Donald Trump's ultimate ego trip

Donald Trump's ultimate ego trip

AFP photo
AFP photo

Donald Trump was angry: A reporter had the gall to suggest that ego was behind his purchase of New York's famed Plaza Hotel.

When Mr Trump thought about it, though, he decided it was true and admitted as much in a big, big way.

"Almost every deal I have ever done has been at least partly for my ego, the billionaire declared in a 1995 The New York Times opinion piece titled, "What My Ego Wants, My Ego Gets."

Flash forward two decades, and what 70-year-old Donald John Trump wants is the presidency. To understand why, consider the billionaire's ego not just as mere mortals might see it (an outsized allotment of conceit) but also as Mr Trump himself understands it (an extraordinary drive for excitement, glamour and style that produces extraordinary success).

As Mr Trump once put it: "People need ego; whole nations need ego."

The race for the White House, then, may be Mr Trump's ultimate ego trip, guided by the same instincts he's relied on in a lifetime of audacious self-promotion, ambition and risk-taking.

It was those instincts that allowed a fabulously wealthy businessman to pull off a mind meld with the economic anxieties of ordinary US citizens, elbowing aside the Republican A-team and breaking every rule of modern politics to become the party's presumptive presidential nominee.

"I play to people's fantasies," Mr Trump has acknowledged. And plenty of voters fantasise about bringing some of that Trump braggadocio to the US psyche.

Mr Trump's candidacy has given rise to a whole nation of armchair analysts with their own theories to explain the man: He's a bully. He's a champion. He's insecure. He's a rebel. He's a narcissist. He's an optimist. He's calculating. He's unscripted. He lacks self-awareness. He's brimming with insight. He's a pathological liar. He sees a larger truth.

Mr Trump himself shies away from self-analysis. But he's acknowledged that for much of his life, it's been all about the chase: Whatever it is, he's in it to win it.

"The same assets that excite me in the chase often, once they are acquired, leave me bored," he told an interviewer in 1990, as his boom years were sliding toward bust. "For me, you see, the important thing is the getting, not the having."

That mindset has generated plenty of speculation about whether Mr Trump really wants to set aside his my-way lifestyle to shoulder the heavy demands of governing.

Mr Trump bats away such talk. But his campaign chairman, Paul Manafort, has sketched out a limited level of presidential engagement for Mr Trump in discussing a strong role for the candidate's vice presidential choice.

"He needs an experienced person to do the part of the job he doesn't want to do," Mr Manafort told The Huffington Post in May. He said Mr Trump sees himself as chairman of the board, not the CEO and certainly not chief operating officer.

As a presidential candidate, Mr Trump has a straightforward pitch.

The country has been great to me and I want to give back," he says. "And if people want me to do that, I think I'll do a fantastic job for them."

Not just fantastic. Perhaps even celestial.

"I will be the greatest jobs president that God ever created,"Mr Trump said in his announcement speech.

Mr Trump's unbounded confidence and obsession with winning has been a lifelong constant, evident in ways small and large.

Growing up as one of five children in a well-to-do Queens real estate family, Donald was the brash one, a fighter from the start.

"We gotta calm him down," his father would say, as Mr Trump recalls it. "Son, take the lumps out."

For good or ill, it's advice Mr Trump never really embraced.

Military school helped channel his energy, but Mr Trump's rebellious streak remained.

Trump followed his father into real estate, but chafed within the confines of Fred Trump's realm in New York's outer boroughs.

Manhattan's skyline beckoned; Mr Trump crossed the East River and never looked back.

"He's gone way beyond me, absolutely," an admiring Fred marvelled. His son had made it big in Manhattan well before he hit 40.

So successful at such a young age, Mr Trump never did have to smooth out those lumps that his father had warned about.

"He was at the top of his own pyramid," says Stanley Renshon, a political psychologist at the City University of New York who is writing a book about Mr Trump. Nobody was going to say, `Donald, tone it down'.

Mr Trump, who stresses his Ivy League education, revels in juvenile jabs, labeling his adversaries "stupid", "dumb" and "bad".'

"I know words," he declared at a December campaign rally where he criticised the Obama administration. "I have the best words. But there's no better word than stupid, right?"

With no one to shush or second-guess him, brashness has been Trump's way, along with his trademark glitz and flash. (Flash, in Trump's lexicon, registers a level below glitz.)

Through years of boom, bust and more than a decade of reality-TV celebrity on The Apprentice, the deals kept coming and the price tags (and, often, the debt) kept growing, as did the hype. Always the hype.

Far more often, though, US citizens have seen the tweet-storming settler of scores and hurler of insults, the man who takes every time-tested piece of conventional wisdom, does the opposite and somehow thrives.

For all the protesters who roil his rallies, Mr Trump himself is the heckler of our time, who happens to do his heckling from the podium. No one is immune. Not senator and war hero John McCain, not the disabled, not Mexicans, not Muslims, not even those people who make up a majority of the country (and the electorate): women.

Vanquished rivals learned to their peril that to criticise Mr Trump is to set off the nuclear option in response.

Mr Trump calls it having a little fun.

Aubrey Immelman, a political psychologist at Saint John's University in Minnesota who has developed a personality index to assess presidential candidates, puts Mr Trump's level of narcissism in the "exploitative" range, surpassing any presidential nominee's score in the past two decades.

"His personality is his best friend, but it's also his worst enemy," says Mr Immelman.

Still, the loudmouth from Queens has a vulnerable side. He revealed it in a movie review, of all things, with filmmaker Errol Morris in 2002.

Talking about Citizen Kane, his favourite movie, Mr Trump spoke with unusual introspection about the accumulation of wealth.

"You learn in Kane that maybe wealth isn't everything, because he had the wealth but he didn't have the happiness," said Mr Trump, who once wanted to become a filmmaker himself.

"In real life, I believe that wealth does in fact isolate you from other people," he said. "It's a protective mechanism. You have your guard up much more so than you would if you didn't have wealth."

There's a wariness to the say-anything Trump that has been long in the making.

Mr Trump, in a 1990 Playboy interview, said the loss of his older brother Fred Jr, an alcoholic who died aged 42, "affected everything".

"He was the first Trump boy out there and I subconsciously watched his moves," Mr Trump said. "I saw people really taking advantage of Fred and the lesson I learned was always to keep up my guard 100%." He said he's a "very untrusting guy".

The man who has married three times, lives large and offers the opulence of his real estate developments as a metaphor for what he can do for the US, in fact has relatively simple tastes, if you are to believe him and his family.

He's never had a drink, smoked or done drugs, he says. He's a self-proclaimed "germ freak" who'd really rather not shake your hand.

Give him spaghetti and meatballs over pate any day, his sister says.

Or even meatloaf, a Trump favourite when he's at his Mar-a-Lago resort in Palm Beach, Florida.

"Whenever we have it, half the people order it," Mr Trump said in a 1997 New Yorker profile. "But then afterward, if you ask them what they ate, they always deny it."

That, in itself, could be a metaphor for Mr Trump's success over 16 Republican primary rivals. He appealed to the everyman tired of pate from political elites and hungry for red meat. (Even if some of his supporters don't want to admit it.)

Mr Trump's challenge now is to balance his raging-bull persona with the policy details and presence that voters associate with a president.

In the primaries, says Mr Renshon, Mr Trump "was the guy who had his finger on what people wanted".

Mr Renshon adds: "The traits that got him to where he has gotten are not necessarily the only traits he's going to need to get across the finish line." 

Associated Press

News agency

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