One thing you have to know about Trump. He’s like an orange-topped mollusk. He moves uninvited from place to place, spreading a wide trail of ooze, and then he moves on, leaving a stain that, try as you might, you just can’t get out.
He left a stain in New York, when he tore down the old Bonwit Teller building, at Fifth Avenue and 56th St.—a limestone gem designed by Warren and Wetmore. This was where he constructed his gaudy, gold, intromittent-organ replacement, Trump Tower.
He left a stain in Atlantic City—no mean feat—with the serial bankruptcies of his casinos. He’s stained Palm Beach, once a sunny redoubt of quiet old money. There, Trump has created his own private Paraguay-by-the-Sea—a sandbox for the chancers and miscreants who continue to pay homage before their false god.
He’s stained his children, and their children, who must bear the psychological scars of his name and reputation into old age.
Not surprisingly, he’s left his own particular stain in Washington. And with the attempted coup of January 6 last year, he’s left one on the nation. This is the one that will be most lasting. Take Trump out of the equation for a moment. Imagine that another American had organized and cheerled that insurrection. He or she would be heading toward maximum security somewhere by now.
He’s stained his children, and their children, who must bear the psychological scars of his reputation into old age.
I’ve known Trump longer than just about any other journalist has. His daughter Ivanka was an infant when I first met him. I was assigned to write a story on him for GQ magazine in the early 80s. In that it was his first major national exposure, he granted me a lot of access. I spent the better part of three weeks with Trump, in his office and on construction sites.
Back then he was a sharpie with an eye for an easy dollar and women above his station. Over the years, I watched as he perfected his techniques in the fine arts of hustle and grift. This especially held true with subcontractors—plumbers, electricians, and tradesmen—precisely the sorts of followers who now move on his command. He gouged them every chance he got. When they asked for agreed-upon fees, he would laugh, cut them a check for half, and say, “So sue me.”
He’s also a serial liar. He lies for practice. He lies about lying. He lies about lying about lying.
In one of his early public lies, he exaggerated the number of stories in Trump Tower. (He said it had 68 floors—when, in fact, it only had 58.) Someone once said that the measure of madness is the time it takes from telling a lie to when that lie can be found out. The shorter the span of time, the greater the madness. When Trump got the land for his tower, he brazenly called it “the Tiffany location.” This was a lie that could be discovered in seconds, inasmuch as the real Tiffany’s was right next door. An unimportant lie, to be sure. But a harbinger of what was to come.
He lied to banks and regulators and investors. He lied to his wives. He lied to get himself into the White House. And he lied as he scrambled to keep himself from being evicted.
In one of his early public lies, he exaggerated the number of stories in Trump Tower. (He said it had 68 floors—when, in fact, it only had 58.)
Before he was yanked from Twitter, virtually every statement Trump made on that platform was a lie. That he then called his own sad little Twitter-like media site “Truth Social” is almost comical.
He has lied to investigators. He even lied to his fevered followers on the day of the insurrection when he said he’d march to the Capitol with them. Anyone who knows Trump knows he had no such intention and would have been prevented by the Secret Service even if he had.
As we learn from the January 6 hearings, Trump is not crazy—at least not in the traditional sense. Giving him the benefit of the doubt, he presumably does not believe in an alternative reality—he just wants there to be one.
He’d been told by the saner factions around him that he had lost the election. But the loons, like Rudy Giuliani—dangerous when he is sober, but reportedly sloshed on Election Night—dangled a more attractive alternative reality before his little gecko eyes: that the election had been stolen from him at the hands of others, including through the actions of a long dead Venezuelan dictator, Hugo Chávez.
Not ever wanting to leave any money on the table, Trump then lied to his followers, asking them to donate to a nonexistent “Official Election Defense Fund” to fight his “Big Steal.” In truth, the “fund” was nothing more than a PAC that Trump could use going forward as his own piggy bank. More than $250 million flowed in.
But the loons, like Rudy Giuliani—dangerous when he is sober, but reportedly sloshed on Election Night—dangled a more attractive alternative reality before his little eyes.
Like a great aluminum-siding salesman, Trump has long had a gift for crafty persuasion. In close contact, he deploys the hustler’s trick of using the rube’s name every few sentences—it builds intimacy. Like all run-of-the-mill egomaniacs, he flatters his mark to get them alert and listening, then turns the spotlight on himself. He’s done that consistently with his adherents. They are, remember, “special people.”
Elected officials such as Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, and the positively cretinous Ted Cruz, scurry around for scraps of favor, impervious to past insults from their leader. Their gelatinous spines are no match for Trump’s superior gifts of bullying and coercion.
He is ruthlessly, spectacularly disloyal. Another of the great mysteries of the whole Trump horror show is why anyone of any station ever served in his White House, knowing that the end was almost never a pat on the back but a barrage of badly crafted Twitter insults.
America has always had its share of fringe supremacists, insurrectionists, domestic terrorists, and just plain nutters. For the most part they stayed out there in the dark, jabbering among themselves. Trump’s elevation to the presidency gave them purchase. He gave them a platform, and center stage in the Circus Maximus of American politics.
As the January 6 committee wends its way into its final sessions, one can only ask: How on earth did we get here? And how do we get back to where we once were? Make no mistake: Trump’s orange ooze is still spreading across the land. We’re just going to need a bigger vat of stain remover to get rid of it.
Graydon Carter is a Co-Editor of AIR MAIL