Monday, September 26, 2022


Maggie Haberman's book on Donald Trump will be published soon. Yesterday The Atlantic published a Haberman teaser, which ends with an assertion that Trump is ultimately unknowable.
I spent the four years of his presidency getting asked by people to decipher why he was doing what he was doing, but the truth is, ultimately, almost no one really knows him. Some know him better than others, but he is often simply, purely opaque, permitting people to read meaning and depth into every action, no matter how empty they might be.
I don't know why Haberman says this. I assume it's to maintain an air of mystery that will inspire people to buy her book. Maybe Trump himself has encouraged her to say it, because making him seem mysterious is good for him and for her.

Because it's obvious that Haberman does know Trump. In The Atlantic piece she tells readers, by indirection, that Trump saw (and continues to see) the Big Lie primarily as a ruse to hold on to the love of his fan base (and separate them from their money).
"Can you believe these are my customers?” Donald Trump once asked while surveying the crowd in the Taj Mahal casino’s poker room. “Look at those losers,” he said to his consultant Tom O’Neil, of people spending money on the floor of the Trump Plaza casino. Visiting the Iowa State Fair as a presidential candidate in 2015, he was astounded that locals fell in line to support him because of a few free rides in his branded helicopter. In the White House, he was sometimes stunned at his own backers’ fervor, telling aides, “They’re fucking crazy.” Yet they loved him and wanted to own a piece of him, and that was what mattered most.

Almost immediately after his defeat in 2020, Trump began fundraising off his claims of fraud, turning to his ardent fans for support. Plenty of people donated small amounts of money to continue a fight he swore was valid and building toward action. It was difficult to discern, though, whether Trump actually believed what he was saying about the election.

I learned in the spring that Trump was repeating a claim from one of his most vocal allies, the self-made pillow-company CEO Mike Lindell, that Trump would be reinstated as president by August 2021. Trump liked the idea, telling aides he did not want to have to sit through another three and a half years of a Biden presidency. He quietly encouraged some conservative writers to publicize the idea in their own voices, telling the National Review editor Rich Lowry as well that he anticipated being reinstated by August 2021. Trump encouraged Lowry to write about it, saying it could help the magazine. When Jenna Ellis, his former adviser, protested on Twitter the notion that Trump could be reinstated to office, Trump told Ellis that her reputation would be damaged. She took that as pressure to reverse her statement. Trump conceded to her that the scenario was “almost impossible,” but that he wanted to keep the idea alive.
Of course Trump would embrace the notion that he could be returned to office in the middle of Biden's term. What's the downside risk for him? It's like a bet with a slim but non-zero chance of a huge payoff, except he doesn't need to put anything down. He loses nothing by doing this. Minimally, he gains the love (and small-dollar donations) of those rubes who wanted to fly in his helicopter. At best, there's a violent revolution and he actually is restored to power. He doesn't care about what that would do to the country, any more than he cares about what his actions from Election Day to January 6 did to the country. He benefited. He received an outpouring of love and money that haven't stopped. And he risked nothing.

Okay, maybe he risked being brought up on charges. But he knows how to handle situations like that, as Haberman makes clear, again indirectly.
He was at his most animated when I asked about why he had trusted Sidney Powell, given the concerns his other advisers had had about her. Since then, Powell had faced libel suits from voting-machine manufacturers she had accused of corruption; her defense had been, essentially, that no one should have taken what she had to say seriously. “I was very disappointed in her statement,” Trump said. “That is so demeaning for her to say about herself.” Then he essentially read stage directions on how to use public claims in lawsuits. “All she had to say,” he said, “was ‘Upon information and belief, I think such and such.’ Now all she says there, was take a thousand stories that were written over the last 10 years long before all of this, that are bad stories,” he said, “and that is information and belief, she read them. And that’s the end of that case. That’s true for everybody: ‘It’s upon information and belief and let’s go to court to find out if it’s true.’”
That's what he'll say if he's ever brought up on charges of trying to overturn the election: Upon information and belief, I really thought I won. At that, he assumes, prosecutors won't be able to persuade the jury that had corrupt intent.

Why does Trump think laws don't apply to him? Because he's spent his life observing people who make their own laws, and he expects every part of the world to be dominated by such people:
He thought back to the first major political figure he had observed up close, the Democratic Party boss Meade Esposito, who dominated Brooklyn politics when Trump joined his father’s real-estate business. “Meade ruled with an iron fist,” Trump said. “And he was a very strong leader, to put it mildly. And when I came to Washington, I said, ‘Oh, well, this is now the big league. So as tough as they were, this must be even tougher.’ But I said, ‘How could anybody be tougher than Meade?’ Meade had a cane at the end. He used to start swinging the cane at people. I mean, he was wild.”

... Trump’s view of strength never changes, regardless of the context, flattening all situations so they appear the same. He used identical language—“with an iron fist”—when describing how Esposito presided over his boroughwide fiefdom and when he praised China’s President Xi Jinping after his own term ended.
And, really, there's no law -- what matters is who you know.
Trump was clear that he did not believe he would have faced any of the same legal problems that had dogged him if Manhattan’s longtime district attorney, Robert Morgenthau, had still been in office. “No. He was a friend of mine. He was a great gentleman. He was a great man. He was highly respected. No. And I run a clean organization. This is a continuation of the witch hunt.” He added, “Bob Morgenthau would not have stood for this.”
Trump might be the least opaque president of my lifetime. I think Maggie Haberman knows that. But maintaining a sense of mystery about this not-at-all-mysterious man might sell some books for her.

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