Early on in Confidence Man, her doorstop chronology of Donald Trump’s life and presidency, New York Times political scribe Maggie Haberman sketches out the guiding ambition fueling the real estate scion’s ascension to the ultimate summit of power and political prestige. Not satisfied with merely succeeding to his father’s outer-borough real estate empire, Trump “really always wanted to be a star.” All of Trump’s other character traits—his raging narcissism, his bullying demeanor, his eagerness for approval, his notional-at-best acquaintance with truth-telling—stem, in Haberman’s telling, from a “thirst for fame” that “seemed to grow stronger each time he tasted more of it.”
It’s a flat, borderline-banal reading of what makes Trump run; after all, what aspirant to the American presidency wasn’t driven by an outsize hunger for public attention? Like any single-minded foray into politically tinged pop psychology, it blots out a good deal of the background forces in American political, cultural, and economic life that culminated in the great man’s rise to power. Assigning Trump the life mission of seeking more and greater recognition leaves much of the causation behind the book’s tabloid-style subtitle—The Making of Donald Trump and the Breaking of America—unexplained. America has been broken, apparently, because it’s just collateral damage in Trump’s lifelong ego rampage—and so the conservative movement’s broader embrace of anti-government nihilism, white nationalism, and militant conspiracy-mongering rates scarcely any notice.
In fairness, Trump is possessed of gargantuan appetites for attention and the ancillary proofs-of-concept mandated by the mogul ego: wealth, celebrity, and sensual gratification. It’s true as well that any Trump biography risks narrative asphyxiation because of the sheer, monotonous dreariness of the material; whatever else Trump is, he is fundamentally unchanged in outlook, ambition, and acquisitive drive from when first he emerged as the American media’s chosen avatar of Reagan-era capitalism in the 1980s. Narrating Trump’s life story and political trajectory as any sort of evolutionary saga is a bit like choreographing a ballet for sloths—neither the form nor the content can rise to the task at hand.
Still, Haberman, who despite her current Gray Lady pedigree came of professional age as a reporter for the Gotham tabloids the New York Post and the New York Daily News, makes a determined go of using the terminally attention-starved condition of the Trump psyche as the template for his astonishing, ongoing role as designated embodiment of the American right’s id. That’s what unifies the two halves of Confidence Man: the oft-retailed story of Trump’s emergence as an all-purpose icon of American business culture—what might be called the accumulative phase of Trumpism—and his subsequent takeover of the Republican Party, the American presidency, and the body and soul of movement conservatism.
So, for example, when Trump takes out a full-page ad in each of New York’s four daily papers demanding that the state reinstitute the death penalty for the (since exonerated) defendants in the Central Park jogger rape case, Haberman writes that he was seizing on the “backlash” that the case provoked as “an opportunity for media attention for himself.” The call to lynch the wrongly accused suspects is gilded as a “lament for a bygone culture of law and order whose brutality he glamorized,” and the racial animus behind the ads blurs into a sound-bite formula, abstracted from its openly predatory message. Trump’s crusade was merely an extension of a fatalistic, New York–bred conviction that “tribal conflict was inevitable.” Haberman is so taken with this schematic account of Trump’s camera-ready racism that she builds it into an absurd parallel; Trump and Black preacher-activist Al Sharpton were, in fact, “mirror images of each other.” Both “were outer-borough players who muscled their way into headlines, and albeit in different timeframes, into new, more glamorous lives. Both had redefined themselves in Manhattan and refused to be thrown out of their new ring, no matter how much antipathy they drew from different segments of the city’s establishment.”
On it goes through the 600 pages of Confidence Man; Trump is a relentless star (and star-fucker) on the make, Sammy Glick repurposed as presidential fodder. He attends the 1988 Republican National Convention in New Orleans, along with “one of the largest collections of media ever assembled in a single room,” where George H.W. Bush is nominated for the GOP ticket. The then 42-year-old author of The Art of the Deal is “mesmerized, enraptured by the display around him. It was like a giant sporting event, except in honor of one man. ‘This is what I want,’ Trump said.”Fast forward to the 2016 Republican presidential primaries, and Trump is once more marketing cruelty and hate as mediagenic commodities: “Trump approached campaigning for president much as he did everything else in his life–intimidating, humiliating, and threatening anyone he saw in his path…. The attacks garnered condemnations from other Republicans, which drove even more news coverage to Trump before yielding to his next outrage.” Even Trump’s horrific attempted coup on January 6, 2021, gets treated as another case study in attention-seeking gone too far, the handiwork of “a narcissistic drama-seeker who covered a fragile ego with a bullying impulse, and, this time, took American democracy to the brink.”
It’s not that these drive-by diagnoses of Trump’s deeply flawed character are inaccurate; it is, however, the case that Haberman’s preoccupation with Trump’s bottomless need for ego gratification supplies an all-purpose alibi for the media-political-entertainment complex that first summoned Trump’s national brand into being. In the run-up to Confidence Man’s publication, much ink has been spilled over Haberman’s apparent decision to withhold some of the book’s most damning material from the pages of the Paper of Record, where real-time revelations of, say, Trump’s disclosure to her that he had squirreled away a tranche of sensitive White House documents in his Mar-a-Lago resort hideaway could have helped jump-start his long-postponed day of legal and political reckoning.
That case is up for debate, given the absurd de facto immunities granted to presidents, even after they are out of office. But the pages of Confidence Man supply a deeper, and equally distressing, indictment of the American media as a singularly credulous force before the packaging of the avaricious business executive as mythic hero. In sizing up Trump’s breakout moment of national celebrity, Haberman delivers this gloss on the entire industry’s news judgment:
The national media was beginning to learn what New York journalists already knew: there was something magnetic about Trump. It wasn’t simply that his instinct for colorful drama made for good copy. He was mesmerizing to watch, his speech fast and cocky and self-assured, with the ability to be both funny and cutting, both charming and derisive, almost in the same sentence. He drew viewers; people either liked him, or liked to hate him. News outlets, in that decade and the years after, often treated Trump as though he were born anew with every story, his previous misdeeds or misstatements or lies basically washed away.
Haberman intends this as a passing critique of the press’s callow Trump boosterism, but that’s a structural malady that runs far deeper than the “magnetic,” fast-talking and “cocky” mien of a Manhattan real-estate tout. The prevailing imperative shaping media coverage of the private sector’s hostile takeover bids targeting our public life pivots on a quest-for-power-themed titillation scarcely distinguishable from Trump’s own cravings.
Much as the D.C. palace-intrigue dispatches of Bob Woodward function as a sort of glorified theater criticism, as Joan Didion memorably observed, so does the elevation of CEO trickster gods like Trump serve to relieve the national business press—and the mediasphere more broadly—of the unwelcome pressures of critical thinking and reporting in the actual public interest. The resulting infatuation not only elevated Trump out of all imaginable proportion to his actual scale of accomplishment; it also fuels presidential boomlets for business executives like Lee Iacocca, Carly Fiorina, and Howard Schultz, while furnishing raw materials for the actual presidential runs of Ross Perot Jr. and Mitt Romney. (To say nothing, of course, of the unseemly bro-worship cult of Elon Musk.)
Until we can take full account of the untold destruction wreaked under this media-sanctioned conflation of business predation and civic virtue, the American system is poised to churn out a long regress of Trumpian strongmen-in-the-making. And personality-driven accounts like Confidence Man will avail us nothing in this onslaught.