It’s a very readable summation of Trump’s personality and beliefs based on those who’ve known and dealt with him for years. There are also numerous links to other sources.
As we await the results of the U.S. Presidential Election next Tuesday, this is an excellent primer on the incumbent candidate.
Ever since he rode down that escalator, Donald Trump has been the most paid-attention-to person on Earth. Perhaps no other political figure in American history has generated such reams of coverage trying to decipher patterns of behavior.
It has been well-documented that the 45th president operates with evident disregard for norms and rules. But over the past 5 ½ years of reporting I have determined that he abides by a firm code of conduct as predictable as it is confounding.
In more than 60 stories in the Politico Magazine oeuvre that came to be known as “Trumpology,” I documented how his unswerving allegiance to a certain set of principles, unprincipled as they might seem to some, elevated him to the pinnacle of global power.
If widespread polling holds true on Election Day, these same traits and tics, and rock-ribbed beliefs, might also be the reasons he’s ousted from office.
Much has been made recently of this election as a referendum on the president not just as a politician with a set of policies, but as a person.
This list—compiled using excerpts from my pieces and my interviews with sources who have known him most of his life—is the distillation of his worldview, a condensed sketch of Donald Trump as a man.
And no matter what happens, and whether or not he retains his grip on the White House or decamps in defeat to Mar-a-Lago, these truths will continue to guide his behavior—and the way we perceive it.
1. Attention is power.
“He is of the mindset,” according to the late Jim Dowd, who did public relations for Trump, “that the more his name is dropped, the more a kind of hypnosis, for lack of a better word, there is to the American public.”
“If people pay attention, that’s what matters,” Trump once said.
“You can be a horrible human being, you can be a truly terrible person, but if you get ratings, you are a king.”
The central gambit of Trump’s entire life is that there’s no such thing as bad publicity—“that,” as I once wrote, “if you’re watching, he’s winning.”
2. Words don’t matter.
3. Everything’s a show.
4. People are props.
5. The crowd knows.
6. Conflict is the key.
“Trump’s energy,” a former close associate told me, “comes from conflict.”
7. Nothing motivates like fear.
“Trump’s vision for the Penn Yards is really based on a very old idea, one made popular in the 1920s—and since then universally discredited in theory and in fact,” the architecture critic for New York magazine once wrote.
“Isolated towers from the ’50s and ’60s survive in most of the world’s major cities as reminders to planners that this brand of angst-inducing exclusivity is nasty to live with.
Hard lessons have shown that the way to make a residential complex work is to create some sense of intimacy, or at least communal identity.
But for all the adolescent, outdated striving for bigness, Trump is onto something thoroughly contemporary in the life of ’80s New Yorkers. It is fear.”
Trump, who in the ’70s had identified the city’s insecurity and fear and found a way to benefit from it, now tried to do so again.
He paid a reported $85,000 to put in four New York newspapers a full-page ad that called for the death penalty.
“What has happened to our City?” he wrote in the ad.
“What has happened to the respect for authority, the fear of retribution by the courts, society and the police for those who break the law, who wantonly trespass on the rights of others?
What has happened is the complete breakdown of life as we knew it.”
He seethed about “roving bands of wild criminals” and “crazed misfits” and longed for a time when he was a boy, when cops in the city roughed up “thugs” to give people like him “the feeling of security.”
“Mayor Koch has stated that hate and rancor should be removed from our hearts,” Trump said in the ad. “I do not think so. I want to hate.”
8. Division works.
And politics, in the estimation of Stone, Trump’s longest-running, off-and-on adviser, is a Machiavellian combination of showmanship and combat—not about “uniting people” but about “dividing people.”
9. Life’s a fight.
That Trump would so quickly in the wake of the Mueller investigation commit a brazen act some critics say represents an egregious and impeachable abuse of power has mystified many observers.
How could he have so blithely ignored the lessons of the nearly three-year investigation?
But those who know him best say this is merely the latest episode in a lifelong pattern of behavior for the congenitally combative Trump.
He’s always been this way. He doesn’t stop to reflect. If he wins, he barely basks. If he loses, he doesn’t take the time to lie low or lick wounds.
Regardless of the outcome—up, down or somewhere in between—when one tussle is done, Trump reflexively starts to scan the horizon in search of a new skirmish.
“The discomfort he feels in the moment of peace that follows a victory is so intense that he will do whatever it takes to find new fights,” biographer Michael D’Antonio told me.
10. Chaos is fuel.
“The prince of chaos,” Trump biographer Gwenda Blair told me. “Chaos creates drama, and drama gets ink,” former Trump campaign aide Sam Nunberg explained.
“This is a new kind of presidency. He’s followed the tabloid model, and it got him to where he is, and it’s the model that will be followed until it doesn’t work. And it has worked. He’s sitting in the Oval Office.”
11. There’s no such thing as going too far.
Even if it’s not always helpful:
When Trump is riding highest, he is simultaneously at his most manic and self-destructive. He overreaches and oversells. He doubles down.
In the arc of Trump’s life, from his fevered buying spree in 1988 in the wake of the fame-spiking sales of The Art of the Deal to his wild couple of years in the aftermath of the image-laundering launch of “The Apprentice” to his rowdy and improbable political ascent, the craters of his most marked failures follow closely on his most consequential successes.
He is this way, say people who know him well, because of his unshakable self-assurance and nerve but also because of his insatiable appetite for attention and conflict.
“It’s true of everything he goes into,” Trump biographer Tim O’Brien told me. “He will hunker down and do something well—and then he thinks he’s Zeus.”
And that’s when the trouble starts. “Because he’s not Zeus.”
12. Bigger is always better.
In the ’80s, on the Upper West Side, he wanted to build a “mammoth mall” and a “giant garage” and apartments “above the clouds.”
“New Yorkers want to have the world’s tallest building,” he said. “And frankly, so do I.”
13. The answer to any problem is always more Trump.
It’s part of how the Trump show gets old:
Even as its numbers dipped, he insisted [“The Apprentice”] was still on top; he picked fights with critics and blamed others; and maybe most notably, he took on an even bigger role.
Re-watching the show’s first season, he is the star—no question about that—but it’s surprising how infrequently he appears; he introduces the tasks, and then mostly vanishes as his teams bicker and compete until the climactic boardroom scenes when he fires somebody.
But in the second season, things change. There’s less team, more Trump. He makes more appearances in the middle, and the boardroom scenes are longer. And it’s not only that he’s there more.
The volume is turned up. He’s meaner. More performative. There are more soaring shots of his plane. More over-the-top shots of his scowl. It’s hard to quantify, but it’s hard to miss, too.
14. Exhaust the enemy.
“He sues,” former Trump Organization executive vice president Barbara Res told me.
“He uses it to wear people out, whether it’s financially or emotionally,” former Trump casino executive Jack O’Donnell told me.
“Did he learn from the Television City debacle that he shouldn’t get too big, too fast, too loud? No,” Brendan Sexton, a former president of New York’s Municipal Art Society, told me.
“Maybe what he learned is … think big, talk big, make a big splash. And let the other guys fight to keep up with him.”
15. It’s good to be selfish.
“He’s not going to be that concerned with the actual competent administration of the government,” Michael D’Antonio said days before his inauguration.
“It’s going to be what he seems to be gaining or losing in public esteem.”
“More than any person I’ve ever met, he’s focused on how things impact him,” former Trump Shuttle president Bruce Nobles told me.
16. Altruism is for losers.
It’s on the long list of lessons he learned from his two most important mentors:
“You take care of the boss and the boss takes care of you,” as veteran New York political operative Hank Sheinkopf described it to me.
Operating within the Democratic machines of Brooklyn and Queens, Fred Trump for decades made shrewd connections and large, dutiful donations in exchange for preference in properties, pricing and zoning.
And Cohn? Cohn was a virtuoso in “the trade of human calculus,” his biographer wrote, “of deal making, swapping, maneuver, and manipulation.”
Esposito once was caught by an FBI wiretap saying there should have been an 11th Commandment: “Think of Thyself.”
17. Trusting is for losers.
“There’s a wall Donald has that he never lets people penetrate,” a former associate told me. Trump has a dark, dour view of humanity. He considers the world “ruthless,” “brutal” and “cruel.”
Through this zero-sum, dog-eat-dog lens, friends aren’t friends—there’s no such thing. “They act nice to your face, but underneath they’re out to kill you,” he wrote in his 2007 book, Think Big.
“They want your job, they want your house, they want your money, they want your wife.”
18. Loyalty is for losers.
“Despite Trump’s protestations about the utmost importance of loyalty, biographers and others have said his notion of the concept evokes a cross between the Mafia and the urban political machines of the past,” I once wrote.
“You take care of the boss, and the boss takes care of you,” as Sheinkopf put it. Trump’s definition of loyalty is, and always has been, the opposite of complicated, according to those who know him the best.
“Support Donald Trump in anything he says and does,” in Stone’s words. “I never particularly thought,” Nobles told me, “that he was loyal to … anybody.”
19. Taking blame? For losers.
20. Losing is for losers.
He flopped as the owner of a professional football team, effectively killing not only his own franchise but the league as a whole. He blew up his first marriage, married his mistress, and then divorced her, too.
And he has slapped his surname on a practically never-ending sequence of duds and scams (Trump Ice bottled water, Trump Vodka, Trump Steaks, Trump magazine, Trump Mortgage, Trump University—for which he settled a class-action fraud lawsuit [in 2017] for $25 million).
Other risk-taking businessmen might periodically cop to falling short while pivoting to what’s next. Not Trump. He has dealt with his roster of losses largely by refusing to acknowledge them as anything other than wins.
“If you knock Donald on his ass, he will tell you the best position to be in is on your ass,” a former Trump Organization executive told me.
“He knows of no other way,” former New York Daily News writer George Rush told me, “and that is to spin until he’s woven some gossamer fabric out of”—he searched for the right word—“garbage.”
“My main purpose in life is to keep winning,” Trump once said. “And the reason for that is simple: If I don’t win, I don’t get to fight the next battle.”
21. Sometimes winning means not losing now.
It’s how he (with the help of Roy Cohn) “won” the federal government’s suit in the 1970s against him and his father for racist rental practices at the apartments they owned:
The accepted narrative of this case is that Trump and his father lost. The Justice Department did indeed notch what it considered a victory—a consent decree mandated that the company rent to more tenants who weren’t white.
But looked at slightly differently, it was every bit a triumph for Trump, too. Typically seen as a not-quite-two-year episode more or less confined to the mid-’70s, the saga actually lasted for almost a decade.
The government ascertained quickly that the Trumps had failed to adhere to the terms of the decree and apparently had little intention of ever complying.
A revolving-door roster of exasperated prosecutors, stymied by Cohn’s shameless, time-buying tactics, found it practically impossible to enforce the specifics of their “win.”
And Trump simply waited them out. He emerged in Manhattan, his reputation virtually unscathed, to wrest unparalleled public subsidies to convert the collapsing Commodore Hotel into the glossy Grand Hyatt and then pry additional tax cuts to erect Trump Tower—the one-two punch of projects that constituted rocket propellant for Trump’s entire adult existence.
His monetary wealth. His life-force celebrity. His extraordinary presidency.
“He’s used litigation historically,” O’Brien told me, “to keep hostile forces at bay and to delay reckonings.”
22. Sometimes winning is just winning that hasn’t happened yet.
It’s how he’s used the word “comeback” over the years. “If there’s a moment that you’re not quite a winner, you’re almost a winner. You’re practically a winner,” Blair explained. “It’s a cloak that contains winning as a part of it.”
23. And sometimes winning is whining.
“By claiming victory over and over again, it starts to become a self-fulfilling prophecy,” Trump biographer Harry Hurt III told me.
He believes, because of Norman Vincent Peale, that simple assertion can lead to actual achievement.
“I win, I win, I always win,” he said in 2005. And when he doesn’t? “I keep whining and whining until I win.”
“He’s the most successful failer of all time,” I once wrote.
24. Reality doesn’t matter.
He is who he is, is where he is, is seen the way he’s seen by so many, because of it.
“He can build 200 yards of wall and say he built the wall,” old Upper West Side Trump foe Steve Robinson told me.
“And the press, which has been so diligent in fact-checking, will say, ‘No, no, no, wait a second, Mr. President. You didn’t build the wall that you said you were going to build.
You only built 200 yards of it.’ And it won’t matter.”
25. The past doesn’t matter.
Never has. Not to him:
Trump, according to those who know him best, is not a man given to backward looks—“the most present human being I ever met,” in the words of an intimate.
Traditionally, Trump has seen the past as something to be either razed or twisted for expediency.
“Trump has about as much interest in history as he does in literature and philosophy,” O’Brien told me. “Which is to say almost nonexistent.”
26. The future doesn’t matter.
He is the “episodic man.”
27. Nothing, actually, matters.
Whatever happens, happens,” he says.
“I’m very much a fatalist,” he says.
“He’s empowered to be a fatalist,” O’Brien told me, “because he’s been insulated from his failures by wealth, privilege and celebrity—so the impact of catastrophes is more muted in his world than it is in the world of an average person.”
28. Create your own world.
It helps explain his complicated relationship with New York:
For Trump, as inhospitable as he found the city on the street, the parlors of high society were equally problematic—and he created a refuge.
It was some 600 feet in the sky, where the faucets were gold, the baseboards were onyx and the paintings on the ceiling, he would claim, were comparable to the work of Michelangelo in the Sistine Chapel.
At the top of Trump Tower, biographer Tim O’Brien told me, he could live “at a remove from the city and its amazing bloodstream of ideas and people and culture”—“encased,” added fellow biographer Gwenda Blair, “within this bubble of serenity and privilege.”
“I am the creator of my own comic book,” he once said, “and I love living in it.”
29. Tell your own story.
He started telling his early on:
Trump was, and still is, they say, a confident, competitive, aggressive, impulsive, zero-sum, win-at-all-costs, transactional, unpredictable, often underinformed and ill-prepared, gut-following, ego-driven, want-it-and-want-it-now negotiator.
His self-burnished image as a tip-top deal-maker long has obscured an actual record that is far more mixed, pocked with moves and acquisitions that scratched a passing itch but created massive financial problems later.
His best work, too, was his earliest work.
Trump was at his most patient, his most diligent, his most attentive and his most creative—his most effective—some 35 to 45 years ago, when he was intent on pile-driving into the cultural bedrock powerful storylines on which he would build his career as a celebrity business tycoon.
“Americans are suckers for a good story,” Sheinkopf told me. “Donald Trump is going to give ’em a good story.”
“Donald Trump is an excellent storyteller. It’s like we’re all amazed by his ability to cast himself in the best light possible.
“He just does it with staggering audacity.”
30. Shame is for losers.
“He’s not feeling ashamed,” Res once told me. “He’s feeling aggrieved.”
31. There is no subtext.
And there is no filter.
He thinks it, he says it.
He thinks it, he tweets it.
32. Everything’s a transaction.
“Donald Trump,” Barrett wrote, in January of 1979, “is a user of other users.”
“As a contributor,” Trump told POLITICO in a statement in the summer 2015, referring to checks he’s written to [Hillary Clinton’s] campaigns as well as the Clintons’ foundation and Bill and Hillary Clinton’s attendance at his third wedding.
“I demanded that they be there—they had no choice and that’s what’s wrong with our country.
Our country is run by and for donors, special interests and lobbyists, and that is not a good formula for our country’s success. With me, there are no lobbyists and special interests.
My only special interest is the United States of America.”
33. Nothing’s on the level.
Trump was “schooled and shaped by some of the most committed, effective and objectionable practitioners of quid pro quo.”
34. The ends justify the means.
“What he does, he has been successful at,” said Sexton. “It’s important to recognize that, or you go into the next discussion overconfident, thinking that he couldn’t possibly pull this crap off.
And you wake up six months later, look around, and wonder, ‘How the hell did he pull that crap off?’ And that’s a real danger. And it keeps happening.”
“Imagine if Roy Cohn were president,” Marty London, one of the lawyers who worked on Cohn’s disbarment, told me.
“That’s basically what we have now. We have a Roy Cohn as president. He has no morals. There are no boundaries. He does what he wants.”
35. You can’t be stopped if nobody stops you.
Over and over it’s been true for Trump:
Whether Trump could remain not only financially solvent but reputationally intact was an open question for the entirety of the first half of the 1990s.
So many times, he could have been snuffed, stopped, rendered a relative footnote, his place in the history of this country limited to status as a gauche totem of a regrettable epoch of greed.
That, needless to say, is not how the tale played out. Trump is many things. A developer. A promoter. A master media manipulator. A grown-old rich kid. The president of the United States. Above all else, though, he is a survivor.
“The ultimate survivor,” former Trump casino executive Jack O’Donnell told me recently.
But it’s not just that Trump has survived that’s important to consider at this moment—it’s how he has done it.
Armed with extraordinary audacity, constitutional sangfroid, a stomach for tumult, an acumen for recastingobvious losses into strange sorts of wins, and the prodigious safety net bequeathed by his wealthy, wily father, he has plowed past myriad hazards.
And he did it by tying himself tightly to his bankers and lenders in New York and to gaming industry regulators in New Jersey—who let him live large until they couldn’t let him die without fatally wounding themselves.
He effectively inhabited hosts, using them to get bigger and bigger in the ’80s until he was practically perversely invincible.
“He’s a magician that way,” said Jennifer Mercieca, a professor at Texas A&M University and the author of a book about Trump’s rhetoric, Demagogue for President.
“Other people would stop and recognize that they were defeated. Or that they should be shamed. He refuses.”
36. People aren’t inherently good.
“Man is the most vicious of all animals,” Trump told People in 1981.
“Never make people your heroes,” Nunberg told me when I asked what he’d learned from Trump.
37. People look out for themselves.
“He figures it out,” Blair told me, “so that for people to go against him, it’s going to make them look bad.”
38. People don’t change.
“Can the leopard change its spots?” Blair asked. “The tiger its stripes?”
Trump has managed in the Oval Office in Washington pretty much exactly the way he managed on Fifth Avenue in New York, say people who worked for him at different points over the past 45 years as well as writers of the best, most thoroughly reported Trump biographies.
In recent interviews, they recounted:
- A shrewd, slipshod, charming, vengeful, thin-skinned, belligerent, hard-charging manager who was an impulsive hirer and a reluctant firer and surrounded himself with a small cadre of ardent loyalists;
- Who solicited their advice but almost always ultimately went with his gut and did what he wanted; who kept his door open and expected others to do the same not because of a desire for transparency but due to his own insecurities and distrusting disposition;
- And who fostered a frenetic, internally competitive, around-the-clock, stressful, wearying work environment in which he was a demanding, disorienting mixture of hands-on and hands-off;
- A hesitant delegator and an intermittent micromanager who favored fast-twitch wins over long-term follow-through, promotion over process and intuition over deliberation.
39. You are who you are.
“He’s the same Donald Trump as the Donald Trump I knew when I was working with him,” former Trump Organization executive vice president Louise Sunshine, who worked for Trump for 15 years starting in the early ’70s, told me.
“He’s never going to evolve in how he does things and runs things,” a former employee said. “Because that’s what got him to the Oval Office.”
“People,” Nunberg told me, “knew who they were electing, right?”
40. No slight is too small.
“As long as I’ve known him, he has never been able to take criticism of any kind,” said Nobles, the former Trump Shuttle president.
“You’d think at this point you’d be able to roll with the punches. But he never has.”
41. Never turn the other cheek.
42. Nothing worse than weakness.
43. The loneliness is bottomless.
The middle son of a stony, workaholic father with whom he had an “almost businesslike” relationship, Trump is a double divorcee, a boss with a professed distaste for having partners or shareholders, a television-tethered, hamburger-eating homebody and a germaphobe who has described shaking hands as “terrible,” “barbaric” and “one of the curses of American society.”
He’s been a loner most of his life. At New York Military Academy, everybody knew him but few of his fellow cadets knew him well. In college, he made no friends he kept.
After he moved to Manhattan, he lived in a sealed-off triplex penthouse, relied on a small, family-first cadre of loyalists and mainly made more enemies than allies (the mayor was a “moron,” elite “so-called social scene” types were “extremely unattractive people,” and on and on).
At his casinos in Atlantic City, he was adamant about not mingling with the gambling masses. Now, in Washington, he’s a two-scoops cable-watcher inside the White House when he’s not weekending at his clutch of protective, name-branded bubbles.
Trump, forever, has collected an array of acquaintances, fellow celebrities and photo op props, while friendships mostly have been interchangeable, temporary and transactional.
“He was and is a lonely man,” O’Donnell told me.
“One of the loneliest people I’ve ever met,” O’Brien told me.
44. Everybody needs to be seen.
It’s something I wrote in 2016:
Trump has tried his whole life to address the lack of love he felt as a boy by attracting as much attention as he could as a man. … Trump is an addict. Not of substances. He’s a teetotaler.
And he has said he’s never done drugs. “But his drug is himself,” one of his former campaign advisers told me this past weekend.
He has put himself on display his entire adult life. He was never some mysterious titan of industry pulling hidden levers of power inside secluded mansions.
He has always wanted to be seen, and seen and seen and seen …
It’s something I wrote in 2020: “Donald Trump is the damaged product of an absent mother and a sociopathic father.”
“A black hole of need,” in the words of Mary Trump.
45. Nothing’s ever over.
“He’s always going to have something,” Blair said, “to make you tune in again.”
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