At the age of 16, having scored his first military victory, Alexander the Great ordered a city built in celebration. What shall we call it, sir? his men inquired. Alexandropolis, of course, the teenager replied.
It became an addiction. In the decade that followed, he swallowed vast sections of the known world, leaving enough men behind after each conquest to build a new city in his name. One Alexandria after another, until he finally grew so sated he began naming them after his horse and his dog.
Does Donald Trump have a dog?
To each century are born a handful of men who cannot face their mirror in the morning unless they have conquered something new, who cannot fall asleep at night unless the stars have winked at them, who cannot endure a single still moment unless they are certain that not one human being has ever remotely, conceivably, supposedly chumped them. Ours, in the 1980s, was a businessman named Donald Trump.
For every Alexandropolis and Alexandria that rose to the sky 300 years before Christ, a Trump Plaza, a Trump Tower, a Trump Castle rose 1,980 years after him. The sword and spear were obsolete. The briefcase and telephone were what Ego brandished now. (In his yacht alone, Trump could cut a deal from any one of 210 phones.)
The people of Alexander’s time engraved his image upon their rings for good luck. The people of Trump’s were known to lunge through the phalanx of his bodyguards, believing that simply to touch his pinstripe-suited body would accomplish the same. “They’re my people,” he’d say smugly. “For whatever reason, they love me.”
The new Jackie and Ari, gossip columnist Liz Smith tagged Donald and wife Ivana. “The People’s Billionaire,” a headline in the New York Daily News called him. “The epitome of the American dream,” opined the captain of his yacht. Every time we looked up, there was Trump’s face and name on another TV screen, another magazine cover, another sporting event or half-billion-dollar deal—a level of fame no businessman has ever known. How did that happen to him—and to us?
Perhaps it was timing. Here we were, of an American culture built upon the creed that each individual among us can do anything if he has enough daring and drive, licking our psychic wounds after two decades of harsh lessons on our limits. And here came Trump, bayoneting through bureaucracy, knifing through neighborhood watchdog committees and zoning codes, hurling marble and steel and glass into the heavens in half the time it took lesser men, reassuring us that our national myth still might be true. When the city of New York floundered for six years and spent $12 million trying to get the Wollman Skating Rink rebuilt in Central Park, Trump stepped in and did it in four months for $2.1 million, (Asked to describe the way he worked, he flicked his hand and said, “Boom—like a cobra.”) Then, when authorities tried to honor his competence by planting a Japanese pine in his name, he howled in protest. The tree was too delicate, too weak. A sequoia, that was what Donald Trump wanted.
Trump understood the times intuitively and hyped everything, from the bronze railings in the Trump Tower to the marble waterfalls on the Trump Princess to the blond wife who buys dresses in Paris at $20,000 a pop. “I play to people’s fantasies,” he once said. “People want to believe that something is the biggest and greatest and the most spectacular.”
Besides building Manhattan’s Grand Hyatt Hotel (he retains a 50 percent interest) as well as Trump Tower and Trump Plaza and Trump Parc (a rehab of the old Barbizon-Plaza Hotel), he bought the famed Plaza Hotel, three of the most successful casinos in Atlantic City, the Eastern Air Shuttle, 76 acres on Manhattan’s West Side for an envisioned Trump City and three estates with a total of 208 rooms, including the 118-room hideaway built by Marjorie Merriweather Post in Palm Beach, Fla. He bought the New Jersey Generals of the ill-fated United States Football League and created his own bicycle Tour de Trump in hopes of literally trumping the venerable Tour de France. And somehow, instead of resenting all this, many of us seemed almost grateful to know that the swaggering, staggeringly rich American capitalists who built the country in the early 1900s still lived, still existed as a possibility.
As for his own human possibilities, Trump seemed not to be aware of them. He had no greater cause or vision. The game was the goal. The Deal was Art. The oddity was, Trump could live that way and look positively happy, not a trace of existential anguish or a shadow of self-conflict or guilt. All the lives in all the magazines in all the grocery-store checkout lines warned us of the perils of celebrityhood and vast wealth, but not his. Nothing seemed to touch him. “I’m not a shmuck,” he said, referring to the way he bailed out of the stock market just before the crash of ’87. “Even if the world goes to hell in a hand basket, I won’t lose a penny.”
He said things like that without a twinkle in his eyes—that was the scary thing. But then, perhaps soul or sense of humor was too much to ask of the man who used up every waking moment in the 1980s making sure he was never vulnerable, making certain Donald Trump would never, ever be chumped.