Why We're Still Trapped In the Gears Of Trump's Fame Game

@LucianKTruscott
Why We're Still Trapped In the Gears Of Trump's Fame Game

Roy Cohn, left, and Donald Trump

Let’s take a trip back to June 16, 2015, the day that Donald Trump announced he was running for president the first time. I’m taking you back that far because I want to see if I can find something…anything…normal about it. Not normal psychologically – we all know how that search would go – but normal politically.

Most announcements by candidates for high office, say, for governor or senator or president, follow a predictable script. The announcement is usually made in their hometown, in their home state, and the candidate is joined on the speaker’s platform, or at the venue, by his family, by state political leaders from his or her party who are there to show their support, and there is usually some form of spin room, or at least access to the people running his or her campaign so political reporters can ask them questions about strategy, plans for rallies, who has announced their support of the candidate – the usual stuff that fleshes out a story about candidates who are announcing that they’re running for office.

What form did Trump’s announcement take? Well, Trump and Melania famously descended the escalator to the ground floor of Trump Tower…

Let’s stop right there. Even back in 2015, before Trump had begun stomping his way through the Republican primary, kicking aside one mini-me candidate after another, the escalator descent was remarkable. Melania was wearing a strapless white sheath and skyscraper heels, looking more like she was headed out to some kind of formal philanthropy event than a political event. But that was only one jarring aspect.

Trump mounted a makeshift stage in front of a row of carefully staged American flags that would form the backdrop of every campaign appearance he would make for the next year and a half, and began his speech with a lie. Not a big, outrageous lie, like Obama wasn’t born in this country, isn’t a citizen, and thus is an illegitimate president, a lie he had already been spreading for years by that point. No, this one was what we would come to know as a Trumpian lie, something easily disprovable just by watching the event with your own eyes.

Trump looked out at the crowd in the atrium or whatever it was of Trump Tower. It wasn’t a big crowd by any means, maybe a hundred to a hundred-fifty people, but with the first words out of his mouth, he lied about the crowd, exclaiming, “Wow. Whoa. That is some group of people. Thousands…This is beyond anybody’s expectations. There’s been no crowd like this.”

Later we would learn that many in the crowd wearing Trump T-shirts and other regalia had been hired for $50 from a casting agency for film extras, and that outside Trump Tower, there had been hired workers handing out free Trump regalia, enticing people passing by to come inside and hear Trump’s announcement speech.

Still later, on his inauguration day, Trump would famously send his beleaguered press secretary, Sean Spicer, to the White House press room to tell a similar lie about the crowd on the mall watching the inauguration ceremony. Everyone could see that the crowd didn’t fill the mall, it was spotty, and along the route of the inaugural parade, bleachers were empty. Still Spicer called it “the largest in history,” as television coverage cut between shots of Obama’s last inaugural crowd packing the mall solidly and Trump’s meager turn out.

Was there anything politically normal about Trump’s announcement that he was running for president? On that day, no, there wasn’t. It took him 20 minutes to say he was running for president, and even then, he didn’t specifiy the name of the party in whose primaries he would be competing.

I read the speech – he spoke for 45 rambling minutes, and it is pages long. At one point, he makes a glancing refernece to “my fellow Republicans,” but nowhere does he formally announce that he is running for the Republican nomination for president. He attacks by name one or two of his opponents, telling the crowd that he “owns a Gucci store that’s worth more than Romney,” the Gucci store visible to the crowd right there in Trump Tower. He infamously goes off-script to attack Mexico for “bringing drugs, they’re bringing crime, they’re rapists. And some, I assume, are good people.”

He brags about his net worth, tossing out names of his properties, “Trump Tower, 1290 Avenue of the Americas, Bank of America building in San Francisco, 40 Wall Street, sometimes referred to as the Trump building right opposite the New York Stock Exchange — many other places all over the world,” before landing on a net worth of “$8,737,540,00,” which he said his accountants came up with especially for this appearance. But feigning modesty, he tells the crowd, “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. I’m doing that to say that that’s the kind of thinking our country needs. We need that thinking. We have the opposite thinking. We have losers. We have losers.”

Finally, he zeroes in on what’s special about him, why he has decided to run for president: “Our country needs— our country needs a truly great leader, and we need a truly great leader now. We need a leader that wrote ‘The Art of the Deal.’ We need somebody that can take the brand of the United States and make it great again. It’s not great again. We need— we need somebody— we need somebody that literally will take this country and make it great again. We can do that. And, I will tell you, I love my life. I have a wonderful family. They’re saying, “Dad, you’re going to do something that’s going to be so tough.”

He pauses, brow furled, attempting to look serious: “You know, all of my life, I’ve heard that a truly successful person, a really, really successful person and even modestly successful cannot run for public office. Just can’t happen. And yet that’s the kind of mindset that you need to make this country great again. So ladies and gentlemen…I am officially running… for president of the United States, and we are going to make our country great again.”

That’s about halfway through the speech. The rest is more attacks on China, on Obama, criticizing him for playing too much golf, inviting him to play at one of his courses – “I have the best courses in the world” – and this one, he tells the crowd, is “right next to the White House, right on the Potomac, and if he’d like to play, that’s fine.”

Classic Trump, right? It wasn’t evident at the time, but you know what his speech was really about? It was about fame. Donald Trump was telling his crowd, and the television cameras that would follow him from one speech like that one to another and to another and to another, that he is one of the richest, most famous people in the world, and because he’s rich and famous, he can solve all their problems.

Incredibly, it worked. It’s still working.

Fame was what Trump was good at. It’s what he worked on every day as hard as he worked on making money, or at least, keeping himself out of bankruptcy. If you lived in New York in the 1970’s and 1980’s, you were exposed daily to Trump’s yanking on the levers in the machinery of fame. Story after story has been written about Trump’s obsession with getting his name in the New York Post’s “Page Six” gossip column. He even called gossip reporters pretending to be a publicist promoting…Donald Trump.

He didn’t treat the machinery of fame as a playground. It was his workplace. My friend Tony Schwartz, as he was interviewing Trump in order to write The Art of the Deal, had no idea how integral that whole project was to the masterplan Trump was even then engaged in, not necessarily with his eye on the White House, but with his eye right where it had been all his life: on himself.

Even I was touched glancingly by the gears of the Trump fame machine. In 1979, at a time when I was ever-so-briefly enjoying my own spotlight because of the success of my first novel, Dress Gray, I somehow ended up on the invitation list to Elizabeth Taylor’s birthday party at Studio 54. Curious about what kind of spectacle it would be, I went. I’ve written elsewhere about running into Roy Cohn in the company of the Man Himself at that party. Roy and I were not friendly. I had had what amounted to the Roy Cohn beat at the Village Voice for about five years and had written numerous stories about a string of lawsuits filed against him for fleecing small banks around the country of loans he had conned out of them. We exchanged words, as Trump looked on disinterestedly, the conversation, after all, not being about him.

After the party, I hadn’t been back in my loft downtown for more than ten minutes when the phone rang. It was Steve Dunleavy, one of the writers for the New York Post's “Page Six,” with whom I had a passing acquaintance at the Lion’s Head bar. Steve had seen me at the Elizabeth Taylor birthday party and wanted to know if he could mention my name in his item covering the party as having been the date of a young woman whose name had been in the news as one of the owners of a new uptown nightclub. “She’s one of Trump’s girlfriends, and he wants her in the column to promote her club. I think he might be an investor.” I asked him why he didn’t just say she was with Trump. “Ivana would give his balls a haircut, that’s why,” Dunleavy chuckled.

I begged off. He would have to find some other semi-famous writer or actor with whom to beard the Trump girlfriend.

Looking back on that one night in my personal history in New York City, I can remember feeling the gears of the fame machine grinding their way through the night right next to me. I never even saw the young woman whom Dunleavy had mentioned was with Trump. He spent his time in the company of figures of fame, namely Cohn and Halston and Calvin Klein, who huddled together in a kind of power troika in the midst of the non-powerful, non-famous who comprised the rest of the party. She didn’t matter at all in the fame equation. It was the power of getting her name on “Page Six” that mattered to Trump, I guess so he could show her that he could do it, or maybe because he was an investor in her club. The “why” wasn’t the point. Working the gears of fame to your advantage was.

Fame was like a mountain in the middle of Manhattan that had to be climbed if you wanted to be somebody. There they were, all the climbers, little Edmund Hillarys, suited up in their night-finery trudging from one basecamp to the next…the Four Seasons and the 21 Club, celebrity restaurants…Le Club, an exclusive members-only spot on the Upper East Side…art openings or movie premiers at which Andy Warhol might be glimpsed…Studio 54, where endless lines behind an impenetrable velvet rope were evidence of admission to only the select few.

Mount Fame was always there in New York. Everyone could see it; few could reach even its first-timer’s base camps, and once there, the thin air soon drove them back down the side of the mountain.

But not Trump. He erected his own basecamp, Trump Tower, and lived on fame’s mountain, immune to altitude sickness, accustomed to its dangers. We have all seen what happens when you flirt with fame: Trump got bit by comments he made on Access Hollywood and by rape charges brought by women like E. Jean Carroll, whom Trump thought was a nobody and who turned out to be somebody.

But the machinery of fame met its match with Donald Trump. He reached fame’s pinnacle. He became the most famous, most powerful man in the world. He was toppled, but he’s still on the side of Mount Fame at Basecamp Two, Mar a Lago, still climbing, telling lie after lie after lie to scale its heights.

It’s truly amazing, isn’t it? Donald Trump is the only president in our history to be elected not because he had paid his political dues or had an expert knowledge of the levers of political power gained over decades, but because he is famous. What we’re learning, and it’s difficult, is that you can’t disassemble fame constructed of lies simply by telling the truth. How powerful is the truth when presented in the coming months as evidence in several courts of law is the question next on the agenda.

In the battle of fame vs. democracy, we shall see.

Lucian K. Truscott IV, a graduate of West Point, has had a 50-year career as a journalist, novelist, and screenwriter. He has covered Watergate, the Stonewall riots, and wars in Lebanon, Iraq, and Afghanistan. He is also the author of five bestselling novels. You can subscribe to his daily columns at luciantruscott.substack.com and follow him on Twitter @LucianKTruscott and on Facebook at Lucian K. Truscott IV.

Please consider subscribing to Lucian Truscott Newsletter, from which this is reprinted with permission.

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