Has there ever been an American president with a more powerful homing instinct than Donald Trump? Of course everyone needs to get away from work sometimes, all the more so when it’s the most famous job in the world. Most presidents have had generous homes they could return to on weekends or vacations. George W. Bush liked his Texas ranch. His father sometimes invited other world leaders over to the family compound in Kennebunkport. The Kennedys had Hyannis Port.
But Donald J. Trump takes the urge to cocoon to a whole other level.
On March 26, the Washington Post reported that the new president had visited a Trump-branded private property on 21 of the 66 days since his inauguration. That’s about one-third of the time he had been president to that point.
After he swore the presidential oath on Jan. 20, Trump seemed, at first, to take to his new residence at the White House. He did not leave the official presidential residence for a branded Trump property until Feb. 3, the 15th day of his presidency, when he hopped a flight to Trump National Golf Club Mar-a-Lago (“The Legendary Pinnacle of Palm Beach”). But since then, he has been unable to refrain from visiting a property he owns for longer than five days. He spent eight consecutive weekends at Trump properties, usually at Mar-a-Lago but also including the Trump International Hotel in Washington, the Trump National Golf Club in Potomac Falls, Va., or one of two other Trump golf clubs in Florida.
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Much of the coverage of Trump’s fondness for buildings with his name on the side has focused on the ways public and private business converge at such places, in ways that will certainly make Trump and his family richer. It’s a worthy angle. Membership fees at Mar-a-Lago doubled to $200,000 after Trump’s inauguration. The dividing lines between Trump’s private business and the republic’s public affairs have blurred beyond hope.
But I’m more interested in what happens to a man when he spends years cut off from the rest of North American society in the gated archipelago of the Trump empire.
Take those 21 days at the Florida resort and the golf clubs. Treat the residential wing of the White House—to which Trump retires alone in the evenings and where he often dawdles, watching Fox News and tweeting, until late in the morning—as, effectively, a newly annexed territory of Trumplandia. Throw all that together, and the president has not seen much of the rest of America since he took office. Little of America, and none of the world: Trump plans no foreign travel before late May. No new president has been in office for that long before travelling outside the United States since Lyndon Johnson succeeded the murdered John Kennedy in 1963.
Trump favours familiar turf to such an extent that it seems more accurate to say he’s afraid to leave it. There are so far no tales of the new president busting free of his handlers for some fresh air and a mid-afternoon snack break, as Barack Obama sometimes did on visits to such cheerful and nutritionally questionable venues as Shake Shack, Five Guys and Ray’s Hell Burger. Trump rarely ventures outside Trumplandia to see the places affected by his choices. He still does campaign-style rallies every few weeks, but as was usually the case during the campaign, he normally flies to a Trump property afterward to spend the night. When he met coal miners to sign an executive order undoing his predecessor’s climate-change policies, he had them come to the EPA, instead of going to Kentucky.
He’s a hermit, in other words. And this is an important aspect of his personality to understand, because he has been a hermit for 30 years.
Trump announced his candidacy for the presidency on June 16, 2015, in the lobby of the Trump Tower in Manhattan. He’s lived in the building since the 1980s. He built the fame that made him a viable presidential candidate during more than a decade as the central figure of the game show The Apprentice. It was filmed in a suite of fake offices built inside Trump Tower. The show would occasionally require that Trump exit the building where he slept, ate and worked, to inspect the business projects of the entrepreneur contestants. In later seasons, he did less and less of this. Instead, a Trump employee or one of his adult children would venture out into the Manhattan streets on his behalf.
This is an odd way to live. A man who resides for three decades in the same building has little experience of day-to-day life in his country. If he owns the building, so that every person in it is there on his sufferance, he won’t often run into people who are in a mood to disagree with him. If he travels almost exclusively to other destinations he owns, meeting mostly his staff, relatives, friends, guests and clients, he becomes impervious to the sort of lived experience that helps most of us test our assumptions against our perceptions—to check our worldview against the world.
Trump’s public statements betray the effect of his extended hiatus from North American society. In a Republican candidates’ debate in March 2016, he listed Japan as one of the countries where the U.S. is “getting absolutely crushed on trade.” That hasn’t been true since before Bill Clinton was president. In his inaugural address, he painted an apocalyptic portrait of the United States—where “crime and gangs and drugs . . . have stolen too many lives and robbed our country of so much unrealized potential”—even though crime today is much lower, in most jurisdictions and by most measures, than in 1990, or even in 2005.
These outbursts are worth the effort to understand because their author is now, at least on paper, the most powerful man in the world. They are best understood as the musings of an emissary from another era. Donald Trump is in effect a time traveller from the late 1980s, when crime in American cities was at record-high levels, racial tension was rampant, Japanese billionaires were buying up much of Manhattan and a much younger Donald Trump was building the collection of gold-plated safe houses in which he would hide for the next three decades, subsisting on well-done steaks, taco bowls and the time-clock adulation of lackeys and hirelings.
If only there were some social document from that earlier age that would help us understand this president-out-of-time. Some Rosetta Stone to offer clues into the deepest fears of the late-’80s masters of the universe.
And indeed there is.
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In October 1987, a few weeks after Trump first appeared on the cover of Newsweek magazine, the New York publishing house Farrar, Straus and Giroux released Tom Wolfe’s first novel, The Bonfire of the Vanities. Wolfe, a smirking dandy eternally clad in white suits with high-collared shirts, had been a certifiably big deal in American journalism since the 1960s. With Jimmy Breslin and others, he was a founding figure of the so-called “New Journalism,” which applied self-consciously literary techniques to long reported essays on late-20th-century pop culture. His non-fiction books were instant classics: Radical Chic, The Right Stuff, The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test. But Wolfe dreamed of reversing the flow of influence in his work, of writing fiction informed by good reporting, not just reporting that read like fiction.
Bonfire of the Vanities was an instant bestseller. Brian De Palma made it into a big-budget film starring Tom Hanks, but he misjudged the novel’s rich streak of dark humour and shot the movie as broad comedy. It was a flop. But the novel stands as a testament to a fleeting, mad moment in the life of Manhattan’s business elite.
There is no evidence Wolfe had Trump in mind when he wrote Bonfire of the Vanities. Sherman McCoy, the hapless central figure, is a Wall Street bond trader, not a real-estate developer, and for all his fevered social climbing, McCoy is one or two rungs lower on the Park Avenue social ladder than Trump would have been even then. But the similarities between the real millionaire and the fictional one are what ring truest today.
“Still young,” Wolfe calls McCoy, “thirty-eight years old.” Trump was 41 at the time. “Tall . . . almost six-one.” Trump stands six feet two inches. “Terrific posture . . . terrific to the point of imperious . . . as imperious as his daddy, the Lion of Dunning Sponget.” Trump, too, was born to money, and became president of his father Fred Trump’s real estate firm.
Sherman McCoy is a philanderer, carrying on behind his wife’s back with a married Southern belle, Maria Ruskin. In an early chapter, he drags his reluctant dog out for a walk as a pretext to meet Maria for some hanky-panky. What becomes obvious is how terrified Sherman is. Of everything.
He finally gets the dog out of his apartment tower and onto the street. It doesn’t go well. “All at once Sherman was aware of a figure approaching him on the sidewalk, in the wet black shadows of the town houses and the trees. Even from fifty feet away, in the darkness, he could tell. It was that deep worry that lives in the base of the skull of every resident of Park Avenue south of Ninety-Sixth Street—a black youth, tall, rangy, wearing white sneakers. Now he was forty feet away, thirty-five. Sherman stared at him. Well, let him come! I’m not budging! It’s my territory! I’m not giving way for any street punks!”
The young man crosses the street to avoid Sherman. The two-timing bond trader is nearly dizzy with relief and gratitude, and bereft of self-awareness. “Not once did it dawn on Sherman McCoy that what the boy had seen was a thirty-eight-year-old white man, soaking wet, dressed in some sort of military-looking raincoat . . . staring, bug-eyed, and talking to himself.”
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So, he’s a ridiculous character, certain of his uprightness and valour, terrified of innocent strangers who don’t look like him. Perhaps you can tease out the parallels to current events without my guidance. But in the comic-book-coloured New York City of Wolfe’s jumped-up portrayal, Sherman McCoy has a lot of company.
The novel opens with a fictional Jewish mayor trying to face an angry crowd in Harlem. He finds himself shouted down and chased out. As he’s fleeing, the mayor spots a sympathetic woman in the audience. She knows she should rally to the mayor’s aid. “But the good people are intimidated!” Wolfe writes. “They don’t dare do a thing! Back to blood! Them and us!”
Drowning in “a wave of the purest self-pity,” the mayor thinks of the comfortable New Yorkers who’ll witness his discomfiture on the evening news and chuckle. “Do you really think this is your city any longer?” he wants to tell them. “Open your eyes! The greatest city of the twentieth century! Do you think money will keep it yours? Come down from your swell co-ops, you general partners and merger lawyers! It’s the Third World down there!”
Sherman hasn’t the faintest interest in coming down from his swell co-op. He thinks about his father, lawyer John McCoy, who unaccountably still rides the subway. “The more grim the subways became, the more graffiti those people scrawled on the cars, the more gold chains they snatched off girls’ necks, the more old men they mugged, the more women they pushed in front of the trains, the more determined was John Campbell McCoy that they weren’t going to drive him off the New York City subways.”
That’s the father. For Sherman, who’s grown up in this new, harder Manhattan—born within three years of Donald J. Trump—there is no such honour in mixing with the hoi polloi.
“Insulation! That was the ticket. That was the term Rawlie Thorpe used. ‘If you want to live in New York,’ he once told Sherman, ‘you’ve got to insulate, insulate, insulate,’ meaning insulate yourself from those people. The cynicism and smugness of the idea struck Sherman as very au courant. If you could go breezing down the FDR Drive in a taxi, then why file into the trenches of the urban wars?”
Not long after Wolfe’s novel appeared, out in what we might tentatively label the real world, Trump began developing his own interest in insulation.
He had already shown some interest in the subject—Back to blood! Them and us!—earlier in his life. In 1973 Trump made his ﬁrst appearance on the front page of the New York Times, because the federal Justice Department had sued Trump and his father, claiming they had violated the Fair Housing Act of 1968 by refusing to rent to African-American tenants.
At the time, Trump dismissed the charges. “They are absolutely ridiculous. We never have discriminated and we never would.” The Trumps later countersued and settled with the Justice Department; the terms of the settlement included no admission of guilt.
But by 1989 Trump was really worried that New York was no longer his city. A white jogger was brutally raped in Central Park. Five young black and Hispanic men were arrested. They confessed, in accounts that were mutually contradictory. Years later they would be exculpated on DNA evidence. Trump was in no mood to wait for due process. He spent $85,000 to buy full-page ads in four New York newspapers, angry blocks of text over Trump’s signature and under a headline that took up half the display space: BRING BACK THE DEATH PENALTY. BRING BACK OUR POLICE!
In the specific case at hand, Trump wanted the harshest punishment—“I want to hate these muggers and murderers. They should be forced to suffer and, when they kill, they should be executed for their crimes”—but what’s most striking is the broader context Trump depicts. “What has happened is the complete breakdown of life as we knew it,” he wrote.
“Many New York families—white, black, Hispanic and Asian—have had to give up the pleasure of a leisurely stroll in the park at dusk, the Saturday visit to the playground with their families, the bike ride at dawn, or just sitting on their stoops—given them up as hostages to a world ruled by the law of the streets, as roving bands of wild criminals roam our neighbourhoods, dispensing their own vicious brand of twisted hatred on whomever they encounter.”
Now here’s the thing. Within a very few years after Trump’s manifesto, New York City and much of American society began, against all expectations, to get better. But it’s hard to imagine a New Yorker who would be less able to witness the transformation than Donald Trump, already ensconced in his Manhattan tower.
Wolfe sets much of his novel’s action in the 44th Precinct of the Bronx, where Sherman McCoy accidentally runs over an innocent black youth. An ambitious assistant district attorney named Lawrence Kramer must try to get the bond trader convicted. Kramer and everyone else in the big courthouse is terrified of the streets outside. “It was no joke, this precinct, the 44th,” Wolfe writes.
Nearby Franz Sigel Park is a no-man’s land where “just last week some poor devil was stabbed to death at 10:00 a.m.” Nobody even dares leave the fortress courthouse for lunch. Absolutely nobody. “You could ascend to the very top of the criminal justice system in the Bronx and eat deli sandwiches for lunch until the day you retired or died.”
The Bronx’s 44th Precinct is a real place. We can measure its progress. There’s been an uptick in crime in 2017, with major crimes up 9.83 per cent over the same year-to-date in 2016. But that’s against a backdrop of precipitous decline in crime from the early 1990s. Rapes in 2016 were down 68 per cent from 1990, felonious assault down by 60 per cent, robbery down by 79 per cent, and murder declined by 87 per cent.
Franz Sigel Park can still be a sketchy place: New York police reported seven violent crimes there over the nine months from June 2015 to March 2016. But the online reviews on Yelp make it sound pretty nice, all told. “I spent a while there having snacks and people-watching and really enjoyed myself,” one user wrote in 2015. “Lots of happy families with kids.”
It’s a fair bet that President Trump hasn’t popped by Franz Sigel Park in the Bronx in recent decades to measure its progress. He checked into Trumplandia in the mid-1980s—Insulation!—and has never checked out. Which is why his inaugural speech described a terrifying America, ripped from the headlines of the mid-’80s: “Mothers and children trapped in poverty in our inner cities . . . and the crime and gangs and drugs that have stolen too many lives and robbed our country of so much unrealized potential.”
There’s a reason they call your formative years by that name. Ronald Reagan spent his young adult years making propaganda films for an America that was helping tip the scales in a global war against evil, learning to peddle optimism and basic virtues. Donald Trump spent his in a New York City that was collapsing into drug crime, violence and racial strife. He didn’t stick around to see how it ended. He’s Sherman McCoy in a time warp.
The president’s policy obsessions are those of a man in the grip of terror: walls, police, security checks, travel bans, “bad hombres.” Like Sherman McCoy, he is forever crossing the street and calling it courage. The country he governs exists only in his mind, which is why he prefers the reports of TV and Internet hucksters to the briefings of intelligence professionals who are drearily preoccupied with things as they are. His life is about insulating. He insulates his own existence, he tries to insulate his country, and he wonders why the courts and the reporters won’t let him.
Never doubt that he is living a nightmare, one that began long ago and will endure long after the political fates permit him to return to his network of marble-floored safe houses for good.