Do we need another book on Donald Trump? Surely there have been enough already, from Michael Wolff’s trilogy beginning with Fire and Fury (2018) to insider memoirs such as John Bolton’s The Room Where It Happened (2020) and Kellyanne Conway’s Here’s the Deal (2022). Living through the Trump maelstrom was exhausting. Shouldn’t we put it behind us?
Yet if we want to avoid reliving the nightmare, it is important to study Trump’s rise to power. Maggie Haberman’s Confidence Man offers the best account so far. Haberman is a former New York Times White House correspondent and a native New Yorker whose mother worked for Howard J Rubenstein, Trump’s one-time PR agent. She deftly anchors Trump in his roots – Queens and the New York property world in the 1970s and 1980s – to make sense of what followed.
The strengths of Haberman’s book lie in her insights into Trump’s character. She is scrupulously fair, acknowledging there is a “good Trump”, who is “capable of generosity and kindness” and “can be charming”. Then there is the more dominant “bad Trump”.
The first formative influence in the development of this nastier side was his father, a stern disciplinarian who started the family property company, didn’t tolerate “losers”, and who sent Donald to military college aged 13. The second was the mafia lawyer Roy Cohn, who had been an aide to Senator Joe McCarthy during the red scare of the 1950s and who was a mentor to Trump. Cohn’s method was to “bring out the worst in my enemies. That is how I get them to defeat themselves,” and Trump imbibed this fully. During the Obama presidency, Trump perpetuated the “birther conspiracy”, which claimed that the former president was not born in the US. After resisting for months, Barack Obama released his birth certificate in 2011 to quash Trump’s accusation.
Trump was self-obsessed from an early age, using the eulogy he gave at his father’s funeral in 1999 to extol his own virtues, to the bemusement of the congregation. Most of all he learned the advantages of the brazen lie, which, repeated often enough, could get him out of trouble. Trump has long egged on others to take illegal and immoral steps on his behalf. On 6 January 2021 he stopped just short of direct incitement to violence when he told his supporters near the White House, “We’re going to walk down to the Capitol” and, “You’ll never take back our country with weakness.” Haberman quotes him telling a reporter in the 1990s that: “It’s always good to do things nice and complicated so that nobody can figure it out.”
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Trump went into politics largely by accident and at the urging of the lobbyist and “political flame-thrower” Roger Stone, who oversaw Trump’s first presidential campaign in 2000. Stone had taken the property mogul to the Republican Convention in 1988. Seeing the huge star-spangled rally devoted to George HW Bush, Trump said, “This is what I want.” In 1999 Trump formed an exploratory committee as a candidate for Ross Perot’s Reform Party but dropped out.
In February 2011 he launched an “unofficial” campaign for president in the 2012 election, again as a Republican, but withdrew in May, afraid that it would damage his television career. “Executives at NBC had tired of Trump’s birther fixation,” writes Haberman. “The Apprentice had been unusually popular with African-American audiences, and its star’s gleeful attack on the legitimacy of the first black president put that in peril.” Finally, in 2015, just after Haberman joined the New York Times, Trump’s team offered her an exclusive on the announcement of his presidential run. She thought it was another bluff and turned it down.
Trump had no particular political ideology, registering as a Republican in 1987 and again 2009, with a brief spell as a Democrat in 2001. Endeavouring to take advantage of the populist discontent unleashed by the Tea Party movement in the mid-2000s, he told Steve Bannon, “That’s exactly what I am, a popularist”(sic). He had a few vague prejudices he kept coming back to, particularly how the “foreigners are ripping off the US”, making the country a “laughing stock”. In 1987 these “foreigners” came from Japan and Gulf countries; by the time he was president it was China and Europe.
Even most of the catchphrases he used were the inventions of others. After the 2012 elections Trump filed a trademark on “Make America Great Again”, a phrase used by Ronald Reagan in his 1980 presidential campaign and by Bill Clinton in the 1990s. And it was Stone who originally coined the line “stop the steal” in 2016, when Trump’s team feared that Ted Cruz might try to secure the Republican primary nomination.
Perhaps the most significant breakthrough in Trump’s political career was his early adoption of Twitter. His publisher introduced him to the social media site in 2009, and when they logged on they discovered there was already a user impersonating Trump. That was the birth of @realDonaldTrump. In 2012 he worked out how to send messages by himself rather than having his staff type them. His team later compared it to the moment in Jurassic Park when velociraptors work out how to open doors. Twitter was key to Trump’s success, allowing him to communicate unmediated with his supporters.
By any standard, Trump’s administration was a disaster. Stories of his dysfunctional White House – civil war between his son-in-law Jared Kushner and chief adviser Steve Bannon, the unprecedented turnover of staff, the leaking of sensitive information – became a blur. John Kelly, the retired Marine general and Trump’s chief of staff between 2017 and 2019, told his successor Mick Mulvaney that Trump was the most flawed person he had ever met.
Most of the powers that came with the presidency did not interest Trump and he focused instead on trivia such as the design of Air Force One or putting pigs in blankets on to the White House’s catering menu. He was delighted to have a close relationship with Rupert Murdoch, and Murdoch enjoyed having a direct relationship with a US president. Haberman suggests that Trump often spoke with the media mogul three or four times a week. On one occasion, Trump complained about not having “100 per cent support” from Fox News. On another Murdoch suggested to Trump’s allies that he replace Mike Pence as his running mate with Nikki Haley, his former UN ambassador: in June 2019, Murdoch’s newspaper the Wall Street Journal published a comment article headlined “Trump-Haley in 2020”.
As the former prime minister Theresa May discovered at her first meeting with Trump in January 2017, the new president couldn’t concentrate on one subject for more than a minute. She tried to get him to commit to the Nato guarantee to defend allies, but Trump turned the conversation to abortion, asking her to “imagine if some animals with tattoos raped your daughter and she got pregnant”. She tried to discuss Northern Ireland, but he raised the development of an offshore windfarm that might spoil his Scottish golf course. As a coup de grâce, he asked May why Boris Johnson, then her foreign minister, wasn’t PM: “Didn’t he want the job?”
Haberman doesn’t attempt to assess the damage Trump did as president. He undermined institutions and conventions with presidential pardons; threatened the integrity of intelligence by tweeting classified information; and catastrophically mismanaged the Covid pandemic.
Perhaps the strangest part of the Trump presidency is the Russia connection. He had a long-held desire to build a Trump Tower in Moscow and the infamous – and subsequently discredited –“dossier” compiled in 2016 by the British former intelligence officer Christopher Steele included allegations that Trump employed prostitutes to perform a “golden shower” in the presidential suite of Moscow’s Ritz-Carlton Hotel, on a bed that the Obamas had supposedly slept on. In government, Trump first met Vladimir Putin in 2017 but without any US officials present. To the exasperation of his advisers, Trump tweeted the mad idea of establishing a joint cyber unit with Russia. Trump tells Haberman, “I liked Putin, and Putin liked me.” Since leaving government he has praised Putin’s invasion of Ukraine as “savvy”. It is hard to imagine what the Western response would have been if Trump were still president.
Perhaps the most serious harm to American democracy was done at the end of his term on 6 January 2021. After Trump repeatedly denied the election result, a violent mob stormed the US Capitol. Opinion polls show a significant proportion of Americans now no longer accept the outcome of elections, and in the forthcoming midterm elections unsuccessful Republican candidates may contest their results. This undermines the foundation of democracy. The longest lasting damage may, however, come from his injection of division and hate into US politics. Reversing that sort of polarisation can take generations, as we know from Northern Ireland.
American democracy has withstood one Trump term but it might not survive a second. Haberman believes Trump will run for president again. The most probable outcome is that he becomes the Republican nominee but does not win the presidency. In the process, however, he would once again do great damage to the political system in refusing to accept defeat and encouraging the growing talk of a new American civil war.
Haberman compares Trump to the Peter Sellers character Chauncey Gardiner in the film Being There, concluding “the truth is, ultimately, almost no one really knows him… he is often simply, purely opaque, permitting people to read meaning and depth into every action, no matter how empty [it] might be”. He had a habit of making vague statements – often in reaction to something rather than by conscious design – that allowed people to project their political views on to his words. In the end we may have overestimated Trump. There was less to him than met the eye, as was the case with Johnson. They were both self-obsessed loners, who were agents of havoc for their brief time in office.
Democratic politicians in the UK and the US must learn the lessons from populists such as Trump and Johnson: take seriously their attempts to undermine democracy, don’t despise or ignore their supporters, don’t let their lies enrage you so you can’t think straight, meet their attacks with policy. We must ensure we don’t allow leaders such as these to return to power and render our democracies permanently toxic. Both Donald Trump and Boris Johnson lost in the end because they offered the people absolutely nothing.
Jonathan Powell was chief of staff to Tony Blair from 1995 to 2007
Confidence Man: The Making of Donald Trump and the Breaking of America
HarperCollins, 608pp, £25
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This article appears in the 12 Oct 2022 issue of the New Statesman, Will Putin go Nuclear?