Mr. Trump Is Ready for His Close-Up. Always.
Donald Trump tapped my arm as we flew to Los Angeles on his jet and, between bites of Oreos, confided a little something: “Clint Eastwood is the greatest star ever,” he said. “All those Sergio Leone westerns. Nobody was cooler.”
This wasn’t entirely true, I suspected. Deep down inside, Trump has always believed that he’s the greatest star who has ever existed.
Once upon a time -- long before the carnival that is the 2016 presidential election -- Trump set his sights on Hollywood.
When Trump was 18, he wanted to be a movie producer. He told me that he considered attending the University of Southern California to study filmmaking after he graduated from military school in 1964 (several years later he even produced an ill-fated Broadway show, Paris Is Out). Inevitably, perhaps, he was drawn instead into his father’s real estate business.
Still, Trump’s fascination with movies never wavered, a fact that became abundantly clear as I traveled with him in 2004 and 2005 to report a book on his life and business. (Disclosure: Trump later sued me for that book because, among other things, it questioned the size of his fortune. The suit was later dismissed. )
While we watched “Sunset Boulevard” together on one flight, Trump leaned in over my shoulder during one of the film’s iconic scenes: Gloria Swanson as the silent film star Norma Desmond, bemoaning the arrival of the talkies. “Oh, those idiot producers. Those imbeciles! Haven’t they got any eyes? Have they forgotten what a star looks like?” Desmond says. “I’ll show them. I’ll be up there again! So help me!”
“Is this an incredible scene or what?” whispered Trump, who has regularly demonstrated during his presidential campaign the importance of batting down anyone who questions his star power. “Just incredible.”
The showman and the superstar are central to Trump’s cinematic sense of himself and seem to propel him forward in life, business, politics and everywhere else.
After Trump’s reality TV show, “The Apprentice,” first caught fire more than a decade ago, Trump began polling people about the nature of stardom. He told me that he went out of his way to quiz “Saturday Night Live” producer Lorne Michaels about celebrity. “Which is bigger: a television star or a movie star?” Trump asked the producer. “A television star," was the response Trump remembered. “Because you are on in front of 30 million people every week.”
Whether he’s bragging to the media about a handful of expensive buildings, firing anxious young entrepreneurs as a reality TV titan, or body-slamming Jeb Bush in pursuit of the White House, it’s not hard to imagine that Trump sees each of those pursuits as props in a larger performance.
Trump’s need to occupy center stage -- enveloped in the warm glow of the spotlight, gazed at, listened to, and retweeted by millions -- is one explanation for why he can’t stop turning attention-getting and often deeply disturbing cartwheels in the presidential race.
So whenever Trump appears to be striking a pose, it may be precisely that. Take his most famous look -- it smacks of an homage: Clint Eastwood, squinting, flipping his poncho over his shoulder to expose his six-shooter, the badass dueling his way through “The Good, the Bad and the Ugly.” That’s who Trump projects whenever he narrows his eyes and scowls for the cameras. Somewhere in the world there must be an old, burdened mirror that the Hollywood aspirant has gazed into time after time to practice his Eastwood pose, late at night when no one else can see him:
Although Clint Eastwood looms large in Trump’s imagination, his favorite movie is “Citizen Kane.”
“I loved Orson Welles. He was totally fucked up. He was a total mess. But think of his wives. Think of his hits,” Trump told me. “He was like this great genius that after 26, never did it. He became totally impossible. He thought everybody was a moron, everybody was this, everybody was that; if he had a budget he’d exceed it by 20 times and destroy everything. He became impossible. I loved that.”
What’s not to love about somebody like that?
Somebody like that who, channeling Welles, might have launched his signature and never-to-be replicated creation, Trump Tower, when he was only 37, a tyro who had seemingly lapped his father, who was still the bright and shiny young face of the new New York. It would be easy for somebody like that to look back on his business career today, at the bankruptcies and the lawsuits, and to think of Trump Tower as a high point, his own “Citizen Kane,” and to wonder if the man who survived all those messes was the business titan he had wanted to become when he first began his march out of Queens.
But somebody humbled by that past would probably have to be a little more introspective, less gleeful, more disciplined and less effervescent than the person who could waltz from his induction in World Wrestling Entertainment’s Hall of Fame and into a landmark presidential bid. He’d have to be somebody other than the presidential candidate who has resisted releasing his tax returns, but is content to release a letter from a doctor noting that his “physical strength and stamina are extraordinary” and that he had a good chance of being “the healthiest individual ever elected to the presidency.”
Trump wouldn’t be the first president shaped by movies and stardom, of course. Ronald Reagan, a former actor, has preceded him. But Reagan’s favorite characters were in the “Knute Rockne, All American” mode. Trump’s? Well, there’s Jules Winnfield, the “Pulp Fiction” hitman played by Samuel L. Jackson.
“My favorite part is when Sam has his gun out in the diner and he tells the guy to tell his girlfriend to shut up: ‘Tell that bitch to be cool,’” Trump told me on his plane, as he munched on potato chips. “‘Say: Bitch be cool!’ I love those lines.”
There’s also Auric Goldfinger, the Bond villain bent on controlling the world’s gold supply.
“I thought Goldfinger was just a great character,” Trump told me. “To me he was the best of all the characters. Semi-believable.”
Now Trump himself is in the role of a lifetime, and after a primary victory earlier this year, he mused out loud about how to approach his craft. “I can be more presidential than anybody,” he noted. “More presidential than anybody other than the great Abe Lincoln. He was very presidential, right?”
When Trump launched his presidential bid in the summer of 2015, the dominant question from reporters was how soon it would be before he left the race. “Where's the exit ramp for Trump?” they would ask.
It was a misguided question, reflecting a basic misunderstanding of Trump. So long as he could stand in the middle of every presidential debate platform, so long as broadcasters were climbing over one another to interview him, he wasn’t going anywhere. Exit ramps? He was right where he wanted to be: center stage.
This column is adapted from a new introduction to “TrumpNation: The Art of Being the Donald,” which will be released as a paperback on June 14.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
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