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The Man Who Was Upset

Making sense of Donald Trump's petulant reign

Illustration by Dadu Shin

There would be a cartoon, like for kids. Or it might also have been a prime-time cartoon, actually. The situation was fluid, but consider the growth potential. Honestly, the whole notion was exceedingly hazy and changed a lot, but, as it got pitched among the corps of cold-calling salespeople to potential investors in a company named Premiere Publishing Group, the plan was this: There was going to be a cartoon, on television, that would feature Donald Trump jetting around and solving various problems.

This was the idea of a Broadway ticket broker turned Florida “space tourism consultant” named Mitchell Schultz, who dreamed up an animated series called Trump Takeover: The Ultimate Power Trip after a brief but inspirational interaction with Trump at a party. In 2006, Schultz talked up the show to an acquaintance named Michael Jacobson, who was the publisher of the then-extant Trump Magazine and the man behind Premiere Publishing Group, which he had set up in 2005. It all gets much worse from there, in all the cheesy, chiseling ways that every Trump-related business story invariably gets worse.

Schultz’s pitch for the show, as he related it to Fusion’s Penn Bullock ten years later, was that “the way to create immortality for Donald Trump is through the youth of America.” Schultz, working with the writer Louis Cimino and a Long Island ad agency named Creativity Zone, roughed out a number of episodes. One found Trump and his management team taking control of the New York Yankees, who were then cruising to their ninth straight American League East title, and righting the ship; Creativity Zone’s title card for that one reads, “As Major League Baseball begins a downward slide to oblivion ... Trump and his team take over to protect the great American pastime!” Another begins with Trump and his squad “uncovering a global financial conspiracy” and ends with them triumphantly taking control of the stock market “to save the world economy from total ruin.” A third, “Politically Corrected,” begins with “America ... in a state of virtual collapse,” which is remedied when “Trump and his team go to Washington to take over!”

As Schultz recalls, his simple formula for the show proved compelling enough for Jacobson to buy into it: “Trump was taking over everything and making it better.” Jacobson hired a California-based animator named Elizabeth Koshy to improve upon Creativity Zone’s vision for the show; she in turn hired a team of animators in India. Koshy delivered on concepts that included a superheroic rendering of Trump. It took the animator nearly a year to get two-thirds of her agreed-upon fee out of Jacobson—stiffing contractors being another well-documented feature of all Trump-themed business endeavors. It seems likely, in retrospect, that Jacobson believed in Schultz’s vision primarily as a vehicle to enhance the returns on a pump-and-dump scheme he was building around Premiere.

“Behind the handcrafted mahogany doors of his gold-accented boardroom, legendary deal maker Donald Trump has taken ACTIVE PARTICIPATION in a very secret venture,” a Florida stock creep named James Rapholz wrote in the October 2006 edition of his newsletter Economic Advice. Rapholz had received a ten-year Securities and Exchange Commission ban for financial fraud in 1991, but was by then back in the game. “Act now before the word gets out and you could find yourself making an astounding profit of 500% or more in the next 18 months in … ‘TRUMP’S SECRET DEAL.’” The Premiere stock was, Rapholz wrote, “the closest thing I’ve seen to a sure thing.” Cold callers duly made similar pitches over the phone.

Small upward fluctuations in price create the value that penny-stock scammers use to make these sorts of scams work. A 2006 Wall Street Journal story noted that the news of an upcoming prime-time Trump cartoon series—Rapholz claimed that Disney was involved, while Premiere stuck to a more noncommittal statement fantasizing “interest from major animation houses and television networks”—caused Premiere’s stock to jump in value, briefly, by 30 percent. Jacobson had given Trump 1.675 million shares, as well as nearly a million dollars in licensing fees. When The Wall Street Journal’s John R. Emshwiller and Peter Sanders asked him about it in October 2006, Trump first claimed that he didn’t know how he’d come to own those shares, but later said he’d agreed to acquire them. “Michael is a good guy,” he added. By the time Premiere Publishing went bust in September 2007, after Trump terminated his licensing agreement with the company, Trump had received at least $855,000 in licensing fees.

So far, so Trump. Even after the hit NBC reality show The Apprentice rebuilt his personal fortune and retooled his image from Gilded Tabloid Oaf to Glowering Dealmaster, Trump never declined an opportunity to fish a quarter out of the toilet when the situation presented itself. That reflexive and amoral avarice is one of the ignoble truths of Trump, but it’s subsidiary to the most important and elemental fact about the man, which is that he never does or says anything new. Some things may be shaded slightly differently from one blurt or boast to the next—every number he says invariably cheats upward over time, and he periodically adds new scenes and jokes to the metastasizing stand-up act that he rolls out at his rallies. Of late, Trump has taken to doing little back-and-forth comic dialogue scenes at these rallies, as in one mocking the idea of wind power, in which a wife informs her husband that, because “the wind isn’t blowing,” he will be unable to watch television.

But such slight variations of narrative form don’t alter the fundamental message in play: a running litany of shape-shifting grievance, one that centers and celebrates the solitary genius of the narrator at the expense of a cultural and political establishment—big names, not so smart—hell-bent on mocking, belittling, and victimizing him. The bigger story never changes, because Trump cannot change. If only Trump Takeover had made it on to TV—whether on Saturday mornings, Thursday primetime—the cultural forces that have repeatedly tried and failed to stop Trump might have gained a clearer idea of just who and what they’re up against.

Aron Laikin/The Creativity Zone

It’s difficult to imagine a less interesting show than one in which Trump and his attending nimbus of adult children and boardroom goombahs forcefully and boldly fix the problems created by weaker and less leaderish inferiors; there’s a reason why decades of comic-book storytelling have yet to introduce a real estate developer who becomes a superhero after a random but fateful encounter with a radioactive cuff link. The idea is so stupendously goofy—one episode after another about how Mr. Trump is doing a good job and being recognized for it very strongly—that it’s a wonder that Trump didn’t come up with it himself.

There’s something suitably Trumpian and even greasily poetic about Schultz’s earnest concept being humped to death by replacement-level grifters cooing brand-gilded lies to prescreened rubes through boiler room headsets. But there’s still good reason to mourn the failure of Trump Takeover to land before a national TV audience. Instead of treating Trump as a politician, the American viewing public would have understood that it was more instructive and more accurate to see him as a cheaply animated cartoon superhero, cycling through the same thudding plot on his way to the same destination, week after week.

As it happens, Trump does have a superpower, but it is not the one he has been claiming for the entirety of his public life. The power Trump fondly imagines that he wields in boardrooms and high-powered Oval Office confabs may appear, superficially in his telling, to take lavishly ornate forms, but is it at bottom just one quality: impressiveness. It’s that power, in Trump’s own twice-told tales of titanic achievement, that unlocks all the others—that makes him irresistible to women and unbeatable in negotiation and so remarkably admired by his peers. It’s why, in all the many stories he tells reporters about his relationships with important people like Tom Brady as well as the stories he tells about meeting big, rough, tough men who dissolve into tears of gratitude in Trump’s presence, everyone always knows to call him Mr. Trump.

The thing about impressiveness, however, is that it resides entirely in the eye of the beholder—and in Trump’s case, he typically invokes it in a crass gambit to annex and manipulate the inner workings of that beholder’s eye and generate maximum ego-gratification for himself. As with most things Trump-related, the form that this ascriptive impressiveness takes can be mapped with laughable ease over whatever failing he is most keen to conceal at that moment. When his marriage was falling apart on the front pages of New York City tabloids, Trump called the editor of the New York Post to vouch, on behalf of his then-girlfriend Marla Maples, that “Marla says with me it’s the best sex she’s ever had.” During his years in the cultural wilderness, Trump reportedly made it a stipulation for film productions that wished to shoot in the properties that he owned that there be a scene in which Trump himself appeared. “Martin Brest had to write something in Scent of a Woman,” Matt Damon told The Hollywood Reporter in 2017. “And the whole crew was in on it. You have to waste an hour of your day with a bullshit shot. Donald Trump walks in and Al Pacino’s like, ‘Hello, Mr. Trump!’—you had to call him by name—and then he exits.”

In 1991, as his divorce and a series of pyrotechnically misconceived business ventures ushered in the beginning of his long tour through our popular culture as an overleveraged punch line, Trump went ahead and just spelled his super-hero aspirations out. The story Trump told the New York Daily News was this: While driving to a Paula Abdul concert in New Jersey with Maples and another couple, Trump had seen “a big man with a big bat” committing a “brutal-looking” mugging. In Trump’s telling, he ordered his limo driver to stop and got out of the vehicle. “The guy with the bat looked at me, and I said, ‘Look, you’ve gotta stop this. Put down the bat,’“ Trump told the Daily News. “I guess he recognized me because he said, ‘Mr. Trump, I didn’t do anything wrong.’ I said, ‘How could you not do anything wrong when you’re whacking a guy with a bat?’ Then he ran away.” 

Trump eventually found a way to make this desperate bullshit work again with some help from a brilliant reality television producer, credulous reality television audiences, and generations of incandescently toxic cultural lore about business as magic. For many years, though, Trump lived in a strange public inversion of the usual superhero routine—his secret identity as a witless and grandiose scam artist was widely known, while his identity as an Extremely Impressive Person was known only to himself and a few loyal retainers. The Apprentice certainly helped restore his status, but it took the work of the political media to reveal Trump’s actual superpower. 

To hear the members of the media tell it, Trump’s signature power is the ability to change the subject. With just a strange flutter of his pale eyelids and a difficult-to-parse ad-lib, Trump can swing a news cycle away from his latest lurid failure and back in the direction he wants it to go—“to distract the newshounds by shouting ‘Squirrel!’ and sending them sniffing for a new story,” as Politico’s Jack Shafer put it. This seems to give Trump entirely too much credit—does this look, from one clammy fib and ploy to the next, like a guy who has a plan?—and the media itself not nearly enough blame.

Aron Laikin/The Creativity Zone

At this stage in his sublimely unexamined life and increasingly evident cognitive decline, Trump isn’t really capable of very compelling misdirections or even passably convincing falsehoods. He digresses because he loses the plot, and he lies when the truth wouldn’t look good on him; he distracts himself and tells himself lies because it is the only way to square what is actually happening with what he would prefer to be happening. (In this, he is but building on the spiritual birthright bestowed on him by his dad: Fred Trump was an ardent worshipper at the Marble Collegiate Church of Norman Vincent Peale, the reactionary business prophet who distilled many failed superpower incantations of his own in his blockbuster self-help tract, The Power of Positive Thinking. Peale presided over Donald’s first wedding in 1977, and remains Trump’s most frequently cited spiritual mentor.)

Where the media has failed and continues to fail is in its insistence that Trump is doing all of this, or any of it, for the same reason that other politicians are understood to have aimed to distract or chosen to lie. When this tendency is criticized, the criticism often arrives in the form of some lamentation that the media is still covering Trump as if he were a Normal President.

That criticism is reasonable as far as it goes, which is not nearly far enough. A series of long-standing procedural and political and discursive norms really have failed the essential challenge that Trumpian politics and Trump’s own bulletproof shamelessness present. But the steepness and rapidity of their fall raises some serious questions about just how sturdy they were to begin with. The spectacle of expert analysts and thought leaders parsing the actions of a man with no expertise or capacity for analysis is the purest acid satire—but less because of how badly that expert analysis has failed than because of how sincerely misplaced it is. Trump represents an extraordinary challenge to political media precisely because there is nothing here to parse, no hidden meanings or tactical elisions or slow-rolled strategic campaign. Mainstream political media and Trump’s opponents in the Democratic Party conceive of politics as chess, a matter of feints and sacrifices and moves made so as to open the way for other moves. There’s an element of romance to this vision, which is a crucial tenet in a certain type of big-D Democratic thought and also something like the reason why anyone would need to employ a political analyst. But Trump is not playing chess. The man is playing Hungry Hungry Hippos. 

And here at last we are beginning to circle around Trump’s true superpower, and are closer to identifying the small and stubborn thing that defines him. It’s what binds his deliriously incoherent politics, and helps him thread together his wildly far-flung grievances—Trump never forgets a slight, and pursues ancient grudges against bygone New York showbiz figures with the same tireless vigor that he brings to his campaigns against his various Deep State persecutors—into a single rancid system of being. There is nothing artful or concealed about Donald Trump, which is one of the secrets of his strange success as a politician. His lies are preposterous and glaring and never anything but the obvious opposite of what is actually true; his unquestioned desires and deeply held, deeply unreasoning bigotries and petty fixations are all absolutely untouched from the 1988 Rich Guy factory settings; the sheer mass of his annihilating selfishness leaves no room for anything like subtext. Trump is nothing but what he appears to be, and his superpower comes from this. His superpower is getting upset.

“Thank you to brilliant and highly respected attorney Alan Dershowitz for destroying the very dumb legal argument of ‘Judge’ Andrew Napolitano,” Trump tweeted on April 27. “Ever since Andrew came to my office to ask that I appoint him to the U.S. Supreme Court, and I said NO, he has been very hostile! Also asked for pardon for his friend. A good ‘pal’ of low ratings Shepard Smith.”

Do you understand what any of this means? If you understand the Fox News Cinematic Universe, some of those names will be familiar. Dershowitz, the Harvard law professor and celebrity attorney, banged a hard right turn from establishment Democratic Party politics toward Trumpian apologia late in 2017, for reasons that seem to boil down to his own personal unpleasantness. Ever since, he’s been a regular and reliable defender of Trump’s on Fox. So was Andrew Napolitano, a retired New Jersey Superior Court judge and a longtime legal analyst on the network, although Napolitano had strongly criticized Trump’s self-serving rollout of special counsel Robert Mueller’s report on the network; Trump had, until then, expressed the same admiration for Napolitano that he had for all the other on-air talent at Fox News. 

The sole exception to all this Fox-branded formulaic self-celebration is Shepard Smith, a daytime news anchor on the network, and a polarizing figure among Fox News viewers because his block of programming tends less toward ultra-partisan agitprop than the rest of the Fox News lineup does. There is more to unpack in this bit of text, if you want. Shepard Smith is openly gay, and that “pal” may be an attempt to suggest that Napolitano is as well. (Or it might just be Trump putting quotes around a randomly selected word, which is also something he does frequently.) The accusation that Napolitano came to Trump and begged for a job is also a regular Trumpian trope; often the people beseeching him are crying, sometimes they are bleeding, always they are desperate and so undignified, and always they are turned away.

There was a time, before he’d ascended to the most powerful political office in the world, when this sort of opaque feud was something like Donald Trump’s only job. He pursued it with his whole being, albeit (and yet again) not with much in the way of style. As Hurricane Sandy bore down on New York City in 2012, Trump took a moment to tweet about the “double standard” that allowed Bette Midler to joke about his hair but made it so that he was “not allowed to talk about her ugly face or body.” (Trump revived his obsessive Twitter feud with Midler during a state visit to England in early June, as this piece was going to press.) He tweeted dozens of times, with similar artlessness, about Vanity Fair editor Graydon Carter, who had memorably and serially mocked Trump during the 1980s. “Graydon Carter has no talent and looks like shit!” Trump tweeted five days before Christmas in 2012. “Also, his food sucks!” (Trump is presumably referring here not to the editor’s personal meat loaf recipe but to the menu at the Waverly Inn, the “bad food restaurant” that Carter opened in the West Village.) Long-running online blood feuds with the brassy star of Beaches and the editor of a magazine for and about rich people are not the sort of behavior ordinarily associated with populist politicians. But then Trump had not yet rebranded himself as one. 

Mostly, he was just what he had been his whole life to that point: a wealthy dullard with what he perceived to be a divine right to the admiration, and grateful deference, of others. By mathematical necessity, this deeply spiteful and petty vision of the world and one’s place in it also conjures a world-historic capacity for taking offense. Trump picked his enemies not wisely but too well, then as now, and found himself hooked on Twitter in the same way that a lot of other people find themselves strung out on their social media of choice—first because he wanted to make himself look impressive and happy, and then because he needed to destroy anyone and everyone who’d ever made him look or feel less so, and then, finally, because his life had shrunk to the point that it fit comfortably within a phone’s screen. After a lifetime spent leveraging and lying himself into ever more commanding views, Trump found himself in lockstep with many other members of his generation, who chose to cultivate in the clean and curated fields of social media a space where their grievances of choice could grow.

The market being the market, there was a parallel media providing them with grievances to choose from. Trump has always been a creature of television. Before he became a being of pure Foxian grievance, and years before he became something like the subject and object of virtually all the programming on Fox News and Fox Business, Trump tweeted his takes on the celebrity gossip he gleaned from Entertainment Tonight and Access Hollywood with the same energy that he now brings to his regular morning ritual of transcribing Fox & Friends for his online followers. The lewd sexist monologue from 2005 that briefly got Trump into trouble during the 2016 election was directed at Access Hollywood correspondent Billy Bush, and began with a free-associative anecdote about a failed attempt to seduce Entertainment Tonight anchor Nancy O’Dell by taking her shopping for couches.

As Trump’s viewing diet shifted more toward Fox News, his act soured and sharpened in turn. Television is the only medium that Trump really consumes, and much of what he tweets and says amounts to a distorted excretion of the television he’s just watched. Sometimes, this is as simple as his breathless a.m. recaps of Fox & Friends, the network’s sunny fascist morning show, which usually arrive on a delay thanks to what Trump calls his “Super TiVo.” (Spoiler alert: This is actually a DirecTV Genie remote, but no angry great man of Trump’s stature would be caught dead admitting that he clammily toggles a Genie in hand through much of his workday.) Occasionally, after an episode he’s especially enjoyed, he takes the time to tweet “thank you” at the show.

During the 2016 campaign and increasingly throughout his presidency, though, the relationship between the president and his television channels has become darker and more overtly recursive: Trump watches people talk about him on Fox, filters what they’ve said through the damp wool of his brain and repeats it, and then watches himself saying it on television later that day. As president, Trump has routinely sought the counsel of various Fox News personalities, mulling over his various paranoid obsessions with Sean Hannity in near-nightly phone calls and patching Lou Dobbs into White House staff meetings. Pete Hegseth, a Fox & Friends co-host who once injured a member of a West Point band with an errant throw of an ax during a live segment, did not just advocate on air that Trump pardon accused war criminals before their trials, but reportedly has also done so over months in a series of private phone calls with the president; in a tweet saying that he will be “reviewing the case of a ‘U.S. Military hero,’ Major Matt Golsteyn, who is charged with murder,” Trump politely tagged Hegseth’s account.

Aron Laikin/The Creativity Zone

The politics of Fox News are reactionary, but they are also hard to pin down—they are about a feeling, a combination of distaste and distrust for all the things that other people are getting away with and seem so entitled to out there. This hunched and feral posture of grievance is then combined with a fiercely put-upon impatience with the service that viewers themselves are receiving. 

The shows that are most devoted to Trump are pharmaceutical-grade juche—Fox’s spin on the North Korean cult of great-leader genius that rationalizes every personal and political excess of Kim Jong Un as a spontaneous reflection of the masses’ own revolutionary desire. The ones hosted by Dobbs and Jeanine Pirro look as if they should be playing in the background of a Paul Verhoeven movie, but even their defense of Trump is grounded in how he is being betrayed or treated unfairly. That all coheres into a loose sort of politics, but someone who spends eight or ten hours a day bathing in it could not by any rights be considered informed. That’s not really the point, and not remotely the business model. The idea is to keep viewers hanging around through the commercial breaks, to keep them engaged and enraged enough to continue watching and just frightened enough to believe that they’re better off staying indoors; the desired outcome is a disorienting combination of claustrophobia and loneliness.

Things get decidedly blurry in the confines of this culture warrior’s version of Plato’s cave, even for the desired audience. In a 2017 interview with Maggie Haberman of The New York Times, Trump launched into a surreal account of how health insurance works—“Because you are basically saying from the moment the insurance, you’re 21 years old, you start working and you’re paying $12 a year for insurance, and by the time you’re 70, you get a nice plan.”—that suggests that he believes it works like the Gerber Life Grow-Up Plan, a sketchy life insurance scheme that advertises frequently on Fox.

Millions of other people watch all this as well. It’s true that the broader Fox project was always to make those viewers—Trump, your septuagenarian relatives, and everyone else feeling as though the elite liberal cultural complex has quietly been robbing them blind through much of their adult lives—receptive to conservative politics. But the actual election to the presidency of a Fox News addict whose understanding of politics is shaped wholly by the television he watches and his own legacy grievances and biases presents a different suite of challenges. Trump’s towering incuriosity and impatience with other people have ensured that, despite having a massive intelligence-and-policy apparatus at his command, he continues to get most of his information from his television. Fox News’ editorial policies have ensured that he believes politics to consist of three separate and equally important parts: tax cuts, wars, and elections. You see the problem.

But this is only a problem when it comes to governing. Trump has been and will continue to be terrible at that, when he deigns to take a run at it. But when it comes to doing what he does best—getting upset, and getting other people upset—Trump’s ability to absorb and project what his Super TiVo feeds him finally plays like the superpower that it is. Trump’s election in 2016 has long been limned as a victory powered by people who had previously been outside of politics—people who believed politics did not and could not work, and distrusted the idea that incrementalism and compromise would or ever could fix what was wrong with the country.

There are reasons to believe in that analysis and reasons not to, but one point that it elides is that Trump himself is one of those people. Not because he has been screwed over and ground down by the failures of government; on the contrary, it’s difficult to imagine anyone in American public life who has violated more laws—labor laws and tax laws, housing laws and campaign finance laws, laws governing indecency and laws governing mail fraud—with fewer real repercussions. It may be that some disillusioned voters, who had come to believe that politics were just something that happened on television, turned to Trump in 2016 because they recognized him from television and didn’t realize how much real damage he could do.

But Trump himself also believed that politics were something that happened on television—an abstract performance of grievance and confrontation and inchoate anger that resets every morning and gets more interesting during even-numbered years. He’s never known it to be anything else, and even after nearly two and a half years in the White House he still can’t quite understand it as anything but that. If Trump were a more sympathetic figure—if he were, say, a grandparent you had silently muted on Facebook instead of the unstable man in charge of the world’s foremost nuclear arsenal—there would be something sad about the way that all this new information had made it so much more difficult for him to think.

Trump is prone to asking questions he doesn’t know the answer to on Twitter—wondering after the connections between the various obscure figures in the sprawling conspiracy against him and his success, which both succeeded to a criminal degree and failed miserably, and which is still ongoing or defeated and primed for prosecution. He’s going to make the things stop until he can figure out what’s going on; he’s going to stop doing the things that are confusing and don’t seem to be working and start doing the simpler things that will work; he’s going to get to the bottom of these horrible things that people keep hinting at.

He’s going to figure it all out and very strongly fix it—Take Over and Make Everything Better, just as Mitchell Schultz dreamed it—but his television won’t tell him how. It keeps saying that it will, but then it just tells him about something else to worry about and some other person who is trying to bring him down and stop him from getting his due. He gets up in front of his crowds to tell them what he’s done and what he will do and draws a huge seething blank. And then he opens his mouth and yesterday’s television comes out, and they hoot and cheer because they know that what he’s saying is true, because they’d heard the same thing the other day. They’d found it upsetting and the man up there found it upsetting, too. He says they’re going to be looking into it.