‘Confidence Man,’ Maggie Haberman’s Book on Trump: Review

The fantasy of decisiveness — his big line was “You’re fired!” — added to his political appeal, but that was phony, too. Haberman reports numerous occasions when Trump lacked the stomach to sack staffers face to face. At one point, he tried to lure Vice President Mike Pence’s top aide, Nick Ayres, to become his own chief of staff — but only if Ayres agreed to tell the incumbent, Gen. John Kelly, that Trump wanted him gone. Ayres refused to play. So Trump resorted to an old New York modus, backstabbing and rumor-mongering and humiliation, to get Kelly to resign. Trump “enjoyed the chaos of [his staff] fighting with one another,” Haberman writes.

There were two other significant New York lessons. One was that the press — especially the tabloids and TV news, and, later, social media — could be overwhelmed by brazen performance art. Trump managed to gin his divorce from his first wife, Ivana, into a war between competing gossip columnists, Liz Smith and Cindy Adams. He played the tabloids like a pipe organ: The divorce was on the front page of The Daily News for 12 straight days, “a car wreck where the victims repeatedly tried to hurt themselves more instead of accepting medical help,” Haberman writes. Trump eventually came to understand that he could use his own raw, outer-borough resentments to feed the public’s latent anger against the politically correct snootiness of the establishment media. When he cried, “Fake news,” they believed him. During the 2016 presidential campaign, I continually interviewed people who loved Trump because “he sounds like us.” And somehow, in a miracle of salesmanship, the way Trump’s supporters saw him became identical with the way he hoped to be seen.

He was amazed by this. He could shoot someone on Fifth Avenue and they’d still support him, he said. But the relationship was symbiotic and subtle. One of the many services Haberman performs in “Confidence Man” is to set out the process by which Trump came to his outrageous positions — like the ugly notion that Barack Obama wasn’t born here, and the insinuation that most immigrants coming across the southern border were violent criminals. He didn’t just blurt out these thoughts; he was nudged into them by the reactions of his most extreme supporters. Even his desire to build a wall at the Mexican border came gradually: Only when he began to see it as a crowd-pleasing construction project — like his triumphant restoration of New York’s Wollman Rink — did the idea achieve pride of place in his campaign pitch. It becomes clear, as Haberman builds her case, that Trump wasn’t just a grotesque, a lucky nincompoop, but a genius — though not a particularly “stable” one — when it came to reading the terrain of the digital-age media.

The final New York lesson was, perhaps, the most significant: He learned how to stay one step ahead of the sheriff. This was, and remains, his greatest skill. There were numerous ways to do it. The most obvious was political influence. Trump made generous campaign donations to Giuliani and the old-money Manhattan district attorney Robert Morgenthau. They, in turn, never got around to investigating him despite a strong whiff of ordure emanating from his dealings with Mafia-controlled construction unions and casino thugs. (Later, Haberman writes, Trump accepted a $20 million Super PAC contribution from the billionaire Sheldon Adelson to move the U.S. Embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.)

Trump understood that the best defense was, at times, to be offensive. He threatened to out the publisher Malcolm Forbes, a closeted gay man, if he ran a negative story. He threatened lawsuits left and right. He lost occasionally: His corporations went bankrupt; he settled a fraud case with the Securities and Exchange Commission; he paid a variety of paltry fines. But he always managed to muddy the waters when he lost, claiming victory or threatening still more lawsuits.

Most important, he developed a very precise sense of what the traffic would bear. He knew he could stiff his lawyers and the small businesspeople who were his subcontractors. “Do you know how much publicity these people get for having me as a client?” And, for all the sloppiness in the rest of his life, he deployed words with a litigator’s precision — even if it sounded the opposite. Just think of his “perfect” phone call with the Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky. It was, in fact, a master class in veiled intimidation: “The United States has been very, very good to Ukraine.” Just think of his instructions to the Proud Boys, a mixed “Stand back and stand by.” Just think of his speech on Jan. 6: He never said directly, “Go down to the Capitol and try to overthrow the government.” He always gave himself room to duck and cover.

We can hope that Trump is an aberration, not an avatar, but that would probably be delusional. He has created a brutish new standard for American politics, and put a terrible dent in our democracy. Maggie Haberman has been there for it all. The story she tells is unbearably painful because Trump’s success is a reflection of our national failure to take ourselves seriously. We will be very lucky, indeed, if he doesn’t prove our downfall.

Source: https://www.nytimes.com/2022/09/28/books/review/confidence-man-donald-trump-maggie-haberman.html