Why Trump Is Like This

The president’s biographer explains the man, his motivations, and what made him this way.

Donald Trump in 1991
Donald Trump at the U.S. Open tennis tournament in 1991. Marc Fisher said that Trump’s “behavior tracks the main themes of his life prior to the presidency quite beautifully.”

Timothy A. Clary/AFP/Getty Images

In the glorious age in which we live, it is sobering to consider that arguably the single most important factor in deciding the future of world events is the psychological state of our current president. Trump is commonly labeled narcissistic and unstable; his tweets and moods are frantically and nervously analyzed; and his advisers are seen as warring for the different parts of his brain. But are we really thinking about him in the right way?

To discuss Trump’s formative years, as well as the current state of his presidency, I spoke by phone recently with Marc Fisher, a senior editor at the Washington Post and the author, with Michael Kranish, of Trump Revealed: The Definitive Biography of the 45th President. Fisher spent hours interviewing Trump for the book and has continued to analyze him in these early months of his presidency. (His recent piece in Moment magazine, called “Growing Up Trump,” explores Trump’s childhood encounters with Jews.) During the course of our conversation, which has been edited and condensed for clarity, we discussed whether Trump thinks of himself as a racist, why he’s so annoyed by the Russia investigation, and whether his personality has fundamentally changed over the past several years.

Isaac Chotiner: What surprises you most and least about Trump’s presidency thus far?

Marc Fisher: For a guy who takes great pride in being a provocateur and being unpredictable, he’s remarkably consistent. The great satisfaction of covering him as president is that his behavior tracks the main themes of his life prior to the presidency quite beautifully. This is a guy who really does not change much. In fact, in one of our early interviews, he said, “I’m pretty much the same guy I was when I was 7 years old.” The patterns of behavior through his life are shockingly consistent.

What are those?

It’s everything from his unitary focus on himself and what’s good for his bottom line to his very solitary, lonely nature as a man, to his willingness to run over and destroy anyone he sees as being in his way. He is quite consistently someone who likes to make mischief and thinks of himself as a jokester, and yet he’s also someone who deeply believes that he can manage and fix just about anything.

Probably one of the most important aspects of his personality is that for Donald Trump there’s really no tense other than the present tense. He doesn’t think terribly much about the future, and he also doesn’t at all acknowledge that the past exists. I think he almost uniquely, in my experience, doesn’t really experience the past in his day-to-day life. When you ask him about things that took place earlier in his life, it’s almost as if they come fresh to him every time you mention them.

OK, then let’s talk about the present. Is Trump self-aware about the fact that his presidency is not going well, and if so, what do you think he makes of that?

I think he has a remarkable capacity for denial, and I think there have been very few occasions over the course of his life where he has been slapped in the face with his failure, whether it was his bankruptcies, the failures of any number of his businesses, the failures of two marriages. In each case, he has an almost admirable ability to move through life as if those losses and failures hadn’t happened, and to portray them not in a crass political spin sort of way but in a really gut-level, deeply felt way as things that didn’t bother him and things that he didn’t even acknowledge.

By living in the moment rather than dwelling on the past or even acknowledging the past, he has the ability to keep going. People who were with him when his casinos were going down, when he was suffering through these bankruptcies, and being in this humiliating position of groveling before bankers, thought, “He’s going to come in the next day utterly crushed and not willing to face people, and humiliated,” and it never happened. He came in just as bright and bullish as he’d been the day before. That capacity serves him well I think in some ways, but it also divorces him from reality in some ways. That, I think, is what people around him have come to find a bit frightening.

There’s also the sense, just reading your newspaper and others, that he’s bitter and angry and lashing out because he knows his presidency’s not going as smoothly as he thought it would.

Yes, clearly he understands that there are individual battles he’s lost or things aren’t going as he had hoped they would, and he doubles down. This is the old Roy Cohn lesson that he learned and has lived by for half a century: When things get rough, double down and keep going. If you say something that’s wrong or stupid or misunderstood, you don’t apologize, you don’t retract, you just double down and hit that harder and harder. That’s part of his DNA, and so all of these stories about his anger and his lashing out fit in with that. That’s him saying, “I’m going to stick with this. Everyone tells me it’s not a travel ban. It’s still a travel ban to me.” That’s classic Trump.

There’s been a sense from the beginning of his presidency that whoever had Trump’s ear at that particular moment was on the ascendant. But there’s also the sense that Trump knows that he’s got that reputation and dislikes it and occasionally lashes out about it. Do you think it’s true that he is open to doing whatever the last person who told him says but also that he feels condescended to?

Yes and no. Clearly, the last guy in the room phenomenon is a fact that has been apparent through his entire business life. People used to literally hang out in his office for hours deep into the night if they knew that there was a position that had to be taken. They wanted to be the last person putting their side of the dispute into his ear. That we know is true.

In addition, there are occasions where he doubles down on something despite whatever the last five people in the room have said. Those are often cases more of stubbornness than of any acknowledgement that he’s being seen as bending to advice. I don’t think his sensitivity about that is nearly as strong as his stubbornness and his belief that no matter what position he takes, no matter how counterfactual or absurd it is, with sufficient repetition and sufficient massaging of the media, he believes he can get his way.

Did you think Donald Trump would enjoy being president?

Trump doesn’t really have the capacity to enjoy things in the way that most people think of that word. You never see him laughing. He’s not a terribly optimistic person, as we saw in the campaign. I think he relishes the authority, the power, and above all the stature of the position. He loves the trappings of his office, but there’s really no evidence that he loves the day to day of most of the things he does, with the exception of dealing with the media. He has this reputation that he’s cultivated of being tough on the media. He’s certainly staking a lot of the rhetoric of the administration on bashing the media, but there’s nothing he loves more than talking to the reporters and working the press and working his image. That really is more of a source of satisfaction to him than anything that might have to do with policy, which bores him to tears.

The psychological thing about Trump that I’ve always found the most interesting is that it’s clear that at some level what he craves is media and elite approval. At another level, it seems like he’s made his political career in such a way to almost guarantee that the media will dislike him, in terms of his ideology, such as it is, and attitude to truth. It’s an interesting paradox or irony or whatever the word is.

It is, but it’s important always to realize that he doesn’t have an ideology, that he takes great pride in his flexibility, that he would just as happily have run as a liberal Democrat as a conservative Republican. He certainly has gone through his phases of life in any of those flavors.

But yeah, there is a paradox there, and I fear, to be Freudian about it, you might conclude that although he has an overbearing need to be loved, he also has a certain need to be criticized or rejected. Much like Richard Nixon, he’s someone who thrives on his resentments, who sees himself as always under siege, never fully respected. He carries these resentments often about the very same institutions that he craves recognition from, the classic case being the New York Times, which ever since he was just out of college, he has been craving their recognition and respect even as he has done and said things to alienate them and to outright bash them. There’s that push-pull throughout his life.

I don’t think of him as ideological the way I think of other politicians as ideological, but some of the stuff about trade and national respect is consistent. You have that old Playboy interview where he says the Chinese were right to be tough in Tiananmen Square and Gorbachev wasn’t tough enough. I don’t know if that’s an ideology, but that liking for tough guy methods does seem consistent.

Yes, it’s very much a personality trait. It’s not a political ideology. It is very much traceable to both the lessons he learned from his father, who taught him the importance of being tough, persistent, and almost courageous in his iconoclasty, if that’s a word, and a similar but darker lesson that he drew from Roy Cohn, of being pugnacious and insistent on whatever he happened to think was right in a given moment. These are all personal traits. This is not evidence of any kind of—

Even the trade stuff about how America needs manufacturing and national respect, etc.?

Yeah. To me, that’s a transference of his personal philosophy about his own ego. He personalizes America and sees it very much as he sees himself, as a country that is not sufficiently respected around the world, that carries certain resentments, which is partly what defines his affinity for the working class, at least in this very theoretical, abstract way. It’s really those personal affinities that shape his overall message far more than any consistent political ideology.

In your new piece, where you talk about his childhood and his dealings with Jews, you say he reacts with shock and outrage when it’s brought up that many people find him to be a racist. I think even people who are racist probably do not want to be accused of being racist and would react with shock. At another level, when Trump gets up and says things like, “I saw Muslims cheering on 9/11”—I don’t have a huge respect for his intelligence, but I have to believe that he knows that that’s bigotry and he knows exactly what he’s doing.

I think in most cases, he doesn’t know what he’s saying or exactly how it will be perceived. I think in many ways, Donald Trump’s language and thinking are arrested in the 1950s of his youth. One reason he appealed to some of his voters who talk a lot about how he talks like we do and that sort of thing, that’s very much like the attraction that many of those same voters probably had for Archie Bunker when he was on All in the Family, the same kind of attraction they have to a Don Rickles. For a lot of white Americans, there is a kind of freshness to people whose rhetoric sounds like that of normal speech of the 1950s. Most people, their language has changed with the times. Donald Trump’s really has not. In that way, he’s a throwback, which is appalling to some people and refreshing to others. I think he is really quite unaware of the ways in which his language comes off as dated or worse to many people.

Do you not think he has some sense of: Steve Bannon ran this crazy racist website?

I think he is aware that people like Bannon and Alex Jones are really out there on the edge in their language and in some of their beliefs and accusations, but he likes the idea of it being provocative, just like he loved to go on The Howard Stern Show for years and years. He likes the idea of being a bad boy and being out there on the edge. A lot is really explained by his self-image as a mischievous bad boy who gets in trouble but who has a certain charm to him, almost like a Dennis the Menace.

When I went back and watched all the Howard Stern shows, the one thing I was surprised by was Trump seemed to have more of a sense of humor about himself. I don’t mean that he was self-deprecating per se, but he seemed to have some sense that he was a character playing a role. Howard would mock him, and he would take it and get the joke, even when the joke was that you, the Donald Trump character, are ridiculous. I don’t see that same awareness now. Do you think that I’m overreading it? Do you think he’s changed? Do you think it’s age? Do you have some sense of what that is?

Yeah, it’s a really good point, and it’s true that we see less of it in public because he’s playing the role of president, and so he’s playing an adult now, and that’s not the easy, go-to move for him. We see the extremes of it in the meetings that he has with foreign leaders, where he’s clearly on his best behavior, and his posture changes, and he’s trying to keep a very straight face, and he seems very uncomfortable. Everyone sees that, but there’s also a more subtle thing going on where just in the day to day of being president, he is genuinely avoiding something that we saw quite a number of times in his interviews with him, which is this wonderfully charming, impish smile that he gets when he admits to having done something mischievous.

I’m not asking you to make some prediction about what happened with Trump and Russia or what the Putin-Trump story is or anything. I’m just curious. He seems very vexed by the whole Russia thing, and there’s a practical explanation for it, which is that it’s consuming his presidency. But he seems very vexed. What have you made of his response to the Russia stuff?

Donald Trump really doesn’t like things that are beyond his control. He really doesn’t like it when he’s held responsible for things that he can’t massage or manipulate. This Russia thing is exactly that, and so I think to the degree that we are seeing some of his frustration, it’s because he has been stripped of the guardrails and the foundations that have served him decently well for the previous four decades. He had worked with this tiny group of people who he trusted, who had worked with him for three or four decades, and now he’s with a whole bunch of new people. He doesn’t know who he can trust, and he’s really having a lot of trouble with that.

I think overall, he is frustrated that he’s not able to set the agenda or manipulate the message in the way that he’s accustomed to doing. Even at the very bottom of his business career, he could always call up reporters and spin things and put himself out there as the guy who’s going to save an ice rink in New York or that sort of thing. I think he’s finding that it’s harder to get that personal message out there about himself as the good guy, and instead he’s stuck being blamed for all this stuff that he sees all the losers around him doing.