Recently, I did something rare in my life. Over a long weekend, I took a few days away and almost uniquely — I might even say miraculously — never saw Donald Trump’s face, since I didn’t watch TV and barely checked the news. They were admittedly terrible days in which 50 people were slaughtered in New Zealand. Meanwhile, the president indulged in another mad round of tweeting, managing in my absence to lash out at everything and everyone in sight (or even beyond the grave) from John McCain, Saturday Night Live, and the Mueller “witch hunt” to assorted Democrats and even Fox News for suspending host Jeanine Pirro’s show. In his version of the ultimate insult, he compared Fox to CNN. And I was blissfully ignorant of it all, which left me time to finally give a little thought to… Donald Trump.
And when I returned, on an impulse, I conjured up the initial Trumpian moment of our recent lives. I’m aware, of course, that The Donald first considered running for president in the Neolithic age of 1987. He tried to register and trademark “Make America Great Again,” a version of an old Reagan campaign slogan, only days after Mitt Romney lost the 2012 presidential election to a charismatic, young, black senator. He then rode that new president’s “birth certificate” into the post-Apprentice public spotlight amid a growing wave of racism in a country founded on slavery that has never truly grappled with that fact.
Still, the 47 minutes and eight seconds that I was thinking about took place more recently. On June 16, 2015, Donald and Melania Trump stepped onto a Trump Tower escalator and rode it down to the pounding beat of Neil Young’s “Rockin’ in the Free World” (a song the singer would soon demand, without success, that the presidential hopeful not use). A minute and a half later, they arrived in the Trump Tower lobby. There, a clapping Ivanka greeted her father with a kiss on each cheek — the first signal of the corporatist, family-style presidency to come. Then, The Donald stepped to the microphone and promptly launched his run into fake-news history.
Sometimes, the only way to go forward, or at least know where you are in the present, is to go back. Yes, Donald Trump garnered much news with his announcement that day and was already visibly having the time of his life, but no one in or out of the media then thought he had a shot at being president. Even he was only burnishing his brand. As Michael Wolff reported in his book Fire and Fury, even on election night 2016, almost a year and a half later, with the possible exception of Steve Bannon, no one in the Trump camp, including The Donald, had the slightest expectation of his winning the presidency. All of them were just burnishing their future brands.
And yet, in the spring of 2019, those largely forgotten 47 minutes are worth another look because, in retrospect, they provide such a vivid window into what was to come, what’s still coming. They offer the future president not naked at last, but naked at first, and so represent an episode of revelatory wonder (and, had anyone then believed that he might actually win the presidency, of revelatory dread as well).
The Candidate Naked as a Jaybird
Having taken another look at that first speech, I now think of the Trump era so far as the 47-minute presidency. It’s nothing short of wondrous just how strikingly that de-escalatory ride and the Trumpian verbal strip tease that followed before a cheering crowd revealed, point by point, the essence of his presidency to come. And by the way, it was certainly indicative of that future presidency that the audience (reporters aside) listening to him in the lobby of Trump Tower seems largely to have been made up of out-of-work actors being paid $50 a pop to cheer him on. According to the Hollywood Reporter, the email sent out by Extra Mile Casting to recruit those extras read in part: “We are looking to cast people for the event to wear t-shirts and carry signs and help cheer him in support of his announcement. We understand this is not a traditional ‘background job,’ but we believe acting comes in all forms and this is inclusive of that school of thought.”
And given what would happen, never has an audience been bought more cheaply or effectively.
It’s hardly news today that Donald Trump would prove a unique candidate in American presidential history. On that first day, the most uniquely unique aspect of his speech (and, in the age of Trump, I offer no apologies for such an over-the-top superlative) was the utter, even brutal, honesty with which he presented — or perhaps the better word would be displayed — himself to the American people. To paint an even more honest picture, the one thing he might have done was ride that escalator up, not down, to his announcement. After all, his would be an escalation presidency of the first order. In crisis — and when is The Donald not in crisis? — it’s in his nature to escalate.
So bear with me here as I take us back almost four years to look once again at how it all began, at the way in which, after those 47 minutes, you could have turned off your TV, blocked out all those cable news talking heads, and never looked at the man again. After all, by then you knew everything you truly needed to know (except one thing that I’ll return to below) in order to grasp the Trumpian moment to come. In that sense, I think it’s fair to say, without a hint of Trump Tower-style exaggeration, that The Donald was the most honest presidential candidate we’ve ever had.
Honesty may be an odd label to slap on such a man. After all, he lies incessantly. He misstates regularly. He creates false facts anytime he needs them and then sticks with them forever — and he did just that, with alacrity and aplomb, on his very first day. In some sense, almost everything he says might be considered a lie of sorts, but the lying, misstating, absurd claims, and over-the-top pronouncements are done so nakedly, are so easy to debunk (or, if you prefer, like much of his base, to accept as reality), that they might almost be considered another form of honesty. They are, at least, a form of Trumpian revelation and so nakedness.
The general rule of politics is, of course, that the one thing you don’t do is offer yourself exactly as you are, warts and all (or even all warts) and naked as a jaybird for everyone to see. But Donald Trump did just that. In those first 47 minutes and eight seconds, he undressed in front of America. And nearly four years later, it’s worth looking back to grasp just how clearly his future presidency could be viewed in that first naked moment of moments.
In a sense, all you needed to know was this. In that announcement speech, it took him barely two minutes to make it to the Mexican border, where he remains today. Nor should it have taken long for any viewer to grasp a few other things about him: he wasn’t a man for scripts, but was a man for insults; the Trump brand was far more crucial to him than the American one; he wouldn’t just interrupt you or anyone else, but also himself; he was ready to use blunt, everyday language never before associated with presidential candidates, no less presidents, in public (“They talked about environmental, they talked about all sorts of crap that had nothing to do with it”); there were no claims too big (or false) for him to make, especially when it came to himself and his effect on the world; he had already perfected his own unique version of incoherence, or stream-of-consciousness speaking, into a vibrant art form (that, in another sense, couldn’t have been more coherent); and he had an ego, invariably on display, as big as… well, not just the Ritz but perhaps his then-still-under-construction Trump International Hotel just down Pennsylvania Avenue from the White House — and all of that was obvious even before he mentioned that “great, great wall” of his.
Despite an already existing following, thanks to his promotion of the Obama “birther” conspiracy theory, his adoring base did not yet exist. For him, however, it already did. It was, you might say, born ahead of its time. His first two words in that speech were “Wow. Whoa.” His reference point: the crowd of hired actors in front of him. “That is some group of people. Thousands.” Of them, he would momentarily say — no need to wait for the crowd controversy over his inaugural address more than a year and a half later — “There’s been no crowd like this.” But first, of course, just 20 words in, there had to be a plug for his brand. (“It’s great to be at Trump Tower.”)
And it didn’t take 30 seconds for the first insult du jour of his presidential run to make its appearance. Yep, there was that crowd, Trump Tower, and then naturally the matter of sweat and air conditioning. (“And, I can tell, some of the candidates, they went in [to announce their candidacies]. They didn’t know the air-conditioner didn’t work. They sweated like dogs… How are they going to beat ISIS?”) This was assumedly the first of what would be many insulting references to Republican senator and candidate Marco Rubio’s propensity to sweat, assumedly during his announcement of his candidacy that April. Though The Donald had barely begun, in what would be his typical fashion, he had already connected not blood, sweat, and tears, but air conditioning, sweat, and ISIS in the fashion in which he’s connected seemingly disparate things ever since.
And as Dr. Seuss might once have said: That was not all! Oh, no, that was not all! Those listening, at $50 a pop or not, quickly found themselves on the sort of high-speed train ride you can have in significant parts of the world — there are 27,000 kilometers of it China — but not in the United States, unless you’re at a Trump rally.
Just over two minutes in and the candidate-to-come had already zipped past China and Japan (“…they beat us all the time”) and arrived at that Mexican border. “They’re sending people that have lots of problems, and they’re bringing those problems with us. They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists…” A minute later, he leapt to the Middle East and “Islamic terrorism,” claiming “I’m in competition with them” because, he insisted, ISIS now had the Iraqi oil that “we should’ve taken” after the invasion and occupation of that country. With that oil money, he claimed, they had built “a hotel in Syria.” (Okay, it was, in fact, in Mosul, Iraq, and they didn’t build it, they took it over, but no matter.)
A headlong dash across the Iraqi border into Iran somehow brought him to American nukes (“Even our nuclear arsenal doesn’t work”) and next thing you knew you were ripping past the U.S. gross domestic product, which, he swore, was shockingly, unbelievably “below zero.” (He evidently meant growth in the GDP, not the GDP itself, not that that was true either.) And none of it — ISIS, Iraqis, Mexicans, Muslims, failing nukes, or even sweat and air conditioners added up to much of anything compared to “a disaster called the big lie: Obamacare. Obamacare.”
And that, mind you, was just the first nine minutes of his announcement, the rest of which — from China envy to Saudi love — similarly proved a remarkably apt outline of the presidency (and president) to come. But don’t let me forget one more thing: at the heart of that speech, as at the heart of everything else in the years that followed, was you-know-who and you-know-whose brand and business.
From those first moments, Donald Trump was always King Toot (as in, tooting his own horn). Yes, in that speech he plugged making America great again, mentioning the phrase, in whole or part, nine times. And it was indeed a brilliant slogan for him to adopt. It allowed him to say something all too real that no other politician of that moment dared to say: that America wasn’t then the most exceptional or indispensable or greatest country on Earth; in those initial moments, that is, he inaugurated himself as our first genuine declinist presidential candidate (or at least the man who could save us all from further decline). And whether as a repeated slogan or four words on a red cap, he rang a bell, loud and clear, in the white American heartland.
Still, read that speech now and you won’t doubt for a moment that his truest slogan wasn’t MAGA at all, but MTGAAA (Make Trump Great Again and Again and Again). In that sense, at the first rally of his presidency, he offered a remarkably forthright picture of what was to come.
He billed himself as a businessman of the first order for a country desperately in need of economic resuscitation — and his would indeed be a business presidency, if you mean his (and his family’s) businesses. That first speech would be larded with references to, and praise for, those very businesses and, of course, himself. He assured listeners that he was worth no less than $8,737,540,000 (though not according to Forbes) and that he wasn’t even bragging about it. (“I’m not doing that to brag, because you know what? I don’t have to brag. I don’t have to, believe it or not.”)
It took just 12 minutes for him to make it to his golf courses and then to his most recent book. (“I have the best courses in the world… Now, our country needs… a truly great leader now. We need a leader that wrote The Art of the Deal.”) No matter that Tony Schwartz, its ghostwriter, would later denounce him as “incapable of reading a book, much less writing one.”
In fact, no subject he raised that day seemed to lack a reference to the monuments, with their giant golden letters, that he had already erected to himself. The Saudis (“I love the Saudis. Many are in this building”), the Chinese (“The biggest bank in the world is from China. You know where their United States headquarters is located? In this building, in Trump Tower. I love China”), you name it and he linked it to his businesses. In, for instance, a passing discussion of the country’s sagging infrastructure (still crumbling almost four years later) — “It’s like we’re in a third world country,” he’d say that day — he promptly focused on his hotel-to-be in the nation’s capital. (“You know, we’re building on Pennsylvania Avenue, the Old Post Office, we’re converting it into one of the world’s great hotels. It’s gonna be the best hotel in Washington, D.C.”)
The emoluments clause in the Constitution? Don’t make me laugh. From the first second, Donald Trump couldn’t have made it clearer that, were you to vote for him, you would be putting his business and no one else’s, including yours, in the White House. Again, it was a rare moment of honesty, even if few truly took it in (or, at that moment, cared).
The Bankruptcy King in Person
All of this is, of course, ancient history, but as a document that first speech is anything but yesterday’s news. In many ways, it remains tomorrow’s headlines in a media world that, so long after, still can’t get enough of him. Had any of us truly been paying attention to more than the circus quality of the former ringmaster of The Apprentice taking his moment in the electoral sun, we might have noticed that Donald Trump was — give him credit — a strangely open book, no ghostwriters in sight. He’s remained so ever since.
That June 16th, he displayed himself nakedly — except for the orange hair — before that audience of reporters and hired actors, as well as the rest of America, and he’s never put on a stitch of clothing since. His initial TV moment was not a once-in-a-lifetime but a first-in-a-lifetime performance by a man in the process of creating a genuine what-you-see-is-what-you-get presidential run and presidency.
As I mentioned, however, there was an exception to everything I’ve written above, as there usually is to all rules in life. One thing was missing from his speech, as it would be from all of the speeches, tweets, and rallies to follow. The single hidden factor in the Trump presidency (even if, like everything else about the man from bone spurs to Roy Cohn, it was always in plain sight) contradicted his endless presentation of himself as the ultimate businessman and dealmaker for a floundering and foundering America.
Donald Trump wasn’t actually a successful businessman at all, not in the normal sense anyway. He was an economic magician (or, in classic American terms, a con man) who regularly ground business after business — a set of casinos (at a time when other casinos were thriving), hotels, an airline, and a series of other endeavors ranging from Trump Steaks to Trump Vodka to Trump University — into the dust of bankruptcy or failure. What made him such a magician was that, in case after case, his greatest “business” skill proved to be jumping ship, dollars in hand, leaving those who trusted him, had faith in him, believed in him holding the bag.
He had a history of screwing anyone who relied on him, whether we’re talking about the investors in his Atlantic City casinos or a bevy of small business types and others who worked for him — plumbers, waiters, painters, cabinet makers — and were later stiffed. In other words, Americans elected a bankruptcy king as their president and character will tell.
There really are no secrets here. In the end, Donald Trump clearly cares about nothing but himself (and perhaps his family as an extension of that self).
So read or listen to that first campaign speech again. Reintroduce yourself to Donald Trump presenting himself with naked honesty — with that single exception — and then consider the future for a moment. Whether in his first or second term (should he win again in 2020), if things start to head south economically, count on this: he’ll repeat his well-documented history and jump ship, leaving the American people, including that beloved base of his, holding the bag.
Tom Engelhardt is a co-founder of the American Empire Project and the author of a history of the Cold War, The End of Victory Culture. He runs TomDispatch.com and is a fellow of the Type Media Center. His sixth and latest book is A Nation Unmade by War (Dispatch Books).