Portrait of an American Strongman
This is the real Donald Trump.
This is the real Donald John Trump.
The father was loaded, parlaying a little bit of capital—and a long association with the Genovese crime family—into a Queens real estate empire. The son was a difficult child. He got bad grades and was often in trouble at school. Once he punched a teacher in the mouth. Unable to control him, his parents shipped him off to military school. The experience seemed only to hone his bullying skills. It was a serial killer’s childhood.
Nevertheless, he was his father’s favorite. If he got into trouble, he could always rely on his old man to bail him out. During Vietnam, his dad arranged for a podiatrist—a tenant in one of his properties—to concoct a medical excuse (bone spurs) so he could avoid military service. He did poorly on his SATs but still managed to get into the University of Pennsylvania—admission was easier back then, especially if you had money. His academic career was so lackluster that he would not allow anyone to see his grades, 50 years after the fact.
After graduating, he went into the family real estate business. But he wasn’t satisfied with Queens. He wanted to make it in Manhattan. He wanted real fame, real fortune. This required working with the Gambino crime family, which controlled New York’s premier borough. As always, his old man helped make it happen for him.
The KGB began cultivating him in the early 1980s. He was an easy mark: vain, stupid, amoral, sex-crazed, and desperate for cash. By the middle of that decade he was using condos in the tower that bore his family’s name to launder money for Russian organized crime figures. He liked doing business with crooks. They paid in cash, and if things went sideways, they would never sue.
He married a beauty from the Eastern Bloc, a smart, ebullient immigrant whose parents were hardline Communists, allegedly in league with Czechoslovakian intelligence. They had three children, two boys and a girl. When he got bored—and when her success began to overshadow his—he divorced her to marry his side piece, an actress. They had a daughter together. When he got bored, he left his second wife and eventually married his third, like the first an Eastern European stunner with hardliner parents. They had a son.
During the entire length of these three marriages, he had numerous affairs. He cavorted with models and beauty queens. He bought the Miss Universe franchise and used it as a vehicle to sexually harass and assault the contestants. When his daughter was a teenager, he had her sign with a modeling agency whose owner was notorious for sexual assault. He seemed to have a thing for the daughter, and once remarked that if they were not related, they would be dating. He palled around with a New York financier who was always surrounded by very young women—girls, as it turned out. (That financier would be convicted of procuring a child for prostitution, and, much later, for much more.) He raped and sexually assaulted dozens of women. He raped a well-known journalist in the dressing room of a department store.
His business ventures almost always failed. Many of his companies went bankrupt. He opened a casino and it went bust. He inherited hundreds of millions of dollars from his father, and he squandered it. He lied to magazines about his fortune. He called reporters posing as a PR guy for himself. He almost singlehandedly ruined a rival pro football league. He announced gifts to charities and then didn’t give over the money.
Banks refused to do business with him, because he routinely did not make good on his commitments. He stiffed contractors. He hired illegal immigrants to work for him and paid them slave wages. His only profitable enterprise was laundering money for his Russian clients. The building that bears his name became a hub of Russian organized crime activity in the United States.
Then came the TV show. It was the brainchild of a reality show producer whose initial idea was to make a program featuring Vladimir Putin. He was portrayed as a rich, successful, self-made businessman. None of those things were true, but viewers believed the myth, the legend. He was good at acting the part. He enjoyed uttering his catch-phrase: You’re fired. The executive at the TV station who had greenlighted the show moved from that network to the top cable news network in the United States, overseeing the entire news operation.
Despite having never held elected office—his only real political experience consisted of calling for the execution of the Central Park Five and disseminating the lie that the country’s first Black president was born in Kenya—he decided to run for president. Media outlets, especially the cable news network run by the friend who had greenlighted his TV show, covered him as if he were actually the character on the show—as if none of the horrible things he’d done in the past had ever happened. The correspondent covering his campaign for the country’s paper of record was more concerned with maintaining access than investigating the truth of his chequered past—a truth that could be found in the archives of her own company.
He began his campaign with racist statements. He appropriated a slogan from the 1930s, when the American Nazi Party was popular in New York. He was overtly sexist, overtly racist, overtly in league with the leader of our nation’s longtime adversary. But the milquetoast Republican field could not stop him. None of them had been a character on a reality TV show, after all. He won the primary easily.
He railed against his Democratic political opponent. He knew people didn’t trust her. He tried to tap into that lack of trust. He said she should be locked up. He accused her of unspecific crimes. He kept invoking her emails. In one of the debates, she said that all 17 U.S. intelligence agencies agreed that Russia had hacked the DNC emails. She called him “Putin’s puppet.” He seethed and stalked her on the stage. He looked more like Jack the Ripper than a serious political candidate.
He lost the election by 2.8 million votes. But an uncanny series of events combined with the ham-handed Electoral College method of selecting presidents thwarted her victory. Because of Russia, because of the FBI Director, because of Facebook micro-targeting, because of the racism and sexism that permeates American politics, he won.
He appointed unqualified cronies and family members to key positions. His daughter and his son-in-law were his closest advisors. The Secretary of State was a retired oil executive who gutted the department. The Secretary of Education wanted to destroy the Department of Education. The Attorney General was a racist. The National Security Advisor was a traitor. And so on.
He spent approximately one third of his 1461 days in office visiting one of his properties, including a whopping 298 days on a golf course he owned. Taxpayers paid the tab on every single one of those visits—hotel rooms for him, his family, Secret Service, and all the members of his entourage. Estimates vary for the final tab, but it’s something like $100 million over four years, a significant portion of which went right into his pocket, because he owned the properties where all those people stayed and dined. Being president was a profitable racket.
He obstructed justice many times, in obvious ways. He fired the FBI Director because he didn’t want his ties to Russia investigated. He sent goons to the offices of his doctor, and they made off with his medical records. He paid a porn star hush money. He extorted the president of an ally, threatening to withhold arms unless that president investigated his political rival. He hosted Russians in the Oval Office. On the national stage, he capitulated to Putin. He tried to intimidate the Georgia Secretary of State into fudging the election results.
He was twice impeached. His accomplices and apologists let him off both times.
In the early days of the pandemic, he insisted the coronavirus would just disappear. He blamed China. He blamed Democratic governors in blue states. He and his son-in-law intentionally sabotaged the pandemic response because they thought it would help him win re-election if people in blue states died. He railed against masks. He railed against vaccines. He politicized the pandemic. This all resulted in hundreds of thousands of American deaths—more than died in the Civil War. When he got covid, he tried to pretend that it was no big deal, even as his blood oxygen levels dipped to dangerous levels. He was given special medical treatment unavailable to most people. Many millions of dollars of PPP loans went unaccounted for, likely absorbed by his cronies.
Months before election day, he claimed the election would be stolen. He believed mail-in votes would hurt him, so he installed a lummox at the postal service, who set about destroying sorting machines. He spent months conniving ways to stay in power despite what he knew would be a humiliating defeat at the ballot box.
He lost by seven million votes. He refused to concede. He said the votes were rigged. He said the election was stolen. He tried everything he could think of to game the system. On January 6, the day the votes from state electors were being certified, he encouraged the crowd in Washington to go to the Capitol. He attempted a coup. To stay in power, he was willing to let his loyal VP die.
He tried to overthrow the government.
He’s still trying to do that.
Before he left office, he pardoned his many criminal accomplices, including three former campaign advisors and the traitor national security advisor. Those four men rallied the troops on January 6. They remain at large, unbothered by the DOJ, despite openly calling for sedition.
This week, at a rally, he promised to once again rise against the rightfully-elected government. He dangled pardons for anyone convicted of crimes pertaining to January 6 or future coup attempts. He threatened to unleash the full force of his MAGA army if he were indicted.
For this monster—this bully and brat, this racist and rapist, this mob money launderer and tax cheat, this thrice married philanderer, this sadistic strongman who allowed a plague to take hold because he thought all that death would help him, this sore loser who attacked our democracy and did everything in his power to overturn the election, this dismal, disgraceful, deplorable failure of a human being—a quarter of the country, and maybe more, are willing to do almost anything, including kill and be killed.
This is the real Donald John Trump.
Photo credit: Gage Skidmore. Donald Trump speaking to supporters at an immigration policy speech at the Phoenix Convention Center in Phoenix, Arizona, 2016.