Essays at the intersection of marketing and life.
What if this whole election thing were a vanity project, gone rogue?
I spent the weekend with Donald. He was not the most comfortable of companions – bloviating, bristling, acting the maggot, threatening to send life as we know it up in flames… But the man is so close to grabbing the keys to the City on a Hill, that it’s at last time to come to terms with him, rather than simply discount and disparage him from the ditch.
And so, in an effort to acquaint myself with The Orange Menace, I holed up with The Trump.
My first port of call: his past.
Have you ever madly questioned an adult who was present when you were younger? It’s one of my favourite pursuits of self-analysis. What did I betray in my salad days which the wiles of adulthood have allowed me hide? What was I like back then?
To answer this Trumpian question, I trolled some of Donald’s earliest interviews, youtube-ing the hell out of them. Back then, he had no presidential plans. He was a 30-something make-it-huge New York developer, with big plans and bigger lips.
Let me say a few things about his early days persona.
Firstly, Trump was opinionated then, just as now. But his views seem to have had more depth, being corralled into real estate, the price of a hotel room, and the increasing value of inner cities as an investment bet. Back then, he spoke of what he knew.
Secondly, he was cogent. Trump actually does know how to make sense when he’s not in extemporising performance mode. In the 1980s, he spoke in full sentences, used semi-erudite vocabulary, did not repeat himself, and arrived to a point. He contained his theatre, because theatre did not build buildings or sign tenants.
Thirdly, he had bad hair, even then. Let the record be clear – Trump knew something was amiss with those follicles a long time back, and was taking dodgy remedial action using questionable products. This is the first clue of his vanity and a need for affirmation which would, in time, usurp his identity.
My Second Port of Call: his children.
There has been much vink (Virtual ink. My invention. Thank you.) spilt on the meaning of Trump’s Ivana Children (as opposed to his ‘Marla daughter’ or his ‘Melania son’). One of the constant defences I have read, since the time of the summer conventions, is that Trump can’t be all that bad, because his kids are just so good.
Well, let’s have a look at that.
Trump’s diamond-encrusted ingenue is his daughter Ivanka, a girl so pretty that she has famously aroused the attraction of her own father. Many cast this as creepy, but I’m inclined towards a more vain explanation. Trump does not see Ivanka as a woman in her own right, but rather as the glorious fruit of his own loins. She is his signature property. He is not sexually excited that she is beautiful. Rather, he is aroused by the idea that her beauty should come from himself.
Ivanka Trump is nobody’s fool. This woman is smart enough to know how much Dad is laying on the line in his pursuit of high office. Each individual in that family has an interest in the Trump brand.
Notice how carefully she is curating her interventions in his campaign. Ivanka rarely goes off Ivanka’s own message. She speaks of how her father’s administration will protect young mothers (like her) in the workplace. She speaks of how millennials (like her) have difficulty in choosing between ideologies, and prefer to choose between personalities. And she makes sure she wears her own line of fabulous frocks when she walks to the podium. (I know, because her tweets tell me so).
No. Ivanka ain’t nobody’s fool. If the whole thing ends up in an imploded shit-show, mark my words: Ivanka Trump will emerge not just with a power brand of her own making, but with a dear friend called Chelsea Clinton.
Then there’s Eric and Donald Jnr. – Trump’s adult sons. My weekend did not allow me to spend too much time with the boys, except to have a look at Don Junior’s video-ed deposition of June 2016. It concerns a lawsuit against a restauranteur who cried off being involved in the Trump International Hotel in DC, given the candidate’s incendiary remarks regarding illegal Mexican immigrants who, he claimed, are rapists in large part.
Trump’s son Don shrivels when the heat is on him. Between mouthfuls of diet soda, he gives the impression of having a very loose understanding of how hotels do business, a looser understanding of who runs his own hotels (for several, he could not name either the location or the head chef), and a flagrant disinterest in preparing for a lawsuit which he himself instigated. The words most frequently uttered by Don Jnr in his deposition were ‘deal’ and ‘not to my recollection’. In reverse order.
Mark my words, Donald’s son is bright enough, but not bright enough. And if you don’t fully know what I mean by that, this gives you a sense of the clarity of his testimony.
The act of great parenting is not to bear offspring who adore you, but to raise children who can become fully themselves. By this measure, and from quantum distance, Trump’s family seems no different to most. They are neither paragons nor dissolutes. But their real worth is best assessed not now, when the crown is still to be won, but later on. Later, when all is lost and daddy is freshly minted as the world’s biggest loser. This, at least, is what the polls now suggest.
My third port of call: Trump’s charm.
There has never been a popular movement inspired by a two dimensional leader. Hillary is in trouble precisely because she is competent, but brazenly wooden.
Trump is all humanity, bubbling over, all of the time.
People claim to like him because he ‘says what he thinks’, but that’s not it at all. Trump is loved because he has figured out how to make people feel. To feel validated, to feel heard, to feel angry, to feel human. Since his early days, Donald J.Trump has always known that he connects best with cab drivers and concierges. He may be cruel, crude, broad and ignorant, but he is never, ever patronising. Indeed, being patronised by the elites is the foundational motivator of his bid for office.
Sixteen days after his son, Donald J. Trump sat through one hundred minutes of testimony because of that DC hotel lawsuit. One hundred minutes!
Here we see him, in June 2016, under oath and under orders. No audience, no gallery, and sworn to tell the truth. And a startling thing happens. His vocabulary becomes normalised. He speaks in full sentences. His thinking is nuanced. He understands his interests. It is as if young Donald of the 1980s has returned.
Two personal details attract my attention: he smiles to the anonymous lady swearing him in at the beginning, and he thanks the opposing attorney who has questioned him at the end, noting how nice it was to meet her. The man came ill-prepared for his deposition, but was not without guile and certainly not without charm.
So who is Trump?
Trump is the compelling antihero, tasked with upturning the tables of the satisfied elites, giving voice to the common people. The Trump of this election is a manipulated creation of the Donald to satisfy an age-old political insight: there is power within anger.
Trump’s wheeler-dealer origins have taught him the benefits of coarse exaggeration. His television celebrity has schooled him in the necessity of remaining riveting. And his silver-spoon wealth has seduced him into believing that preparedness is no equal of Destiny.
To spend a weekend in his company is to marvel at his method, whilst being simultaneously repulsed by a self-serving vision, rooted in vanity.
And it ain’t over till the 400lb lady sings.