Much like the once-thriving coal towns Donald Trump promised to revive, the mining of the Trump presidency for newsy “nuggets” has become a bit moribund. It’s not that the source wasn’t rich in dishy or appalling anecdotes. No previous administration even comes close to Trump’s in its production of jaw-dropping, norm-flouting, outrage-inducing incidents. But sooner or later every well gets tapped out, and so there isn’t much in the way of scandalous revelations in New York Times reporter Maggie Haberman’s Confidence Man: The Making of Donald Trump and the Breaking of America. We already knew Trump floated the ideas of bombing Mexico and ordering the army to shoot Black Lives Matter protestors “in the legs.” We knew Trump saved what he called “love letters” from dictator Kim Jong-un and showed them to White House visitors, flaunting the flattering missives which, as Haberman notes in a masterful dig, “he appeared to believe the North Korean leader had written himself.” In a post-presidency interview at Mar-a-Lago, she almost catches Trump admitting that he illegally took the letters with him when he left the White House. Almost, but not quite.
As for the argument that there’s stuff in this book, or in any of the dozens of books on the Trump presidency—whether written by reporters or former staff—that should have been revealed earlier, when it might have made a difference? Please. The man was impeached twice on decent evidence that he tried to use crucial aid to extort a foreign leader into digging up dirt on his political rival and incited an insurrection intended to overturn the 2020 election.* Then there was the incontestable stuff, the stuff he said out loud, from denigrating John McCain’s war heroism to claiming that some of those marching in Charlottesville were “very fine people.” (Yes, yes, Trump did exempt the “white nationalists” in that group from his praise, but since everyone in the group was a white nationalist, that is mere pettifoggery.) As Trump himself famously put it, he could shoot someone in the middle of Fifth Avenue and not lose any votes, and as long as he commands his voters, he can command enough of the GOP leadership to shield him from the consequences of any news, no matter when it’s reported.
What Confidence Man offers its readers, as much of the pre-publication heralding of the book explains, is an in-depth portrait of Trump himself from a reporter who has covered him for years and who hails from the same New York City that formed him. The result is less a series of scoops and more an authoritative biography, a portrait of the man who transformed American politics. Haberman doesn’t even get to the 2016 election until more than halfway through the book, but by then she’s shown Trump caught in dozens of lies and wriggling his way out of almost as many legal and financial pickles, including four Chapter 11 bankruptcy filings. It’s all a bit sordid and numbing, but Haberman does demonstrate that Trump expected his political career to operate the same way his New York and New Jersey real estate development enterprises did. You buttered up or bribed the people powerful enough to help you get what you wanted, and the law was merely a cumbersome technicality that you could elude if your lawyers were good enough.
This insight explains some aspects of Trump’s behavior that career public servants found baffling. His crushes on such dictators as Kim Jong-un, Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, and above all Vladimir Putin reflect Trump’s long history of kissing up to the sort of officials who could liberate him from a regulatory tangle or onerous municipal tax obligation. It’s all about relationships, you see, and Trump believed that if these tyrants genuinely liked him, then he could charm them into greasing the wheels for him in some way, and this would increase his own power and influence. Conversely, he had no respect for anyone who had already submitted to a deal with the U.S. (aka, our actual allies) and suspected all of them of ripping us off, because that’s what he would do to any sucker fool enough to make a deal with him.
Haberman ends Confidence Man with a striking pair of sentences, the first relating that during her four years of covering Trump, people constantly asked her to explain him, but that she suspects that “ultimately, almost no one really knows him.” Then she concludes by writing, “he is often simply, purely opaque, permitting people to read meaning and depth into every action, no matter how empty they may be.” What a way to finish a biography! But is it actually true? Trump can certainly be capricious, but once you understand the basic configuration of his character, his behavior is, if not quite predictable, fairly easy to understand. Even Trump admitted to his own narcissism, and his inability to find any value in anything that did not personally enrich or flatter him was plain for all to see.
When asked to choose between California and Washington in allocating a navy hospital ship during the early months of the pandemic, Trump’s go-to metric was not public need or even party politics, but the rationale of a toddler deciding who to share a toy with on the playground: “[California Gov. Gavin] Newsom said nice things about me. [Washington state Gov. Jay] Inslee said bad things about me.” That also reflected Trump’s obsession with appearances and the media, despite his constant denunciations of the latter. Raised by a monstrous, withholding father, Trump has a bottomless hunger for praise and attention. He doesn’t read (some of Haberman’s sources speculate about a possible learning disorder), can’t concentrate on anything of substance for long, and yet returned insistently to certain crackpot ideas (closing the borders, sending troops to subdue protestors, buying Greenland), no matter how many times his aides pointed out that such actions would be impossible or illegal. He had no grasp of how government works and no concern for the national welfare or even any conception of a value that might transcend self-interest. Whenever anything went wrong, he blamed somebody else.
Trump is actually, in other words, a fairly simple character, relatively free of internal conflicts or ambivalence. You could even call him predictable, as long as you didn’t expect him ever to behave like a responsible adult with a moral compass. As has been much-repeated, Trump told an onlooker during one of their post-presidency interviews that he loved talking to Haberman (a reporter he often denounced to his Twitter followers) because she is “like my psychiatrist.” Haberman shrugs this off as “meaningless” because “the reality is he treats everyone like they are his psychiatrists—reporters, government aides, and members of Congress, friends and pseudofriends and rally attendees and White House staff and customers.” Trump, that is, is constantly revealing to anyone who will listen his motivations and his inner self (such as it is), summarized by Haberman as “a narcissistic drama-seeker who covered a fragile ego with a bullying impulse.” Yet, as soon as he began his presidential campaign, and especially after he took office, the people around him were flummoxed because they expected him to be someone different from the man he kept telling them he is.
Trump is a void, as the final line in Haberman’s biography acknowledges. He is a bottomless pit intent on sucking in an endless stream of praise and adulation, a desire to which even his greed is subordinate. His dubious wealth serves first and foremost as justification for the admiration he craves, and I’d hazard a guess that if Trump had to choose, in the classic conundrum, between being secretly rich or merely appearing to be fabulously wealthy, he’d choose the latter. Haberman relates a story Trump told her about securing a hard-to-get restaurant reservation for a friend who was rich but, unlike Trump himself, not famous. That, she goes on to observe, was what he wanted from the presidency, which was for him “a vehicle for fame”—not an opportunity to change the world, let alone to serve his country.
Haberman had the unenviable task of covering this empty person, a man who routinely, obviously, and often pointlessly lied to her, who abused her publicly when it served him while flattering her privately in hopes of getting her to write “nice things” about him. Confidence Man is an accomplished piece of reporting about the nothingness that is Trump. But what’s fascinating about Trump and his presidency is not him, but the people around him, from the delusional Javanka, who believed they could preserve their sleek, professional-class image while benefiting from their carnival-barker patron, to craven sycophants like Lindsey Graham and Mark Meadows, and from the so-called “Axis of Adults” who accepted cabinet appointments and staff positions with the intention of curbing and redirecting the president’s impulses toward their own pet policy goals to the tormented public servants who were convinced, not without cause, that if they left the posts in which they were routinely berated and humiliated, someone would take over who would pitch the nation into a constitutional crisis. Like Saruman and Gollum, their compromises and torments are more interesting than the dark lord they served.
Confidence Man: The Making of Donald Trump and the Breaking of America
By Maggie Haberman. The Penguin Press.
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And finally, there’s Trump’s base, without which none of this fiasco would have transpired. Why did they settle on a sleazy New York real estate developer as their messiah? Why did they credulously swallow his impression of an effective executive on TV even as they claim to regard all media with skepticism? At the 2016 Iowa caucuses, Haberman asked a man why he planned to vote for Trump, and the man told her, “I watched him run his business.”
Why did they love him so much when he clearly cares only about what he can milk them for? Haberman’s book will be the definitive account of Trump’s character and how it was formed, a subject both obvious and elusive. But this also seems like a waste of her talents, this task of proving what can be seen by everyone except those determined not to have it proven to them. Haberman has spent half a decade with Trump occupying her entire field of vision. But that means she hasn’t been able to scrutinize the crowd standing behind her, looking on and cheering for him. This is the real mystery at the heart of Trump’s presidency, and one that has yet to be fully solved.
Correction, Oct. 6, 2022: This article originally misstated that Donald Trump was first impeached for obstructing an investigation into his campaign’s connections to Russian operatives. Trump was actually first impeached for using crucial aid to extort a foreign leader into digging up dirt on his political rival.