Over a long weekend on assignment for PlayBoy Magazine, Mark Bowden found that behind the garish Trump façade lies only more ugliness.
I spent a long, awkward weekend with Donald Trump in November 1996, an experience I feel confident neither of us would like to repeat.
He was like one of those characters in an 18th-century comedy meant to embody a particular flavor of human folly. Trump struck me as adolescent, hilariously ostentatious, arbitrary, unkind, profane, dishonest, loudly opinionated, and consistently wrong. He remains the most vain man I have ever met. And he was trying to make a good impression. Who could have predicted that those very traits, now on prominent daily display, would turn him into the leading G.O.P. candidate for president of the United States?
His latest outrageous edict on banning all Muslims from entering the country comes as no surprise to me based on the man I met nearly 20 years ago. He has no coherent political philosophy, so comparisons with Fascist leaders miss the mark. He just reacts. Trump lives in a fantasy of perfection, with himself as its animating force.
Before I met him back in 1996, I felt bad for him. He’d had a rough 10 years. He had just turned 50 and wasn’t happy about it. He looked soft, from his growing jowls to the way his belt bit deeply into the spreading roll of his belly. As a businessman he had crashed and burned, rescued only by creditors who had to bail him out lest they be dragged down with him. His enterprises were being run by court-appointed managers, who had put him back on his financial feet mostly by investing heavily in Atlantic City, which was then on the rise.
He had insulated himself from failure with bluster. In public he was still The Donald—still rich, still working hard at being a symbol of excess. I was working on a profile of him for Playboy, which was his kind of magazine. He considered himself the magazine’s beau ideal, and was inordinately proud of having been featured on the magazine’s cover some years before. His then wife, Marla Maples, told him, sardonically, that he ought to buy the magazine: “You bought the Miss Universe Pageant; it’s right up your alley.” He must have figured it was a safe bet to agree to cooperate for my story. But well before I left him, we both knew he probably wouldn’t like the final product.
It was hard to watch the way he treated those around him, issuing peremptory orders—“Polish this, Tony. Today.” He met with the lady who selected his drapery for the Florida estate—“The best! The best! She’s a genius!”—who had selected a sampling of fabrics for him to choose from, all different shades of gold. He left the choice to her, saying only, “I want it really rich. Rich, rich, elegant, incredible.” Then, “Don’t disappoint me.” It was a pattern. Trump did not make decisions. He surrounded himself with “geniuses” and delegated. So long as you did not “disappoint” him—and it was never clear how to avoid doing so—you were gold.
What was clear was how fast and far one could fall from favor. The trip from “genius” to “idiot” was a flash. The former pilots who flew his plane were geniuses, until they made one too many bumpy landings and became “fucking idiots.” The gold carpeting selected in his absence for the locker rooms in the spa at Mar-a-Lago? “What kind of fucking idiot . . . ?” I watched as Trump strutted around the beautifully groomed clay tennis courts on his estate, managed by noted tennis pro Anthony Boulle. The courts had been prepped meticulously for a full day of scheduled matches. Trump took exception to the design of the spaces between courts. In particular, he didn’t like a small metal box—a pump and cooler for the water fountain alongside—which he thought looked ugly. He first questioned its placement, then crudely disparaged it, then kicked the box, which didn’t budge, and then stooped—red-faced and fuming—to tear it loose from its moorings, rupturing a water line and sending a geyser to soak the courts. Boulle looked horrified, a weekend of tennis abruptly drowned. Catching a glimpse of me watching, Trump grimaced.
“I guess that’ll have to be in your story,” he said.
“Pretty much,” I told him.
This apparently worried him, because on the flight home a day later he had a proposition.
“I’m looking for somebody to write my next book,” he told me.
I told him that I would not be interested.
“Why not?” he asked. “All my books become best-sellers.”
The import was clear. There was money in it for me. Trump remains the only person I have ever written about who tried to bribe me.
As I’ve watched his improbable political rise, it is clear that he hasn’t changed. The very things that made him so unappealing apparently now translate into wide popular support. Apart from the comical ego, the errors, and the self-serving bluster, what you get from Trump are commonplace ideas pronounced as received wisdom. Begin registering all Muslims in America? Round up the families of suspected terrorists? Ban all Muslims from entering the country? Carpet-bomb ISIS-held territories in Iraq (killing the 98-plus percent of civilians who are, in effect, being held hostage there by the terror group and turning a war against a tiny fraction of the world’s Muslims into a global religious crusade)? Using nuclear weapons? The ideas that pop into his head are the same ones that occur to any teenager angry about terror attacks. They appeal to anyone who can’t be bothered to think them through—can’t be bothered to ask not just the moral questions but the all-important practical one: Will doing this makes things better or worse? When you believe in your own genius, you don’t question your own flashes of inspiration.
I got a call from his office some days after my profile of him appeared in the May 1997 issue of Playboy. I had already heard how he’d blown his stack to Christie Hefner. I was traveling at the time, working on my book Black Hawk Down. The call came to me in a motel room in Colorado, from his trusty assistant, the late Norma Foerderer.
“Mr. Trump would like to talk to you,” she said.
I waited, sitting on the edge of the bed, bracing myself.
Foerderer came back on the line. She said:
“He’s too livid to speak.”