I’ve always been inherently skeptical of biographies and, more pointedly, biographers. In my view, to claim expertise on another person’s life is the height of arrogance, as one can never truly know what it is to walk in another’s shoes. I’d venture to guess that our opinions on those we claim to know, love or hate would change drastically were we to see life through their own eyes even for a few fleeting moments. And I suspect that would hold true even for those who claim to know enough to fill a biography.
Yet, knowing the fool’s errand I would undertake in writing this piece, I felt it necessary to write, if for no other reason than to offer an alternate view to what I see as a tragic misperception of perhaps the most unique—if not fascinating—president in American history. I have studied President Trump a great deal. I’ve sought to understand him in every way a leader can be understood, from his view of the issues to the psychological profile developed since birth. What emerged was a nuanced picture of a man who in many ways had no choice but to become what he is, though I suppose that could be said of us all to a large extent. What I learned above all, though, was that the picture of the man I sought to complete for my own intellectual satisfaction paled in importance to what that picture meant to the country he was elected to lead. It’s not the celebrity Donald Trump who is interesting, but the functional Donald Trump; the Trump that one must focus beyond the camera flashes to see. That is the Donald Trump Americans need to know, because that is the Donald Trump America needs, period.
Allow me to shock you for a moment. President Trump is not self-absorbed, arrogant or hopelessly narcissistic. Read that again if you must. In many circles, the mere uttering of that statement would elicit laughter. “Of course he is,” one may presume to hear in response. After all, what type of man puts his name on everything possible, uses grandiose language to describe anything even remotely connected to himself and contrasts his success with that of his competitors at every available opportunity? Well, Donald Trump, that’s who. But the first fallacy one makes in analyzing President Trump is to assume these traits as self-centered. In this piece, we’ll unpack why President Trump’s seeming obsession with himself is really an obsession with you, with me, with our country. And it’s an obsession we can’t do without.
A Cradle Full of Ambition
As with most anyone, to understand President Trump, one must understand his upbringing. As the son of wildly successful real estate developer and Trump patriarch, Fred Trump, Donald was raised from birth to see the world in binary terms, namely success vs failure. The world was comprised of winners and losers and the rest was merely details. And anyone consumed with the details, well, they fell into the loser camp, and for Fred Trump, losing was the only unforgivable sin.
Of all the Trump children, it was clear from the beginning that Donald would be the one to carry forth his father’s cutthroat genes, as his hyper-competitive nature was apparent in even the most benign of childhood games, from building blocks to hide and seek. By all accounts, the development of young Donald’s mentality for winning at all costs outpaced even his own hand/eye coordination. Donald was nothing if not his daddy’s son. That would come to mean many things in the years ahead: long work hours; visibility in the community; a quest to break into the Manhattan real estate market to continue Fred’s natural evolution in business, to name a few. But above all, it would mean a lifelong obsession with winning.
Acutely aware of his son’s natural disposition to competitiveness—Donald got it honestly, after all—Fred saw an opportunity to indoctrinate his most promising offspring with the win-at-all-costs philosophy that could expand the Trump real estate empire beyond his wildest dreams.
And it worked, but not for the reasons Fred would assume, at least not entirely. See, the tenacity, persistence and toughness that come as part and parcel of the obsessively competitive mindset are not necessarily enough on their own, at least if one hopes to reach previously uncharted levels of success. Donald added the ingredient that had lacked from his father’s recipe of success: vision. The lack of vision and out of the box thinking had ultimately proved to be the ceiling for Fred Trump’s otherwise incredibly successful career. The junior Trump, however, had no such limitation, and would demonstrate as much to his skeptical father in a move that would put him squarely where his father dared him never to venture: Manhattan.
Donald Trump was a relatively small player in the New York real estate world in 1975, but the Commodore Hotel promised to put him in the big leagues. The area around the famous old hotel next to Grand Central Station was decrepit, but Trump saw a rare (and cheap) opportunity to remake the famous property and bring new business to Manhattan’s then-seedy Midtown. Whereas every other developer saw an eyesore and money pit, Donald Trump saw an opportunity for greatness.
The mayor at the time was Abe Beame, a Brooklyn politician who was close to Fred. Beame described his relationship to the Trumps in simple terms. “Whatever my friends Fred and Donald want in this town, they get,” the mayor said, according to the Trump biography, Never Enough. While that may sound like a sweetheart deal for politically connected millionaires, the truth is it was an easy statement for Abe to make because, frankly, no one wanted it. Donald Trump was the only son of a gun crazy enough to make a substantial investment in the area, and he did so against the advice of his father and anyone else who’d gotten wind of his seemingly harebrained scheme. But when he did, he got an option to develop the site of the hotel and an unprecedented 40-year tax abatement from the city.
The New York Times would call that a scandal. Donald Trump would call it smart. And has become commonplace over these past several years, history has sided with President Trump. Though it would take a little while, New York City would make a comeback in the following years, increasing the value of Trump’s investment multiple fold. And his tax deal would add millions to his bottom line that helped him to become the most competitive developer in the city.
The addition of Trump Tower would make Trump properties a fixture of the New York skyline and make Trump himself the de facto “King of New York,” a distinction even his enemies would acknowledge was the case before his foray into politics made him a polarizing figure.
The King’s Reign
At the onset of this piece, I declared my intention to demonstrate President Trump not to be the caricature of the self-absorbed narcissist portrayed by our media. Thus far, we’ve learned mainly about his inherited obsession with coming out on top and how it’s been applied to his own career with his own visionary flavor. Thus, I’ve hardly made my case, as cutthroat competitiveness and self-absorption are hardly opposing values. In this section, however, you will see the aforementioned that nuance that makes Donald Trump, truly Donald Trump.
What sets Trump apart from others of his competitive ilk is that at the end of the day, his personality is about serving others. And nothing underscores that truth quite like the famous ice rink episode of New York City.
The year was 1986. The city of New York had spent six years and $13 million failing to build an ice skating rink in Central Park. In early summer that year, Trump proposed to Mayor Ed Koch that he take over the project for $3 million and promised to cover any excess amounts himself rather than go back to the city. By late October the project was finished and was three quarters of a million dollars under budget.
For those of you keeping score at home, the city of New York was so inept that it could not do in six years and with five times the money what Donald Trump was able to achieve in a few months.
There are several reasons why the city failed so miserably, but ultimately, the answer is that when government tries to do something, everything is infected by politics. For example, when the city planned to build the rink, the type of fuel used for refrigeration was a political matter. When Trump built the rink, he only worried about getting a reliable refrigeration unit. The city also had to abide by standards for equitable bidding of the project. Trump only had to give the contract to someone he knew could get the job done. Most important, when the city had the project there wasn’t much incentive to contain cost. No member of the government would personally have to cover cost overruns. Trump, on the other hand, accepted responsibility for coming in at or under the budget as the only way he could come out ahead.
But those, as you may remember from earlier times in this piece, are just the details. The fact—at least the only one that mattered to overtaxed and underserved New Yorkers—was that the job got done. But the most important fact, at least in regards to the point of this piece, is the manner in which it was done and the type of man doing it. President Trump routinely humiliated the City of New York and Mayor Koch for his incompetence. He never missed a chance to point out how quickly and cheaply he was able to accomplish what the richest city in the world couldn’t do with seemingly endless time and resources.
Trump didn’t do that because he took special sadistic pleasure in “winning” vs Ed Koch and the city. He did it because he had the leadership ability, work ethic, business savvy and, yes, downright meanness to tell the bureaucracy of New York City that the project was getting done and it would get done his way.
For critics to understand the utility and benefit of having Donald Trump as president, they must understand the dynamics of the Central Park ice rink. He behaved and spoke in ways during that episode that would make his current critics cringe and hate his guts in the exact same way they do today when reading his Twitter feed or taking in off-color remarks at one of his rallies. This is the exact same Donald Trump, and if you can get past your own distaste for his methods, you too can enjoy the fruits of all the ice rinks our federal government has failed to complete.
Do you get it yet? He is competitive, brash, sometimes vulgar, other times utterly incapable of being the bigger man in an exchange. But he didn’t build that ice rink because he was into skating. He did it for the people of New York City, because that’s who he really is. He is a man doomed to fight everything that moves until the day he dies. Perhaps that is a sad thing. Perhaps Fred Trump so fiercely indoctrinated his son with an obsession for winning that he has never been able to truly stop and smell the roses. Maybe that’s completely wrong, and he’s happier than all of us because fighting is the action from which his happiness is derived. This is why I don’t like biographies. But I do like facts, and the fact is if you will let him, Donald Trump will turn those fists toward our enemies, both foreign and domestic.
When they told him a civilian couldn’t built an ice rink in Central Park at that cost and within that timeframe, he fought them and did it his way. And he was right.
When they told him he couldn’t withdraw our troops from Syria, he fought them and did it his way. And he was right.
When they told him that peace accords and alliances couldn’t be reached in the Middle East without going through the Palestinians, he fought them and did it his way. And he was right.
When they told him that retaliatory tariffs against China would only hurt America, he fought them and did it his way. And he was right.
When they said he couldn’t reach energy independence in his first term, he fought them and did it his way. And he was right.
When they said legal hurdles would make it impossible to get right-to-try for terminally ill patients, he fought them and did it his way. And he was right.
When they said he’d never get NAFTA replaced with a hostile Congress, he fought them and did it his way. And he was right.
When they said killing Soleimani would cause World War III, he fought them and did it his way. And he was right.
When both parties sabotaged his border wall from the beginning, he fought them and did it his way. And now 350 miles are completed and counting.
Abraham Lincoln said if you want to know the character of a man, give him power. For the past 4 years, President Trump has been the most powerful man in the world and he’s fought like it. Sadly, his most tenacious fights have been reserved for those hellbent on seeing him removed from power.
Those who so badly wish for him to fail are missing the forest for the trees in a way that hurts our country on a scale they haven’t bothered to fathom, otherwise there would never have been a need to write this piece. President Trump is who he is. Part of it is in his genes, like everyone else. Some of it is the mindset imparted upon him by a father who accepted nothing less than excellence. Then there is the part of President Trump that is just a flat out, good old fashioned troll who enjoys a good laugh at the expense of his enemies.
Like all of us, he is complicated and, like all of us, he is fallen. But what he is not is all about himself. He is all about accomplishment, and that obsession works decidedly in his favor. If you wish to rob him of the position he’s selflessly served for the last 4 years over the details of his personality, I submit that you are far more self-absorbed than he will ever be.
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