 39 points”—liked his attacks on various elites and his willingness to defy political correctness. In two previous essays, “Why Did the Democrats Fail and Where Do We Go From Here?” and “What Does Trump’s Election Say about American Culture and Values?” I indicated some of Hillary Clinton’s campaign failures and the extent to which Trump’s victory reflected various troubling aspects of our capitalist consumer and celebrity culture. In a still earlier essay, I indicated how Trump’s colossal egoism blinded him from making wise decisions.

In a recent article, “Stress-Testing American Democracy: Nine Months of President Trump,” John Cassidy writes, “Despite his promise to ‘Make America Great Again,’ Trump has delivered practically nothing except chaos, bombast, and division. As long as he occupies the Presidency, an office for which he is blatantly unsuited, he will continue to chip away at the country’s foundations.”

The sad truth is that some nine months after the publication of the latest edition of Trump Revealed, the presidency of Donald Trump seems as disastrous as the biography suggested it would be.