clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

There is no "real" Donald Trump. This is who he is.

Donald Trump isn't a president playing a jerk. He's a jerk playing a president.

Donald Trump

On Friday night, after the leak of a 2005 audiotape in which Donald Trump bragged that “When you’re a star, they let you do it. You can do anything. Grab ’em by the pussy. You can do anything,” Trump tried to tell you that this isn’t who he really is.

“Anyone who knows me knows these words don't reflect who I am,” Trump said in a videotaped apology statement.

You should not believe him.

As far as we know — and we know a whole lot, since Donald Trump has been in public life for four decades — these words reflect exactly who Donald Trump is. He is a boorish, ego-driven chauvinist for whom there is no difference between “Should I do it?” and “Can I get away with it?”

Don’t take my word for it. Just heed the warnings of someone who’s been preaching for months and months about what happens when you pretend not to see who someone really is.

This is one of Trump's stump-speech greatest hits: reciting the lyrics to the song "The Snake," about a kind but foolish woman who lets a snake seek shelter from the cold in her home and winds up bitten. Trump uses it as a warning about unauthorized immigrants and Syrian refugees. It could just as easily be a warning against Donald Trump.

The release of the 2005 video has apparently forced many Trump supporters or sympathizers to realize something that should have been obvious from the beginning. There is no “real” Donald Trump beyond what we’ve seen for the 16 months of his presidential campaign. This is who he would be as president. This is who he is.

Donald Trump is a showman. The mask is the man.

Donald Trump is a larger-than-life figure. He always has been. He’s less a businessman than a lifestyle brand; his wealth comes not from the buildings he actually built during his early career in Manhattan, but from licensing agreements to put his name on other buildings — as well as ties, sheets, vodka, steaks, books, etc.

He’s a showman. He’s a reality TV star.

And at this point, Americans, generally, understand that the drama of reality TV is largely faked.

It’s hard to look at someone as self-consciously over-the-top as Donald Trump — a man whose persona is associated with excessive gilding and pink marble — and not assume that there’s a different person behind the mask.

The dramaturgy of a presidential election tends to revolve around questions of whether a politician is authentic and sincere; in Trump’s case, it’s assumed that he isn’t — he can’t be — and the question is what kind of person he is instead. What kind of person he is in “private,” with his family and friends, when the cameras aren’t on him.

With Trump, though, the showmanship is all we’ve got.

The line between public and private is more arbitrary than people tend to remember. In any interaction with others, you have an audience. And the preponderance of the evidence suggests that Donald Trump is always playing to his audience, no matter how small.

Donald Trump dallas rally
Tom Pennington/Getty
Tom Pennington/Getty

He agrees with whoever the last person is who talked to him. He makes decisions based on what his base likes. When he can’t get immediate feedback on what he’s saying — say, in a debate hall where the audience is forbidden to cheer — he is not just rattled but unmoored. He is literally without foundation.

If Donald Trump says disgusting things about women on Twitter, and also says even more disgusting things about women in conversation with Billy Bush, does it matter if one is public and one is private? Does it matter if he says one was designed to provoke, and the other was designed as “locker-room banter” — in other words, said to get Bush to laugh and go along? If someone’s always playing to an audience, does it really make sense to ask who he “really” is — as if what matters most is what he does when he’s locked away from the world?

Donald Trump has gotten a lot of Americans to support him on the basis that he’s pretending to be a worse person than he really is

Most people assume that all politicians lie. They assume that all politicians are playing a part, telling the public what they want to hear. And there is a lot of airtime to fill before anyone casts a vote in a primary, and between the time when we know who will be on the ballot in November and the time when we actually get to cast it.

That makes the presidential campaign — and particularly the primaries — something of a reality show itself. That’s the way it was long before Donald Trump stepped in: when people think politicians are playing a character, of course it all seems like drama.

The presidency itself, of course, is still seen as a serious and dignified thing. So most candidates try to spend the campaign seeming presidential (and give up with a sigh when, despite their ostensible best efforts, the campaign “turns negative”).

Donald Trump did it the other way. He was a candidate for the circus. He just hinted, strategically, that this was all an act, and he would change his ways once he took the oath of office.

When Ben Carson, during his endorsement speech in March, said that there were “two Donald Trumps,” Trump himself agreed: “There are probably two Donald Trumps. The public version — and people see that, and I don't know what they see exactly, but it seems to have worked over my lifetime, — but it's probably different, I think, than the personal Donald Trump.” The personal Donald Trump, Carson and Trump implied, wasn’t a boor who would (say) casually accuse people of mental illness and sociopathy. He was a decent human being.

Bush Carson Trump
Justin Sullivan / Getty

And Trump all but promised that, if elected to the presidency, the kinder, gentler, more dignified Trump was the Trump that would rule the country.

“When I’m president I’m a different person. I can do anything. I can be the most politically correct person you have ever seen,” he told Iowa rallygoers in January. “Right now they come at you from 15 different angles. You have to be sharp, you have to be quick, and you have to be somewhat vicious. When you are running the country, it is a different dialogue.”

This is vitally important if you want to understand why Trump’s supporters support him, despite everything. They can see him as “honest” while simultaneously dismissing many of the things he has actually said, because they assume that the most offensive things he has said are simply deliberate provocations — and they usually feel that the people being provoked deserve to be taken down a peg.

The logic here is a bit circular, but it’s a familiar two-step to anyone who’s had an argument about “political correctness.”

On one hand, you should respect Trump because he’s just saying what a lot of people secretly believe — what they say “around the dining room table,” as his surrogates often put it.

On the other hand, you shouldn’t get too upset about what Trump says because it’s just light talk. It’s locker-room banter. It’s satire. He’s not a polished politician, after all, you shouldn’t assume that he meant to say it exactly the way he did.

Of course, only one of these things can be true for any given statement: either Trump is saying what he and a lot of people really believe, or not.

But the two-step is a way of talking around the unspoken premise: that what people like Trump and his supporters believe isn’t actually harmful. It’s just ideology — it’s not something that actually hurts other people.

Therefore other people have no right to get offended by it — and any claims of offense, of harm, are probably blown out of proportion.

It’s a lot easier to believe this when the people getting offended aren’t people that you yourself socialize with. Not saying things that offend other people is “political correctness” — not saying things that offend people one knows is just “etiquette.” So it’s not surprising that many white American moderates and Republicans are incensed about poor treatment of women (and people with disabilities) in a way they don’t get incensed about racism. But they also have the saving grace of “ideology” — the idea that words said in public don’t actually hurt people because they don’t reflect how someone actually behaves.

It takes documentation to establish that it really is that bad

This is why the leaked 2005 tape matters. It’s Trump talking about his own personal behavior. About particular women he has tried to fuck, or about a general practice of kissing women without “waiting” for their consent.

It is Trump establishing that no, really, there is a connection between what he talks about to a crowd of thousands and what he does with real individuals in front of him.

Of course, this isn’t the first time that Trump has been accused of sexual assault and lewd behavior. But previous allegations have all been “he said, she said.” We know from media studies that, presented with conflicting accounts, people accept the account that confirms their prejudices — and that this is especially potent when the issue is politicized. It’s very easy to dismiss any allegation against Donald Trump as a motivated political attack, an exaggeration to prevent him from becoming president.

But documentation cuts through “he said, she said” — from domestic violence, to police misconduct, to the personal behavior of Donald Trump — and mitigates the power dynamics that lead people to believe only one side of that. It’s notable that in the hours since the 2005 tape leaked, stories that had already been out there of unwanted kisses (like the one he planted on Miss Utah in 1997 when he met her) and worse (like his assault of Jill Harth) have suddenly gotten a lot more public attention.

The 63rd Annual Miss Universe Pageant - Winner Press Conference Photo by Rodrigo Varela/Getty Images

Usually, taped evidence shows the public that someone’s (trustworthy) public face isn’t necessarily the face they show everyone else. In this case, it’s the opposite. It is now impossible to ignore: Donald Trump is the person he makes himself out to be, and no better.

It’s bizarre that it’s come to this. It’s worth thinking about what it meant that everyone was so willing to shrug off boorish behavior in public as not real. This is the presidency. Public life is real.

It’s bizarre that a large swath of America thinks it’s okay to act like a worse person in public than you really are, on the biggest stage in the country. Norms are supposed to exist to constrain people from behaving badly toward others, at least when people are watching. What it means to assume, glibly, that racism, sexism, and straight-up vulgarity can be expressed in public without affecting private behavior — that’s something we’re going to end up wrestling with long after this election.

But for the moment, it’s enough to know that Donald Trump is, in fact, the person he always told you he was.

You knew damn well he was a snake before you took him in.