Act III, Scene I: The Rise
“Evil and brief hath been my pilgrimage,” wrote the poet.
Washington was on trial following the 2008 financial collapse. The government had let Wall Street run wild until it imploded under the weight of its own greed.
Tens of thousands of families were ruined and evicted from their homes. Many more saw their life savings reduced by half. Yet, not one Wall Street mogul was prosecuted.
The bitterness and resentment created by the Republican Bush administration spilled over into the 2008 election.
Obama took office in the midst of the greatest economic downturn since the Great Depression. He spent the next eight years, nursing the nation back to financial health.
By the 2016 election, dissatisfaction with Washington still ran high. The door was open for an outsider, and the Fortunate Son stepped through it.
Trump’s decision to run for president was driven by the same insecurities and ego that molded his business career.
Despite years of campaign contributions and cultivating Republican bigwigs, Trump was viewed by party stalwarts as too fringe to win a national election.
“I realized that unless I actually ran, I wouldn’t be taken seriously,” Trump told The Times in 2016.
Even top Republican strategists failed to realize “The Apprentice” had turned Trump from an easily caricatured Richie Rich into a pop-culture truth-teller, wrote Marc Fisher in The Washington Post. ”
“He was an evangelist for the American gospel of success, a decider who insisted on standards in a country that had somehow slipped into handing out trophies just for showing up.”
Trump faced a formidable opponent in Democrat Hillary Clinton. She disclosed her tax returns and released her medical records. Trump refused to do either.
Hillary, however, had been so roughed up by two decades of Republican smears, her negatives were almost as high as his.
She’d weathered them all: Benghazi, unfounded allegations about the Clinton charitable foundation, a bogus conspiracy over the sale of a uranium mine and worse.
During the campaign, Wikileaks selectively published private emails stolen by Russian operatives from her campaign chairman and the Democratic National Committee.
Trump played them up to the hilt.
But her use of a private server for government emails while Secretary of State would prove to be her undoing. Republicans blew it up into a four-year investigation that ended when FBI Director James Comey refused to bring charges in July 2016.
Then, he wrote a letter to Congress that he was reviving the email investigation based on what was claimed to be new evidence.
Republicans in Congress promptly leaked the letter 11 days before the election. Comey cleared her again a week later. But it was too late.
To Trump, politics was like his business; it was a zero-sum game. It played to his instincts and his narrative.
Cynically, his campaign had capitalized on an uptick in populism and lingering resentment over the 2008 financial crash.
White, blue-collar workers felt like they’d been sold out by the monied elites. Their jobs were being shipped overseas, not the bankers’ or the establishment’s. They profited, as they always had.
Immigrants seemed to be filling what remained of the low-wage jobs at home.
Trump said he alone could fix it–the cheating foreign nations, the influx of immigrants, the supposedly lopsided treaties, the globalists–and they believed him.
He played the outsider, who promised to “drain the swamp.”
The serial philandering, alleged sex assaults, porn stars, shady deals, decades of failed businesses and long association with mobsters, foreign oligarchs and one, Jeffrey Epstein, were all defining elements of his character.
In the damning 2005 “Access Hollywood” tape, Trump, himself, even spelled out his singular lack of morals and ethics.
He bragged about trying to “fuck” a married woman and boasted that his celebrity allowed him to grab women by the “pussy” whenever he wanted. “They let me do it,” he crowed.
More than 20 women accused Trump of sex assault, which seemed to confirm the contents of the tape. But Trump called them all liars.
Voters believed the myth, brought to them weekly over 192 episodes of “The Apprentice.”
Clinton still won the election by 3 million popular votes. But Trump won the White House by the slimmest of margins. A scant 77,000 votes across three states tipped the Electoral College in his favor.
He’d won an improbable race that everyone thought he would lose, including himself.
Don Jr. said his father “looked as if he had seen a ghost. Melania was in tears—and not of joy,” Michael Wolff would write in his book.
Trump was horrified, he said.
He just wanted the fame from a high-profile campaign, not the job of president. And with good reason.
The nation’s capital has its own peculiar culture. It’s always been a button-down town governed by long-standing protocols, traditions… and laws. Credentials count; truth counts.
Trump had neither the patience nor the desire to learn the tedious details that go into governing.
“Nothing contributed to the chaos and dysfunction of the White House as much as Trump’s own behavior,” Wolff would note.
“The West Wing was in disarray, with Bannon, Ivanka Trump and Jared Kushner all operating in a free-form environment. Bannon, especially, saw his role as creating the “soul” of the White House, according to Wolff. And Trump’s own behavior was credited as not befitting the White House.”
Trump treated the presidency like a side-gig. He refused to give up his business interests as other presidents had and exploited his office to pad the Trump Organization’s finances.
He took off to play golf more than any other president. His 144 jaunts to his own courses–his last a month before the election– cost taxpayers an estimated $141 million, according to a Government Accounting Office report.
The Trump International Hotel in Washington became a haven for foreign diplomats, lobbyists and deal makers seeking to curry influence with the administration.
Saudi Arabian lobbyists spent $270,000 alone in a three-month period.
“He is one great big example of exploiting public office for private gain,” Kathleen Clark, a law professor at Washington University in St. Louis, told Time magazine.
Trump still had his myth; but it began showing cracks the very day he took office.
It was over a small and obvious detail.
He claimed the crowd assembled on the capital grounds was the largest to ever witness an inauguration. More importantly, it was far bigger than either of Obama’s two terms.
Trump had always draped himself and his projects in superlatives. It was a tactic that had worked for him in the past to paper over the corruption and chaos of his business career.
But the lie was easily disproven, causing Trump to explode.
Like a furnace that belches fire when its doors are flung open, all of Trump’s insecurities, narcissism and ego came roaring out.
He claimed the media had misrepresented the number of people attending his inauguration, despite photographic evidence to the contrary.
White House spokesmen went into overdrive to back him up.
The controversy boiled for days longer than it should have, leading to White House counselor Kellyanne Conway’s infamous claim to “alternative facts.”
Trump had run headlong into a Washington buzz saw. The media, playing its traditional role, had snapped on the fabrication like a steel trap. But not all of the media.
Back in the golden era of media barons, an old saying went: “The press was free to anyone who owned one.”
But the Internet changed all that. Now, anyone really could own the electronic equivalent of a press.
A media bubble formed around the president populated by sycophants and right-wing pundits. The echo-chamber repeated and reinforced even his most outlandish lies and exaggerations.
Without that, the president might have been reined in a lot sooner. The damage may have been curtailed.
He would have realized, he needed to reach out, build on his razor-thin coalition and pull people in from the other side.
Instead, he did what he always did; he fell back on lies and misstatements.
Trump arrived in Washington with a suitcase full of promises.
He would build a wall (Mexico would pay for it), deport all undocumented immigrants, ban Muslims, allow guns in classrooms and cut taxes.
He would reject climate change, overturn Roe v. Wade, end the Iran nuclear deal, repeal Obamacare, bring back coal and steel jobs, boost fossil fuels, end NAFTA and launch trade wars against cheating foreign nations.
But his populism, outside of a few symbolic gestures, quickly fell by the wayside.
Instead, his agenda morphed into the usual Republican corporatism and trickledown economics.