There’s a moment in Confidence Man, Maggie Haberman’s highly anticipated biography of Donald Trump, that perfectly encapsulates his peerless capacity to confound. John Kelly, Trump’s second of four White House chiefs of staff, is troubled by the tendency of his boss to brandish copies of written correspondence with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in front of random visitors to the Oval Office. “Some saw nefarious ends in this behavior,” writes Haberman, with the evenhandedness that has characterized her reporting on Trump for The New York Times, “while others believed he was operating with the emotional development of a twelve-year-old, using the intelligence data to get attention for himself.”

Norm-defying traitor or attention-seeking tween? In the seven years since Trump announced his successful campaign for the presidency, pundits have advanced three interlocking explanations for his rise. Elbowing his way into national politics by contesting the validity of Barack Obama’s birth certificate, Trump, in the words of Ta-Nehisi Coates, was America’s “first white president.” A ruthless business executive who reportedly kept a volume of Hitler’s speeches by his bedside, Trump was also a budding dictator. And as a venal admirer of Russian president Vladimir Putin, he was a “Manchurian candidate” in thrall to Moscow.

Haberman doesn’t seek to prove or disprove any of these theories, letting her reporting speak for itself. And what that voluminous reporting suggests is that, more than anything else, what has motivated Donald Trump his entire life isn’t racism, power, or even greed, but something more prosaic and quintessentially American: the compulsion, in Haberman’s words, “to be a star.”

Evidence for this interpretation can be found on every page of this highly readable book. As a young man, Haberman reports, Trump “toyed with studying film,” and what he created over the course of his four years in the White House was a spectacle worthy of Busby Berkeley, Groucho Marx, and Leni Riefenstahl.

As an emerging fixture on the New York media scene, Trump would randomly step onto the sidewalk outside his eponymous Fifth Avenue tower just to experience the pleasure of pedestrians gawking at him. (“For a man who swore off smoking and alcohol,” Haberman writes, “this was the best possible narcotic.”) As he tours the 1988 Republican National Convention inside the Louisiana Superdome (“like a giant sporting event, except in honor of one man”) alongside consigliere Roger Stone (conclusively shown by Haberman to be the primary influence in Trump’s political maturation), the idea of running for office takes root. “This is what I want,” Trump announces.

As a young man, Haberman reports, Trump “toyed with studying film,” and what he created over the course of his four years in the White House was a spectacle worthy of Busby Berkeley, Groucho Marx, and Leni Riefenstahl.

The only way to satiate this bottomless need for adulation is to make a bid for president of the United States, an office affording “as much attention as the world can offer a single human being.” On the campaign trail, he operated on the philosophy that “every time Trump was in the spotlight it meant no other candidate was.”

When Haberman explains to Trump that her book will link “his life in New York with his life in the White House,” Trump, apparently trying to draw a connection between the two, delivers “an elaborate story” involving some wealthy friends who asked for his help in securing a restaurant reservation. “Some people are rich,” he explains, yet “they can’t get a table at a restaurant.” Ergo, the need for fame. Inflaming racial tensions, sullying America’s reputation overseas, destroying half the country’s faith in the electoral process—all to cut the line at the ‘21’ Club. Never was so much damaged by someone so petty for something so inconsequential.

Haberman, who, like her subject, came up through the world of scrappy New York tabloids, is the ideal Trump biographer. Unflappable, she is immune to his insults (“a Hillary flunky”) as well as his occasional endearments. A sure sign of her integrity as a reporter is the grief she gets in equal doses from Trump’s sycophants and enemies, all of whom regularly accuse her of being a tool for the other side.

While Haberman is unsparing in her portrayal of a man clearly unfit to be leader of the Free World, she’s also appropriately skeptical of the anti-Trump “resistance,” writing of the “cult of expectations” that surrounded the special counsel’s investigation into his campaign’s alleged conspiracy with Russia. As an example of the hysteria into which that sect often descended, Haberman reveals how the husband of Senator Dianne Feinstein warned the Clinton campaign that the Russians were somehow going to try to poison the Democratic nominee via a pre-debate handshake with Trump. When Haberman reports toward the end of her book that Trump once yelled at his aides, “I know more about Vladimir Putin than you’ll ever know,” the judicious reader will infer that the source of this boast probably isn’t some secret knowledge gained through 30 years of working as a K.G.B. asset, and shouldn’t be taken more seriously than any of the other baseless things he has claimed.

Books about Trump rise or fall on the salaciousness of their scoops, and Confidence Man has its fair share of outrageous anecdotes. My two favorite revelations, perhaps unsurprising given the nature of my own book on the history of gay Washington, are the time Trump tells a gay male staffer that his “very fit” golf partner that day “would throw you around a room and make you forget your husband,” and his dig that Jared Kushner’s “skinny ass” going camping would “be like something out of Deliverance.”

“I love being with her,” Trump enthuses to his aides during an interview with Haberman at Mar-a-Lago. “She’s like my psychiatrist.” Haberman takes this ostensible endorsement of her reportorial methods as the intended flattery it is, noting how Trump, due to his monumental self-absorption, treats not just her but everyone—other journalists, aides, world leaders, you and me—as if we were all his shrinks. The value of Confidence Man lies not in its accumulation of petty insults and maddening moments but in its being the most comprehensive portrait of the 45th president to date, one that correctly diagnoses him as a malignant, world-historical narcissist and that will be read long after he alights from the proverbial couch.

To hear James Kirchick reveal more about his story, listen to him on AIR MAIL’s Morning Meeting podcast

James Kirchick is a contributing writer for AIR MAIL and the author of Secret City: The Hidden History of Gay Washington