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Trump biographer: "He's an actor who's been playing himself for his entire life"

Donald Trump, explained by a man who's spent hours talking to him.

NEW YORK, NY - JANUARY 05: Donald Trump attends the 'Celebrity Apprentice' Red Carpet Event at Trump Tower on January 5, 2015 in New York City.
Mike Pont / Getty

"Sometimes he'll say things, and I'll go, 'Oh, gosh, seriously?' But at least he's willing to say it," a Trump supporter told CNN back in November. "All these politicians are afraid to tell the truth."

This is a common sentiment among Donald Trump voters. They may not like everything he says, but his style feels ... honest. It isn’t, of course. Trump — and his surrogates — lies with alarming alacrity. For millions of Americans, however, his crude, rambling approach is seen as refreshing, a welcome blast of political incorrectness.

The irony of Trump’s straight talk shtick is that it’s so obviously a shtick. Whether he’s peddling steaks, ties, a TV show, a fraudulent university, or a vision of America, he’s engaged in a performative act, as all salesmen are. But now the performer has crossed a line. The presidency isn’t performance art; the stakes are as real and high as they get.

And now it really matters what kind of man Trump is.

If anyone outside Trump’s family knows what’s behind his public mask, it’s his biographers, the people who’ve studied his life, followed him around, and spent hours interviewing him.

One such biographer is Michael D’Antonio, a former journalist for Newsday and the author of The Truth About Trump. D’Antonio’s biography is admirably even-handed and based on several hours of exclusive interviews with Trump. The book doesn’t dive excessively into Trump’s business and financial dealings; instead, D’Antonio combs through his personal life looking for insights into the man behind the brand.

I sat down with D’Antonio on Monday to talk about what he learned about Trump. I asked him what he thinks drives Trump’s behavior and what kind of president we can expect him to be. His answers were ... illuminating.

Our conversation, edited for length and clarity, follows.

Sean Illing

You’ve spent an unhealthy amount of time thinking and writing about Donald Trump. Who is he?

Michael D’Antonio

Oh boy, that's an interesting question. He's an actor who's been playing himself for his entire life, in much the same way John Wayne played himself in every role. And it's worked so well for him, playing this role of a leader and businessman, that he transitioned seamlessly into his new role as an outspoken candidate and a risk-taker. Enough people bought the act, and he managed to get elected.

I’d say the kind of risk-taking he displayed on the campaign trail is consistent with who he is as a businessman and as a human being. He's always refused to be like other people when it comes to manners and respect for others and loyalty to the truth. I've always seen him as a man who defines himself by the number of norms he can violate. He's kind of a barbarian in that way — he gets a thrill out of disturbing other people and proving that he doesn't have to go along with what other people expect.

Sean Illing

Let me ask that last question a different way: Who is he trying to be?

Michael D’Antonio

I think he's trying to be someone like he imagines Gen. Patton was. When he talks about these World War II generals portrayed in the movies, he's explaining something about himself and what he admires. He really does identify with that kind of aggression, that kind of authority. His role models were his father, the officer in charge of his group of students when he was student at a military academy, and Roy Cohn. All of these people were aggressive bullies who used strength as a tool and a measure of their own worth, and who believed anything is justified in pursuit of your ambitions.

Sean Illing

I have mixed feelings about Tony Robbins, the famous author and pop psychologist, but I’m fascinated by the two questions he asks when he’s trying to get a sense of someone’s psychological makeup: What was your relationship with your mother like, and what kind of person did you have to be for your father?

What do you imagine Trump’s answers would be to those questions?

Michael D’Antonio

Well, his father told him, "You're a killer, you're a king," and expected him to be those things. His older brother Freddy, who died young, suffered for not living up the father's expectations that a man be incredibly tough and almost merciless. Donald was willing to be those things, and that's exactly who his father expected him to be. So he did achieve what his father expected of him. He is the person his father wanted him to be.

His mother was sickly when Donald was young, and much of the time she was distant. She was a bit of an eccentric by most accounts. She really wanted to be the center of attention. At social events, she had to be in the middle and have eyes on her. She was very showy in that way. Her example elevated showmanship and appearance, and Donald's father emphasized toughness and competitiveness and drive.

So combine these two influences, and what you get is Donald Trump.

Sean Illing

What kind of president do you think he will be?

Michael D’Antonio

I really don't know. I don't think he will demonstrate anything different in his personality. He's shown us who he is when it comes to character and his tendency to manipulate and try to stack the deck. He's going to require so much fact-checking and watchdogging that the press will be run ragged trying to sort out the reality from the showmanship.

Sean Illing

In a recent interview with Politico, you said that Trump is “not going to be concerned with the actual competent administration of the government. … It’s going to be what he seems to be gaining or losing in public esteem.”

Can you explain what you mean here?

Michael D’Antonio

He's never been a chief executive who was involved in the day-to-day operation of a complex, employee-heavy enterprise. The few times that he's done this, he's failed — his management of the casinos and the airline are good examples of this. He wasn't able to make these things long-term successes.

His preference is for dealmaking, for the bright shiny object in the moment. That suggests to me that government will be in the hands of the people he's appointed. But how that works out remains to be seen, because at some point a president has to be engaged in the question of how well we're doing.

Sean Illing

So you think he'll be more concerned with his ratings than his policies, and that that will drive his decision-making?

Michael D’Antonio

Yeah, I think that's right. I think he'll be far more concerned with the ceremonial aspects of being president, with being applauded whenever he appears in public, and if that requires people being encouraged to applaud or shills being planted in crowds, that's in the Trump playbook.

What's strange to me is that he's willing to walk out like a 70-year-old nightclub performer and just riff on whatever's happening in the moment, and then run through his greatest hits, which amounts to a recitation of his victories. And he believes this is sufficient. It's empty and purely symbolic, but it's what he does and how he leads.

Sean Illing

You seem to think that Trump is driven in part by a fear of his own unworthiness. After all, this is a man with few meaningful relationships outside of his family because he’s never known if the people around him are there because of the persona he projects or because they actually want to be around him.

Why is this important to understanding his need to delegitimize enemies, to punish and shame and humiliate people?

Michael D’Antonio

I think the dynamic of humiliation and shame is very powerful and primal, and he deals in primitive methods. I also think that he's irritated and even enraged by those who check facts and look for evidence to confirm or disprove his claims. He thinks he should just be able to say things, and that those things should be reported and considered uncritically. So he resents it when people fail to do that and instead hold him to some standard, and he takes it personally.

In some ways, it is truly humiliating to be called out as a serial exaggerator and liar and deceiver. So he may actually experience pain associated with that, but he moves so quickly to rage that he never changes. It's not as if being called out instructs him in any way. He almost never becomes more sober or more careful.

Sean Illing

You're not inspiring a lot of confidence right now, Michael. A man perpetually pulled in all directions by his emotional insecurities is not who you want in charge of the nuclear codes.

Michael D’Antonio

Look, the problem is that he's had to win at so many things, more things than any person should expect themselves to win at, that he uses gamesmanship instead of performance to reach his goal. So if you do that for long enough, how do you ever know that you won on the merits? He's always winning after tilting the playing field in his favor, but you don't learn anything about yourself that way. If you learn anything, it's that's you're tricky, not talented or capable.

Sean Illing

Well, it's a way of delaying a confrontation with certain truths about yourself.

Michael D’Antonio

Yes, that's exactly right. I also think it deprives you of what is real confidence and strength, and makes you feel insecure and wary all the time.

Sean Illing

What do you make of his war on the press? What’s the angle here?

Michael D’Antonio

He wants to delegitimize all sources of information outside of himself. If anybody contradicts him, including the mainstream media, he has to destroy their credibility so that he can argue he's being unfairly attacked.

This is how he operates, how he deals with the media. The normal rules are always difficult for him. If he's going to head to head with somebody on the basis of rational, fact-based argument, that's a lot harder than complaining about being attacked and then saying you're hitting back 10 times harder because you're not going to take it.

Sean Illing

Do you think that Trump has any regard for what’s true? As far as I can tell, everything's a game, and there are winners and losers and he has to be a winner, and that's it.

Michael D’Antonio

I think that if the truth is not congenial to him, he has no regard for it. So when he thought the election was going against him, it was rigged. And then when he won, of course it wasn't rigged. It's all situational; there's no inner commitment to anything factual.

Sean Illing

If you only care about the truth when it flatters you, you don’t care about the truth. Again, this is a terrifying disposition to witness in a commander in chief.

Michael D’Antonio

Right, and what you notice with Trump is that he's so resistant to learning new things if they conflict with his preconceived notions. He doesn't partake in back-and-forth conversations about the facts, or at least he never did in my presence. It was always statements followed by statements.

Sean Illing

The scariest thing I’ve heard you say in this conversation is that Trump is “a man who defines himself by the number of norms he can violate.”

Michael D’Antonio

I think when he talks about things being unprecedented, that's what he's saying. When he brags about how he could stand on Fifth Avenue and shoot someone and get away with it, he really means it, and he really thinks this is a great thing. A kid who doesn't have to behave in class has a tremendous amount of power, and it's thrilling to be that person to whom the rules don't apply.

And this is who Trump has been his entire life.

Sean Illing

You paint a picture of a man who is half Paris Hilton, half Caligula.

Michael D’Antonio

Ha! You know, I've been thinking a lot of the end of the Roman Empire lately, and that's not entirely off the mark.

Sean Illing

We’re about to slide off the rails here, so let me ask you a couple more questions before you go.

There’s this idea, floated by BuzzFeed’s (now the Atlantic’s) McKay Coppins last year, that Trump’s presidential ambitions were solidified at the 2011 White House Correspondents’ Dinner when President Obama openly mocked him. Maybe it’s true, maybe it’s not. I find it interesting because one of the many paradoxes of Trump is that he seems to reject the “establishment” but also appears to need their approval. He’s the rich kid from Queens who’s forever stuck in the shadow of the old-money Manhattanites.

Do you think this is why he’s able to channel the resentment of Americans who feel alienated in some way from high culture?

Michael D’Antonio

Yes, I think he takes all of this very personally, and his life has been marked by these aspirations or the seeking of approval from the elites and then being deprived of it except where money and a caricature of wealth is concerned. If you've studied Trump's life, it's apparent that he's always felt rejected by the smart kids and the artistic kids. I'm sure the insult of entertainers who wouldn't perform at his inauguration was keenly felt, and that's why it had to be discussed endlessly.

So this resentment is authentic for him, and I think it's what people read in his candidacy and his rhetoric. On some level, he envies, wants the approval of, and yet despises the influential and artistic elite.

And I think there are many people who feel the same way.


Watch: Trump's real war is with facts, not the media