Every bit a generational icon, as Donald Trump careens toward Election Day he is not just a man running for president. His candidacy is also his generation’s last great tantrum. He is the ultimate expression of all that is wrong with an aging, self-indulgent generation unleavened by the qualities that are good. Absent is the idealism of the Sixties. In abundance we find the grasping of the Eighties.
The Baby Boom Generation, which built a culture of narcissism lampooned by Tom Wolfe and lamented by Christopher Lasch, has offered up a sleazy real estate promoter cum reality TV star to lead the greatest nation on earth in a moment of true peril. With climate change, terrorism, and a belligerent Russia demanding cool leadership, this man/baby hothead could soon toddle into the Oval Office and assume the power to destroy the world.
How did we get here? Answering the question begins with understanding Trump’s beginnings. He was born into a family led by a man who belonged to the Greatest Generation but was not of it. Fred Trump did not go to war, nor did he help rebuild the nation during the Great Depression. Instead he sat on the sidelines until he could reap excessive profits from housing programs for veterans (he was hauled before Congress on this count) and got rich by dint of his political connections.
Cosseted in one of the wealthiest households in America, young Donald attended private elementary school where his father served as a trustee but even this influence couldn’t shield his little boy from the consequences of his bad behavior. Sent away to a military academy, he fine-tuned his ability to use power to dominate others. He also got his first hit of his favorite drug—publicity—when the local paper reported that his batting won a baseball game for the academy. As Trump told me in an interview in 2014. “I was probably a sophomore in high school and I said, ‘I love it’...“I just liked it. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that...I felt it was amazing.”
College was a means to an end for a young Donald who sat out the peace movement and counterculture and returned every weekend to apprentice for his father. He did everything from checking on repairs to knocking on doors to demand rent from tenants. Soon after getting his Ivy League degree, this young man who had never worked for anyone but his dad was president of one of the largest real estate companies in New York City.
From early in his real estate career Trump flouted the rules. Confronted by federal officials who charged the Trump Organization with racial discrimination, he responded with legal and moral gymnastics, claiming in “reverse discrimination.” He got away with it and learned that it was possible to make reality bend to his will. With financing and political connections, both provided by his father, he developed his first big project in Manhattan and began to persuade the local press that he was a very important man. Here the indulgence of his father suggests the origins of the Trump’s narcissism and his low opinion of the press.
“He has great vision, and everything he touches seems to turn to gold,” said Fred Trump of his son Donald. Listening was a reporter for the venerable New York Times. The paper printed the quote, along with the lie that the Trumps were of Swedish and not German descent. If Donald could pull this over the Times, what chance did the rest of the media have?
Just as Lasch published his landmark book The Culture of Narcissism in 1979, Trump was erecting his great tower on Fifth Avenue, which he would emblazon with his own name in giant gold letters. During the Trump Tower project he got away with destroying architectural art work he had promised to preserve, and employing and underpaying undocumented immigrant workers. Trump got away with calling the press as a fake “spokesman” named John Miller. The ruse worked, proving that reporters are fools. In a world of winners and losers, Trump knew what category journalists occupied.
It was about this time that the mass media gave in completely to celebrity. Donald was the second person to appear on Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous. Later, when his first marriage collapsed under the weight of a sex scandal, he chose to fan the flames of the tabloid blaze. When executives at his casinos raised fears that he was harming business, he answered that male gamblers would admire his infidelities.
Trump’s elders would have never imagined that scandal and greed would be good for business, but he learned that indecency paid. With the advent of reality television and the offer to star in The Apprentice, he confirmed that grandiosity might also be rewarded. The American middle class, in retreat as an ever-greater shares of the nation’s wealth was seized by the top 1 percent, saw something real in the cruel competition of The Apprentice. Trump may have tormented the competitors, but in the end someone won the big prize of a six-figure salary and the chance to grab some celebrity for themselves.
Riding the crest of his fame, emboldened by a fortune in the billions, Trump saw his chance to jump in to politics when others abandoned the racist “birther” conspiracy theory that argued that Barack Obama was foreign born and thus ineligible to be president. The few members of Congress who once promoted birtherism had been convinced they were wrong when Trump began speaking out about his doubts. Playing the press as he always had, be used this spurious idea to build a base of political support. From this start it was an easy leap into the GOP primary contests where his outrageousness was an asset and his opponents were weighed down by their loyalty to old rules that called on candidates to speak with a certain decency and sobriety.
In his campaign, Trump represents something absolutely new. He presents no agenda other than "greatness through me" and, as in his life, he has demonstrated the frightening but also compelling dark side of human nature. The "through me" dynamic is resonant for conservative Christians who are steeped in both the idea of a man who appears as a savior and who is muscular and not meek. The unleashing of the dark side calls out to survival-of-the-fittest beliefs underpinning the American frontier mentality.
It is Trump’s sense that he should rule on the basis of his inherent superiority that elevates his narcissism above that of more ordinary politicians. No one who runs for president is short on self regard. However, Hillary Clinton, to use one example, is the type of narcissist who imagines herself doing great good for others. It is this quality that makes ordinary aspirants a safe choice. LBJ was domineering in the extreme, but also created the civil rights and voting rights acts. Obama wanted to be adored in Berlin, but he also delivered on climate change treaties.
In the case of Trump, America is offered, by the Republican Party, a completely new kind of candidate. The personification of the worst of his generation’s traits, distilled to their essence, he is the man who told me, “For the most part, you can't respect people because most people aren't worthy of respect.”
No candidate in history would have imagined saying such a thing, just months before declaring for president. However Trump is like no candidate in history. In every step, and every word, he reveals himself. It is left to us to recognize him for what he is.