Lunch with a Tycoon

Donald Trump is a true maverick and a self-publicist, adept at stealing the spotlight at any given time to bolster his ego and demonstrate to the American public that he’s a force to reckon with – even in the realm of politics.

His shockwave last week, by announcing himself a Republican candidate for the US presidency, came as no surprise and was treated lightly to begin with by the political establishment who poured scorn on his latest gimmick, as if of a buffoon entering the race and playing it as a joke.

But the Republican hierarchy is now not laughing, as he rides an anti-Establishment populist tide shooting from the hip with his overheated rhetoric.

They are concerned not because they think he has a chance of securing the nomination, but because they fear he could influence the election by scarring the party’s reputation.

‘Donald Trump is like watching a roadside accident,’ Ari Fleischer, a former spokesman to George W. Bush, told Politico. ‘Everybody pulls over to see the mess and Trump thinks that’s entertainment. But running for president is serious. And the risk for the party is that he tarnishes everybody.’

Well, I met Donald in 1984 and here is what I wrote about him in Fulfilment & Betrayal, my third book of memoirs…

This was a period when I spent a great deal of time in the Big Apple myself, overseeing the Asprey shop in the Trump Tower, located on Fifth Avenue, and attending to our publishing activities in the United States. Asprey was among the first tenants at the Trump Tower – in fact we were approached by Donald Trump long before the building was completed. He wanted the best names to be trading from his prestigious address, to give it an added éclat. His powers of persuasion were prodigious, and any conversation with him was a one-sided affair. Words tumbled from his mouth in machine-gun fashion, leaving him few intervals in which to draw breath.

On one occasion, when John Asprey and I were in New York, he invited us to lunch at the Lutece, the then most fashionable French restaurant in town. He drove us halfway across the city, stopping at every building of his to demonstrate the might of his empire. On arrival at the restaurant, he was ushered in with great deference and given what was presumably the most sought-after table. As the recital of his achievements continued to take preference over matters of nutrition, it was an upward struggle to get him to look at the menu. Finally the maître d’hôtel persuaded him to have freshly-made tomato soup, to be followed by grilled Dover sole. To avoid further complications, John and I ordered the same, food being by that stage our topmost priority.

The soup arrived, and although Donald often filled his spoon, it never seemed to reach his mouth. The exercise was repeated over and over without a drop of soup ever touching his lips. When we had finished ours, he signalled to the waiter to take his plate away, virtually untouched. I think he did eat a little of the Dover sole but there was scarcely an interruption in the torrential monologue concerning his vast wealth, his collection of paintings and his power base. The scale of this self-promotion was in my view excessive and seemed to have about it more than a touch of vulgarity. Judging from what we saw, this unrestrained display of verbal energy owed nothing to his food intake, so it must have had its source elsewhere.

Trump began his career by attending business school and getting involved in his family’s real-estate business. In property he became a wheeler-dealer on a spectacular scale, creating an empire that took in casinos and sports and transport interests. Later on, in the 1990s, he came close to personal bankruptcy when the recession put pressure on his debts, but the institutions to which he owed hundreds of millions of dollars restructured his loans to avoid losing even more in court actions. Through all his ups and downs, he managed to retain ownership of the Trump Tower, and his gift of the gab stood him in good stead in 2004 when he reinvented himself as host of his own highly popular reality television show. Today America knows him as ‘the Donald’. He is certainly a larger-than-life character and in essence represents the American dream; and brash as it may be in his case, he is none the less a true exponent of its aims and aspirations.

Not that Trump is always the charmer he seeks to be.

My friend, Selina Scott, had a more abrasive encounter with the tycoon. From Fulfilment & Betrayal, once again:

Selina had a colourful career in television, starting out as a newsreader on ITV’s prestigious News at Ten and then being the first woman to front the BBC’s Breakfast Time in 1983. She went on to present the first fashion magazine programme, The Clothes Show, again for the BBC. She produced documentaries, among them a profile of Prince Charles which was enhanced by the personal frisson between them. She went on to work in America on news and chat shows for CBS and NBC, and was the first journalist to expose the cruel trade in ivory in Kenya. But then, on a more sombre note, came her most notorious claim to fame with her contretemps with Donald Trump when she interviewed him on television in the mid 1990s. Her portrait of the fast-talking tycoon was violently at odds with his own self-image. His male ego dented, he fired a barrage of invective in her direction from across the Atlantic.

Paradoxically, the nature of the insults shed more light on Trump’s character than the most penetrating interview could have done. The manner of his attack was particularly instructive. In a letter to Selina, he first of all established his own position of pre-eminence: ‘Up until last spring, I had not heard of you.’ (Subtext: The fact that I had never heard of you is clear evidence of your inferior status.)

With Selina’s ratings on Sky 1’s talk show having plummeted, Trump was once again firing off poison darts. They appear to have hit their target, since Selina was claiming that his persecutory behaviour towards her was tantamount to mental stalking. She was the least deserving of this kind of treatment…

In the coming months, both sides of Trump’s Jekyll & Hyde personality will no doubt keep the social media busy.

Whether this is what the American founding fathers intended when they formulated their democratic processes is not clear, but it’s certainly entertainment!

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