As a newspaper reporter in 1980s New York, I did my best to avoid writing about Donald Trump—or any other celebrities. In practical terms, that meant staying out of the line of sight of the city desk as much as possible, which I accomplished by getting assigned to beats in City Hall and the courts.
But late one night, as I covered an important, dull meeting in City Hall, a public-relations person told me that Donald Trump was waiting to be interviewed. I was ushered into some office where he sat behind a small desk. He wanted to talk about his plan to renovate the ice rink in Central Park, a job the city government had dithered over for six years. I was struck by his piercing stare—looking not at me, but over my right shoulder, and seemingly far into the distance.
What I took away was that the stare was his “man of destiny” look, as if he were posing for a statue of the American entrepreneur to the rescue. His pose that night always seemed laughable until I realized recently that the joke was on me. For Trump’s destiny turned out to be large indeed: in that early venture into the civic arena, he was taking one more step in what Maggie Haberman’s smartly probing new book calls “The Making of Donald Trump.”
Haberman’s book is a devastating character study—all the more so because when she gets there after more than five hundred pages, she finds there is no “there” there for Trump. Or, as she explains in the book’s concluding passage, “ultimately, almost no one really knows him…. [H]e is often simply, purely opaque, permitting people to read meaning and depth into every action, no matter how empty they may be.” Donald Trump is all mirrors.
As a celebrity mogul, Trump made himself to order for an era when gossip was going mainstream in the news business. His gaudy glamour generated plenty of publicity; New York’s tabloid press in particular was an eager victim, and soon enough the national media was as well, even prestige outlets. And yet, he was something of a joke. When the notion of a Trump presidential run was floated in 1987, Garry Trudeau lampooned him in his widely read “Doonesbury” comic strip. His Trump character claims to have a rapport with the average voter, explaining, “I’ve spent my whole life with people of modest means.” A reporter asks in what capacity. “Evicting them. I’ve seen how these people live.”
Haberman was one of the few reporters to view the man seriously as a potential political candidate. She writes that after being taken in by one of Trump’s earlier feints toward running for president, in 2011, “Friends and sources in New York had mocked me as gullible for that coverage.” But she had taken note of the enthusiastic reception Trump had received from voters in New Hampshire and realized earlier than most that he was a viable candidate.
Haberman came onto the scene as a City Hall reporter in the late 1990s for the New York Post, the paper that served as Trump’s advocate in the gossip wars. She moved on to the paper’s tabloid rival, the New York Daily News, and then to Politico and the New York Times. With the scrappy resourcefulness of a New York tabloid reporter and the clout and perspective of the Times, she is ideally suited to deconstruct how Trump fabricated his persona and explain how his backstory shapes his actions on the public stage.
In Haberman’s telling, Trump’s story is built upon layers of falsehoods—it’s all a con. For example, she looks into a 1980 interview Trump did with the Times in which he describes his foundational experience of attending the ribbon-cutting ceremony for the Verrazzano-Narrows Bridge in 1964 at the age of eighteen. His tale was that he saw how Robert Moses, who oversaw the project, had cut out the bridge’s designer from getting any notice that day. Trump claimed to realize “then and there” that “I don’t want to be anybody’s sucker.” As Haberman reports, every detail in Trump’s story was wrong; in fact, Moses had amply praised Othmar Ammann, calling him “the greatest living bridge engineer.”