The president of the United States wasn’t crazy back when I first met him, in the early 80s. Craven, tacky, self-regarding—yes, he had all of those enduring attributes. But he wasn’t the mad, stumbling fellow you currently see before you. Back then, if you overlooked the crassness and the pushy ambition, he even had a certain charm—and, believe it or not, a way with words. It was a hustler’s charm, to be sure, completely transactional, and generally keyed to a sale, a loan, a variance, a mention in a newspaper column, or a date.
Back then, Donald Trump was just a third-tier New York builder with vanity plates and a knack for self-publicity. If he was a threat, he was a small-scale one, a danger mostly to the city’s skyline—and, as it turns out, to the female population. As the leader of the United States, he’s a danger to much of what our country stands for: fairness, compassion, reason, and the rule of law. Given the powers granted him by dint of his current position, he is most certainly a real and present danger to the entire world—and as the week’s events have demonstrated, to himself.
A danger mostly to the city’s skyline—and, as it turns out, to the female population.
The con man turned populist is an all too common figure in American life. Budd Schulberg’s 1957 film, A Face in the Crowd, captured the plotline better than most. The film, directed by Elia Kazan, centers on “Lonesome” Rhodes, a TV pitchman with a winning smile and a knack for holding a crowd. His followers think he’s one of them. In truth, Rhodes is a craven grifter with a big penthouse, a bigger ego, and a habit of berating those around him. Sound at all familiar? He’s undone by his producer, who’s grown to despise him. She activates a microphone without his knowledge, and Rhodes is caught saying what he truly thinks of his followers. The end comes quickly after that.
Final acts in epic falls from grace tend to happen that way. As it was with Lonesome Rhodes, not to mention Richard Nixon, and Father Coughlin, the Depression-era radio populist, support is firm, until it isn’t. In the end, it just gives way like a bridge collapsing. As Where’s My Roy Cohn?, a new documentary by my old colleague Matt Tyrnauer, points out, Cohn schooled Trump in the fine arts of public combat and legal finagling, not to mention bullying, lying, backstabbing, and self-preservation. All are skills that have served Trump well in the White House. Having picked up so much from Cohn, he would be wise to also heed his mentor’s dramatic fall from grace.
As a young writer for Time magazine, I was sent to cover a party given by the gilded pornographer Bob Guccione to celebrate Cohn’s 57th birthday. As I approached Guccione’s house on the East Side—done up in Caligula revival—I noticed a half-dozen limousines double-parked out front. All of them bore the license plates of New York State Supreme Court justices. They—and a lot of other members of New York’s upper echelons—had shown up that night despite the fact that Cohn, in his capacity as a lawyer, had been charged over the decades with perjury, witness tampering, and sundry improprieties. Two years after that birthday, this homophobic wreck lay dying of complications from AIDS, disbarred and broke. All those people who had turned out for his party had abandoned him—including his closest acolyte, our current president.
This homophobic wreck lay dying of complications from AIDS, disbarred and broke.
When presidents are undone, it’s generally by something simple and human that the public—and the headline writers—can grab onto: a break-in of an opponent’s headquarters; the remnants of a hasty tryst on an intern’s blue dress. Iran-Contra was far too complex a scandal for the public to latch on to. The Russian interference in our most recent presidential election has proven to be just as difficult, and Trump has not been hobbled. A one-sentence description is necessary. An American president asking a foreign leader to investigate his Democratic opponent, or lose almost $400 million in military aid—is another matter altogether. It’s a story that anyone can understand and should be repulsed by.
My guess is that if and when Ukraine-gate heads toward its rightful conclusion, Trump’s enablers—even Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell, House minority leader Kevin McCarthy, and the president’s Fox News cheerleading squad—will eventually scatter the way cockroaches do when the kitchen lights go on. Then Trump will truly be on his own, save for his brain trust of Eric, Jarvanka, and Don junior. And even their loyalties are in doubt. Given the obvious decline in the president’s mental abilities—signaled in part by the ever shrinking arsenal of words at his disposal, not to mention his opinions, accusations, and actions—he could ask for leniency based on mental impairment. And he’d have some justification in doing so.