“Oh that’s great,” said the future U.S. president. “That gets better as you get older, right? Some of my friends have it—they do great with it.”
Of all the many varied and sometimes baffling reactions from people to news of my neurological ill-health, Trump’s was the most remarkable. Parkinson’s is degenerative? Fake news.
It was July 2014 and I was in Trump’s gilded office, high above New York’s Fifth Avenue, to interview him for the American magazine Golf Digest. I spent 90 relentless minutes in Trump’s PR wind tunnel, blasted by bluster, amplification and foghorn declarations of greatness.
It starts with extreme, absurd flattery: He introduced me to some men in suits as “the finest journalist ever to come out of the U.K.” It swiftly moves on to Trump: “There is nobody more aesthetic than me”; “There’s nobody more environmental than me”; “I have the greatest brand in the world.”
These audacious, breathtaking assertions perhaps explain Trump’s success: “Trump” is a fantasy world where anything is possible, dreams do come true, you will be rich, end everyone loves you—apart from a few “losers and haters.”
But it also perhaps contains the seeds of what will surely be Trump’s eventual downfall. Norman Vincent Peale was a friend of Trump’s parents, a pastor and the author of “The Power of Positive Thinking.” He had a huge influence on Trump from an early age.
Positivity is great—to a point. Over time, however, the positive thoughts can become tyrannical. They turn into exaggerations, spin, irrational optimism, delusions and lies. You start to believe in your own bullshit. You malign and punish anyone who disagrees with you—anyone who dares to say that the emperor has no clothes. You become divorced from reality (for catastrophic examples, see subprime mortgage crisis, Bernie Madoff, Brexit, much of U.S. foreign policy and Trump’s bizarre magical-thinking response to the coronavirus). Your lies drown you.
The truth about lying is that it is and always has been a quintessential element of being human. Kids learn to lie as soon as they learn to talk. As adults, research shows that we lie on average once or twice a day, and while most lies are modest edits to make life’s narrative flow a little better, we do occasionally tell some whoppers too, most commonly to the person that we're closest to. Eighty-five percent of job applicants lie on their resumé.
All governments lie.
Lying is greatly reduced by guilt and the belief that honesty is a good thing, but lies can beget lies can beget bigger lies: With compulsive liars, the brain gets used to dishonesty. We expect people to be generally trustworthy and honest; we are therefore gullible. These realities are magnified enormously by social media (see The Great Hack for a chilling insight into how elections are manipulated). Beliefs in lies that accord with our worldview—including fantastical conspiracy thories—are retained even when proven false; sometimes those beliefs even harden on being disproved.
In July, it was reported that Trump had told more than 20,000 lies since he took office, and has averaged 23.8 lies per day since the first case of COVID-19 was reported in the U.S. He does not so much lie, perhaps, as regard the quaint notion of truth as an irrelevance.
But it isn’t.
It’s not true: Parkinson’s doesn’t get better as you get older. No, Mr. President, your inauguration crowd wasn’t bigger than Obama’s (and Obama by the way was born in the United States). No, you can’t buy Greenland, or get Mexico to pay for your wall, or ask Ukraine to help your election campaign. No, global warming is not a Chinese hoax, wind farms don’t cause cancer and no, you definitely can’t treat coronavirus with bleach.
I asked Trump about his controversial golf course in Aberdeen—“one of the greatest courses ever built in the world”—and his strong-arm tactics in buying the land and overturning environmental opposition.
Trump replied: “Yeah, look, what people don’t know is that a poll came out, which said I had a 93 percent approval rating in the area. There have been stories about how incredible this has been for Aberdeen. It’s been a huge, huge success for Aberdeen. Everyone’s doing well, because of my golf course. It’s so successful, and the people love me over there. Aberdeen is booming because of me. You can’t get a hotel room because of me. The course is full, by the way, it’s doing record business. I can’t get friends of mine on the course. Look, 93 percent of the people in Aberdeen love me.”
The 2010 BBC documentary All-American Billionaire shows several clips of Trump trumpeting this 93 percent approval rating in a series of interviews. Despite repeated requests, the program’s producers never could find the source of the figure; nor could a spokesman for the Trump organization; nor could I.
And I called the course the next day, claiming to be a golfer from Edinburgh enquiring about booking a round on the course later in the year. “Come tomorrow if you want,” I was told. “Or come at the weekend. We’ve got plenty of times available.”
A favourite tactic of trumpology is to cite unnamed sources who affirm his brilliance. He referred to some “very important and very powerful political people” in Scotland who told him that Trump is the best thing to happen to Scotland in years.
At one point, growing weary of the unrelenting sales pitch, I decided to employ a bit of trumpery on Trump by citing unnamed sources who disagree with him. I told him that I had asked a few people in the golf industry what they thought the Trump brand stood for, and that one had said: “Ostentatious wealth coupled with poor taste.”
Well, he didn’t like that. The hot air turned cold. He demanded who had said such a thing. Trump said “if you put that in, it’s no longer a good story, it’s not even a fair story.” He added that the unnamed person was “gutless” for not going on the record.
Trump said he thought golf should be an elitist, aspirational pursuit, a reward for being rich, despite its origins in Scotland as a game of the people. He took a business call (“Absolutely…have them do something incredible there”). He repeatedly chided me for my earlier impertinence, which he described as “do-you-beat-your-wife” journalism. There was a brief visit from his eldest son and family, Don Jr., the one who likes conspiracy theories and killing rare animals.
Then it was time to go. We walked out to the reception area and posed for photos in front of a wall covered in framed magazine covers of Trump. Trump showed me the glossy 2014 Miss USA brochure—he bought the rights to it and Miss Universe in 2002—leafing through the pages, pointing out some contestants that caught his eye.
In his book Think Big he writes: “The women I have dated over the years could have any man they want; they are the top models and most beautiful women in the world. I have been able to date (screw) them all because I have something that many men do not have. I don’t know what it is but women have always liked it.”
Trump then proceeded to rub the side of his head against the chest of one of his secretaries, half-closing his eyes and making cooing sounds as he did so.
Many women have come forward to accuse Trump of sexual assault; in the famous “locker room banter” tape, he brags about his misconduct.
“You can do anything,” he says.
He can say anything too, whitewashing his at-times open racism with statements such as "no one has done more for black people than me."
Many have questioned Trump’s sanity.
More than 70,000 mental health professionals signed a petition declaring “Trump is mentally ill and must be removed from office.”
The main Trump diagnosis from afar has been narcissism or, specifically, Narcissistic Personality Disorder: “A pervasive pattern of grandiosity (in fantasy or behavior), need for admiration, and lack of empathy.”
Others have diagnosed Trump as a psychopath or having Antisocial Personality Disorder: “A pervasive pattern of disregard for and violation of the rights of others.” One Oxford professor used a psychometric scale to conclude that Trump is more of a psychopath than Hitler.
Mary L. Trump, a clinical psychologist and also Trump’s estranged niece, is scathing in her assessment of her uncle, who she called on to resign. In her book, Too Much and Never Enough, published last month, she writes about the “malignantly dysfunctional” Trump family, especially Donald’s parents who were by turn self-serving, absent or cruel.
Trump’s own self-diagnosis is that he is a “very stable genius.”
The best diagnosis, perhaps, is that he has a full-blown, chronic case of being Donald Trump.
Trump is a kind of parody of tycoonery, distillation of capitalism, an extrapolation of what you get when society genuflects at its altar; when the law of the jungle trumps human qualities like kindness, empathy, compassion, trust, integrity, vulnerability, fairness, sharing—and love.
In George Orwell’s novel Animal Farm, the ruthless pig Napoleon engineers a coup against his fellow revolutionary leader, Snowball. He invents the lie that Snowball—the hero of the Battle of the Cowshed—is in fact a traitor, and that he, Napoleon, is the real hero (Napoleon was nowhere to be seen during the battle). The propaganda, masterminded by the pig Squealer, is successful: Snowball is driven off the land by Napoleon’s dogs, and all the bleating sheep, now living in squalor, see Napoleon as their true leader. Orwell intended the book to be a warning: Beware the megalomaniac who lies, cheats and manipulates his way to the top, spreading fear and manipulation along the way, while lining his pockets, furthering his power, and in his wake leaving any concept of society in tatters, with the populace divided, bitter, afraid and impoverished.
Trump is not the first megalomaniac, narcissist or psychopath to occupy the White House. But he might perhaps be the first president to regard himself as bigger than the presidency.
If he loses this election—“you’re fired”—he will not go gently into a retirement of golf, opening libraries and doing good charitable works; perhaps an annual Christmas selfie with Melania offering goodwill to the world. There may be outrageous legal challenges, injunctions and counteractions. Increasingly paranoid, incoherent tweets. In the Hollywood version, Trump is led away in cuffs, unshaven, his once resplendent mane now a sudden shock of white.
The bigger they are, the harder they fall.