The most telling revelation I ever received about Donald Trump was from a New York hedge-fund bro for whom I did some occasional speechwriting. In late summer 2015, I went to him and said, “We have to stop this guy. He’s a billionaire. He could fund his own campaign.” The hedge bro looked at me and laughed: “Trump’s not a billionaire. I’m a billionaire. Trump is a clown, living on credit.”
I was reminded of that by Trump’s Twitter meltdown—a hissy-fit, foot-stomping ragefest against the Supreme Court—after winning a major portion of one case over his mysterious tax returns.
He understands that when his taxes are unraveled before a New York grand jury and the inner workings of his multifarious business schemes are brought into the light of day, the picture won’t be of a successful multibillionaire mogul turned president, but one of that clown, living on credit, a third-rate real-estate developer with a first-rate talent for fleecing banks and vendors.
That’s why Trump sought for so long to hide his tax returns. He’s just not that rich.
His accounting firm will likely be revealed to be exploiting every tax loophole up to and over the edge of the law, and he’ll be shown to be a master of the bullshit paper tornado. Of course, we’ll also discover that the supposed audits are just one more lie in an endless chain of lies.
What really bothers Trump, what unsettled him to his core, is that the decision to reveal his taxes to the New York grand jury comes at the same time his political fortunes have taken a nosedive. He knows that as early as January, he could be a former president without Bill Barr running cover for him. He knows that even if he ekes out an unlikely victory in November, Congress now has a pathway to launch a forensic financial colonoscopy of his business affairs.
He has no ambition to truly lead, and God knows he doesn’t give a damn about any kind of policy whatsoever, but is running to save himself.
Trump doesn’t want to win again. He needs to win again.
Give Barr four more years, he thinks, and the Interior Minister will choke out every investigation, and end any hope of understanding the web of lies, venality, and corruption that define this presidency and the man.
The preservation of his image is so high in Trump’s hierarchy of needs that nothing else rivals it. And to be honest, that bullshit image got him a long way; too far, in fact.
Back in 2015 and 2016, we saw the voter interviews and focus groups that showed Republican voters honestly believed the reality-television image they saw of The Apprentice guy. They would straight-facedly say things like “He’s the richest man in America,” “He’s the world’s greatest negotiator,” and “He owns all of Manhattan.” Even when confronted with Trump’s long, long record of incompetence, sleaze bankruptcies, rip-offs, and serial failures, the magical hypnotic power of television overcame all of it.
Pretending he was too rich to be bought was absolutely central to his success in 2016. But Donald Trump would chase a dollar bill on a string through a trailer park, and he’s sold this country on the cheap since his election. That’s why the coming exposure of his finances has shaken Trump. He’s thinking about the actual audits, and real financial and potentially even legal consequences, awaiting him in his post-presidential years.
Trump’s obsession with his image and his brand emerges from his weird, abusive childhood. As details from his niece Mary Trump’s new book emerge, we see a man imitating his father’s fixation on the image of wealth and power. Like Fred Trump, Donald finds the tabloid ideal of himself more appealing than any reality.
Donald Trump has always wanted to portray himself and his projects as the superlative version of everything, even when actual Manhattan builders knew that he was essentially a towering bullshit artist. Mary Trump’s book demonstrated that Donald’s failures started early, and iterated across every single part of his life: personal, professional, and political. He can pose and posture all he wants—the biggest buildings, the biggest dick, the biggest crowds, the best, the first, the most—but it’s all bullshit, piled on top of more bullshit.
The crisp, analytical history from his niece and the coming revelations about his finances are a preview of a future he doesn’t like one bit, as Americans will see for themselves that the seamy, seedy reality of Donald Trump is ugly, small, and dirty.