Donald Trump Is Not Going Anywhere
Where does his political adventure end? “I have no idea. But I’m here now. And it’s beautiful.”
” I don’t worry about anything,’’ Donald J. Trump told me aboard his 757 as we were flying to the recent Republican debate at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley, Calif. He was dividing his attention between the brick-size slice of red-velvet cake he was annihilating and the CNN commentator on the 57-inch television who at that moment was talking about Trump, as most commentators have been at pretty much every moment for the last three months. The commentator, Dylan Byers, was saying that Trump now ran the risk of ‘‘jumping the shark’’ because voters were becoming so familiar with his act. ‘‘Nah,’’ Trump said, smirking at the screen. As the real estate and reality-show tycoon sees things, this is all win-win for him. Peggy Noonan of The Wall Street Journal wrote something to this effect recently, Trump told me, explaining that even if he loses, ‘‘he goes back to being Donald Trump, but even bigger.’’
The Trump campaign may be a win-win for Trump, but it is a monstrous dilemma for a lot of other people. It is a dilemma for the Republican Party and a dilemma for the people Trump is running against. They would love to dismiss him as a sideshow and declare his shark jumped, except he keeps dominating the campaign and the conversation, and they have no clue whether to engage, attack, ignore or suck up in response. It is a dilemma for the elected leaders, campaign strategists, credentialed pundits and assorted parasites of the ‘‘establishment.’’ They have a certain set of expectations, unwritten rules and ways of doing things that Trump keeps flouting in the most indelicate of ways. And, of course, it is a dilemma for the media, who fear abetting a circus. This is why The Huffington Post announced in July that it would publish stories about Trump only in its ‘‘entertainment’’ section, so that when it all ended, as it surely would soon, the website could remain pristine and on the side of the high-minded. A similar sort of worry prevented me from writing about Trump throughout his rise this summer. Initially, I dismissed him as a nativist clown, a chief perpetrator of the false notion that President Obama was not born in the United States — the ‘‘birther’’ movement. And I was, of course, way too incredibly serious and high-minded to ever sully myself by getting so close to Donald Trump.
I initially doubted that he would even run. I assumed that his serial and public flirtations with the idea over several election cycles were just another facet of his existential publicity sustenance. I figured that even if Trump did run, his conspiracy-mongering, reality-show orientations and garish tabloid sensibilities would make him unacceptable to the polite company of American politics and mainstream media. It would render him a fringe player. So I decided not to write about him, and I felt proud and honorable about my decision.
In June, Trump, who is now 69, actually declared that he would run for president. The big crowds, soaring poll numbers and magazine covers started a few weeks later, and I began to wonder if I had been too rash in disregarding him. The problem was that having decided not to write about him, I couldn’t start now. What were the chances that he would still be around by the time I was done? He kept touching supposed third rails — calling illegal immigrants rapists and criminals in his announcement speech, questioning whether John McCain was really a war hero (‘‘I like people who weren’t captured’’) and seeming to suggest that a moderator of the first Republican debate, Megyn Kelly of Fox News, asked him uncomfortable questions because she was menstruating.
And yet his lead in the polls kept growing. He was impolite company personified, and many Republican voters were absolutely loving him for that. They seemed to be saying en masse that even if Trump could be crass and offensive at times (or, in his case, on message), could he possibly be any worse than what politics in general had become?
I encountered the phenomenon up close at the first Republican debate, on Aug. 6 in Cleveland. I positioned myself in the post-debate ‘‘spin room,’’ the area where campaign surrogates spew their customized nonsense to media types. The candidates themselves almost never venture in. But suddenly, at the end of the night, a literal stampede was rumbling toward a far corner of the room, where Trump had crashed this assembly of polite company. I have seen many press scrums, but never like this. It was scary. People were tripping, falling and being shoved out of the way. Cameras were dropped. What I saw was polite routines and traditions breaking down as the American political order reoriented itself around a new center of gravity. As the shouts and cries intensified, I found myself being drawn toward the bedlam.
In the months since, Trump has grown into a kind of one-man chaos theory at the center of a primary campaign in disarray. The solemn party leaders desperately want him to go away; the consultant and donor class feel irrelevant (because they largely are to Trump); even Fox News, with which he episodically feuds, seems rattled. At the first sign that, after an uninspired performance in the second debate, Trump’s poll numbers were stalled, pundits on the left and the right rushed to declare yet another ‘‘beginning of the end’’ for Trump. And still he leads in every poll, and it’s October, and it keeps going. Where does this end? I kept asking Trump this as we sat around his office and rode around in limousines and airplanes. ‘‘I have no idea,’’ he always said, sometimes modifying the noun with a big, unclassy profanity. ‘‘But I’m here now. And it’s beautiful.’’
It was early September when we met for the first time in his 26th-floor office in Trump Tower. When I walked in, Trump had the legendary college basketball coach Bobby Knight paying homage to him over speakerphone. Knight, who had never met Trump, apparently called him out of the blue to offer his support. I was slightly dubious about how ‘‘out of the blue’’ this really was, given how perfectly it was timed to my arrival, but Knight delivered a stirring tribute regardless. ‘‘No one has accomplished more than Mr. Trump has,’’ Knight raved after Trump informed him that a reporter was in the room. Trump nodded and motioned to the phone and made sure I had my recorder running. ‘‘What a great honor, man,’’ Trump said. ‘‘I will talk to you soon, and I won’t forget that you called. Thanks, Bobby.’’
Trump is 6-foot-3 and looks taller in person than you might expect, in part because he is all head, hair and flattened, squinty expressions behind the tables and lecterns where we typically experience him. He was standing behind a desk cluttered with papers, piles of recent magazines with him on the cover and a Trump bobblehead doll. ‘‘You ever see guys with nothing on their desk?’’ he said by way of explaining his messy one. ‘‘They always fail. I don’t know what it is. I’ve seen it for years.’’
Trump motioned to the gallery of magazine covers on the wall next to him, which included an issue of Playboy from 1990 (‘‘And that’s when it wasreally Playboy’’) and another of Trump on the front of The New York Times Magazine in 1984. ‘‘I’ve had much more than 15 minutes of fame, that’s for sure,’’ he said. Trump can be hyper-solicitous of the press. His orbit is largely free of handlers and is very much his own production, down to his tweets — which he types or dictates himself. I asked Trump if his campaign conducted focus groups. I knew what his answer would be but asked anyway. ‘‘I do focus groups,’’ he said, pressing both thumbs against his forehead, ‘‘right here.’’
Getting close to Trump is nothing like the teeth-pulling exercise that it can be to get any meaningful exposure to a candidate like, say, Hillary Clinton. This is a seductive departure in general for political reporters accustomed to being ignored, patronized and offered sound bites to a point of lobotomy by typical politicians and the human straitjackets that surround them. In general, Trump understands and appreciates that reporters like to be given the time of day. It’s symbiotic in his case because he does in fact pay obsessive attention to what is said and written and tweeted about him. Trump is always saying that so-and-so TV pundit ‘‘spoke very nicely’’ about him on some morning show and that some other writer ‘‘who used to kill me’’ has now come around to ‘‘loving me.’’ There is a ‘‘Truman Show’’ aspect to this, except Trump is the director — continually selling, narrating and spinning his story while he lives it.
With me, Trump toggled often between on and off the record, one of which seemed only marginally more sensitive than the other, but with enough difference to indicate that he is capable of calculating from word to word and knowing where certain lines are. At one point, Trump declared himself to be ‘‘semi off the record’’ (it wasn’t that interesting, or even semi-interesting). He kept browbeating me to ‘‘write fairly’’ about him, meaning that I should do a full and proper rendering of the Trump Phenomenon — the full degree to which it is, as he so often says, yooooge. Otherwise it would be ‘‘disgusting,’’ as it was recently when a reporter described a ‘‘smattering of applause’’ that he received at an event in Iowa, when in fact it was much more than a ‘‘smattering’’ — trust him. ‘‘I don’t do smatterings,’’ he said, spitting out the word.
As I surveyed the magazine covers on the wall and endured his running boasts, I wondered aloud whether Americans might not prefer a more humble brand of chief executive, feigned or otherwise. ‘‘Nope,’’ he sneered. ‘‘They want success. They wanted humility in the past. They wanted a nice person’’ (for the record, he added, ‘‘I am a nice person’’). But what they really want is someone who can win, as Trump always does. ‘‘We’re going to have so many victories, you will be bored of winning.’’
I asked whether he had ever experienced self-doubt. The question seemed to catch Trump off guard, and he flashed a split second of, if not vulnerability, maybe nonswagger. ‘‘Yes, I think more than people would think,’’ he told me. When? ‘‘I don’t want to talk about it.’’ He shrug-smirked. ‘‘Because, you know — probably more than people would think. I understand how life can go. Things can happen.’’ This was a rare moment when Trump’s voice trailed off, even slightly. He then handed me a sheet of new polling data that someone had put on his desk. ‘‘Beautiful numbers,’’ he said, inviting me to take them with me.
A curious feature of the mob scene that has surrounded Trump at most public events since August is that people keep handing him money to sign. I first witnessed this on Sept. 11, a day of national mourning. Trump was working his way through the lobby of Rockefeller Center after taping an appearance on ‘‘The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon,’’ and a boisterous crowd had been waiting for him. One building security guard described the commotion to me as ‘‘Justin Bieber level.’’ It consisted heavily of tourists and foreign visitors, many of them young. There were the usual paparazzi, and some shouted questions. But what struck me about this Trumpus Ruckus were the dollar bills. Trump signed one after another, and the recipients clutched and cherished them like winning lottery tickets. ‘‘Look, a hundred-dollar bill?’’ Trump said, showing me a C-note that a woman from Long Island had handed him to sign. You don’t often see politicians signing money. If asked, some will refuse — I’ve seen Hillary Clinton do this — possibly because it is technically illegal to deface currency. But it is a fitting souvenir from one of the high priests of the nation’s secular religion: aspirational consumerism. Reagan was a capitalist and a free-market icon, but conspicuous consumption (as people used to call it) was a benefit of American freedom and prosperity, not a national objective or a virtue in itself. Not so much with Trump, who of course owns many beautiful, classy things. There is a certain prosperity-theology aspect to Trump’s appeal, the idea that you follow a minister because he is rich and has his own plane and implicitly and sometimes explicitly promises that you, too, will be rich.
And yet, throughout his rise, Trump has been labeled a ‘‘populist.’’ I had always equated populism with economic uprisings by the disenfranchised against the privileged. Trump, who grew up in Queens as a son of a wealthy real estate developer, promotes his astronomical wealth, elite academic credentials and ‘‘good genes’’ (‘‘my uncle was a professor at M.I.T., he was the smartest guy up there’’). He is, presumably, the first ‘‘populist’’ presidential candidate to mention his degree from Wharton at a campaign rally in Alabama. Certainly, there have been other rich-guy populists, like Ross Perot. And previous populist movements have, like Trump’s, been driven in part by stoking fear of ‘‘the other’’ (in Trump’s case, his bare-knuckled attacks on the undocumented immigrants who have made the United States ‘‘a dumping ground for the rest of the world’’).
But while populism is often associated with grass-roots movements, Trump’s brand of it flows not from the ground up, as did Obama’s campaign in 2008 or even the Tea Party movement in subsequent years. Rather, Trump’s is pure media populism, a cult of personality whose following has been built over decades. The popularity of Trump’s NBC reality franchise, ‘‘The Apprentice,’’ for instance, made him a potent cultural persona; the power of that persona (the frowning, pitiless boss) might actually outweigh the customary strategic imperatives (message discipline, donor bases) that the political wiseguys like to get all aroused about. In large measure, the core of Trump’s phenomenon is his celebrity itself, which, in today’s America, is in fact as populist as it gets.
Out on the sidewalk of Rockefeller Center, the horde for Trump was edgier and included several protesters. There were chants (‘‘Trump’s a racist’’), taunts (‘‘Donald, you want to deport me?’’) and placards (‘‘You’re not hired’’). A few protesters moved in and shouted within a few feet of Trump as he made his way into the back of his stretch limo for the short drive back to his tower. Seated serenely, he betrayed no sense whatsoever that he had just fled a tumultuous and slightly menacing situation to find sanctuary behind tinted glass. ‘‘There’s something happening here,’’ he told me.
There was pounding on the side of the vehicle as we pulled away. Hope Hicks, Trump’s 26-year-old publicist and a former Ralph Lauren model, sat opposite us; next to her, Corey Lewandowski, Trump’s wiry wisp of a buzz-cut campaign manager, was buried deep in his iPhone. After a few seconds in the quiet of his limo, Trump suddenly seemed deprived of oxygen. He kept opening the window to inhale more pandemonium and sign more magazine covers of himself. ‘‘Donald! Selfie!’’ a woman yelled and stuck her head in. Trump obliged before sealing the window again.
‘‘Our country needs to be glamorized,’’ Trump said, turning to me. Hicks interjected that Bloomberg Politics had recently conducted a focus group of New Hampshire voters, in which a woman used the word ‘‘classy’’ to describe a potential Trump presidency.
As we inched along a side street, Trump said he believed there was a crisis in the way America and the presidency are imagined by customers at home and abroad. ‘‘The branding of our country is at an all-time low,’’ Trump said. ‘‘Now, ‘branding’ might not be the most beautiful word to use, but the fact is the country has been labeled so badly.’’
Trump makes no attempt to cloak his love of fame and, admirably, will not traffic in that tiresome politicians’ notion that his campaign is ‘‘not about me, it’s about you.’’ The ease with which Trump exhibits, and inhabits, his self-regard is not only central to his ‘‘brand’’ but also highlights a kind of honesty about him. He can even seem hostile to any notion of himself as humble servant — that example of modesty that George Washington and Abraham Lincoln strove for.
he idea of a president as Everyman stands at odds with his glamorized vision for the nation. The president should be a man apart, exceptional and resplendent in every way. ‘‘Jimmy Carter used to get off Air Force One carrying his luggage,’’ Trump said. ‘‘I used to say, ‘I don’t want a president carrying his luggage.’ ’’ Carter was a nice man, Trump allowed. ‘‘But we want someone who is going to go out and kick ass and win.’’ Which apparently cannot be done by someone ‘‘who’s gonna come off carrying a large bag of underwear.’’
Hicks pointed out that a few stragglers from 30 Rock were now running on foot after the limo on Sixth Avenue. ‘‘Look at these people,’’ Trump said, turning around to see them. ‘‘It’s literally a little bit sad.’’ The stragglers finally caught the limo at a red light, and Trump opened the window to sign autographs for them. ‘‘How much are you gonna sell this for?’’ he asked.
‘‘America is tired of being pushed into a corner,’’ Matt Yelland, a 60-year-old electrical engineer was telling me before Trump took the stage at the American Airlines Center in Dallas in mid-September. We were just days from the debate at the Reagan Library, and a crowd of some 17,000 had gathered for a rally. Behind Yelland, a man flashed a ‘‘Silent Majority Is Getting Louder’’ sign, alluding to the old Nixonian notion — the Silent Majority — that Trump has identified as both a campaign slogan and a target market. ‘‘We’re a gentle dog, but we’re tired of being pushed around,’’ Yelland said.
This was a common sentiment among Trump supporters I met, a group that felt worn down from being bullied. Implicit in the campaign’s ‘‘Make America Great Again’’ rallying cry is a yearning for a leader to restore a lost swagger — a return to a less complex, less politically correct and more secure nation. Trump’s war on political correctness is especially pleasing to many of the white voters of the G.O.P. who feel usurped by newcomers and silenced by the progressive gains that women, Hispanics and gays have enjoyed. It also provides a kind of permission structure for Trump to offend in the guise of ‘‘telling it like it is’’ and only enhances the reality-TV plotline. What will he say next? How will he say it?
Trump’s speech in Dallas, a 70-minute stemwinder, came out like a zigzagging rocket attack against the many sectors of the political establishment. If, as Mario Cuomo said, a politician campaigns in poetry and governs in prose, we can shove that notion aside in the case of Donald Trump. He campaigns in poetry in much the same way a wild hog sips chardonnay. He ridiculed John Kerry for breaking his leg in a bicycle accident during the Iran nuclear negotiations — so weak and pathetic. ‘‘The people from Iran say, ‘What a schmuck,’ ’’ Trump said of the secretary of state.
But what was more compelling to me about both the speech and the spirit of the room was how nonideological it all was. Other than undocumented immigrants, who represent a go-to boogeyman for the right, Trump’s targets consisted of a bipartisan assembly of the ‘‘permanent political class’’ that Joan Didion described in her book ‘‘Political Fictions’’: that incestuous band of TV talkers, campaign strategists and candidates that had ‘‘rigged the game’’ and perpetuated the scripted awfulness of our politics. ‘‘Everyone knows that what you see in politics is fake or confected,’’ Didion wrote. ‘‘But everyone’s O.K. with that, because it’s all been focus-grouped.’’
Resentment of this class has built over several years. It has been expressed on both sides, by the rise of insurgent movements like the Tea Party and Occupy Wall Street (Trump’s railing against fund-raiser ‘‘blood money,’’ ‘‘bloodsucker’’ lobbyists and Wall Street ‘‘paper pushers’’ would play well across the board). As a reporter in Washington, I, too, have grown exceedingly weary of this world — the familiar faces, recycled tropes and politics as usual — and here was none other than Donald J. Trump, the billionaire blowhard whom I had resisted as a cartoonish demagogue, defiling it with resonance. He tacked not to the left or to the right, but against the ‘‘losers’’ and ‘‘scumbags’’ in the various chapters of the club: the pundits who ‘‘wear heavy glasses’’ and ‘‘sit around the table,’’ the ‘‘political hacks’’ selling out American interests overseas. Karl Rove ‘‘is a totally incompetent jerk,’’ Trump told the crowd in Dallas, referring to the Fox News commentator and chief Republican strategist of the George W. Bush years. The crowd went nuts at the Rove put-down, which in itself is remarkable — the ‘‘architect’’ of Bush’s political ride being abused by a right-leaning crowd in Bush’s home state.
It was at this point that I began to feel glad I decided to write about Trump, who seemed to have clearly seized on some profound exhaustion with our politics. There’s very little difference between Trump when he’s not running for president and Trump now that he is running for president, except that he makes more public appearances. Trump is the same boorish, brash and grandiose showman we’ve known across many realms. And for some reason, that character has proved an incendiary match with this political moment. It was a repeat of what I saw that night of the first debate, when the whole room abandoned the professional campaign surrogates in favor of the blazing chaos of Trump himself. Was Trump the logical byproduct of a cancerous system in which American democracy has mutated into a gold rush of cheap celebrity, wealth creation and narcissistic branding madness? Or has he merely wielded the tools of this transformation — his money, celebrity and dominance of the media — against the forces that have engendered this disgust in the system to begin with?
Either way, Trump left the rally to sustained applause as two songs played back to back: Twisted Sister’s ‘‘We’re Not Gonna Take It’’ and Aerosmith’s ‘‘Dream On.’’
‘‘There was good energy in that room!’’ Trump told me from the passenger seat of a Suburban as we left the arena after the rally. He exuded the red-faced giddiness of a teenager who can’t quite believe what’s happening to him. ‘‘You never get a crowd like that without a guitar.’’ He reported that his wife, who watched his speech on cable, ‘‘said I got an A-plus.’’
We were headed to Love Field, where Trump’s Boeing 757 was waiting to ferry us the rest of the way to Southern California for the debate. A small group of gawkers stood along the fence line, snapping pictures of the sleek jet with a big ‘‘T’’ on the tail and a gold-painted ‘‘Trump’’ on the side. Trump was eager to show me his plane — the conference room and the sleeping quarters, the mohair and silk couches and the gold-plated seatbelts.
‘‘Do you want to wash your hands or something?’’ Trump asked when I joined him in the main cabin. Trump hates germs (‘‘I am very, very clean’’). He was also hungry. He barreled back to a pantry area arrayed with tin trays of chicken, shrimp, sea bass and chateaubriand. ‘‘Beautiful stuff,’’ Trump marveled over the spread. ‘‘There’s more food than it’syooooomanly possible to eat.’’ He shoveled big spoons of potato au gratin onto his plate and then turned to the shrimp. ‘‘You like shrimp?’’ he said. He urged me to indulge, just as long as I did not double-dip in the cocktail sauce. This is a pet issue for him. He was recently at a cocktail party, and they were passing around hors d’oeuvres. ‘‘This big, heavy guy takes the shrimp, puts it in, bit it and puts it in again,’’ he told me. Trump was appalled at the repeat dunking, even in the retelling. ‘‘I said, ‘You just [expletive] double-dipped!’ He didn’t know what I was talking about.’’
Trump said he was not following any special diet or exercise regimen for the campaign. ‘‘All my friends who work out all the time, they’re going for knee replacements, hip replacements — they’re a disaster,’’ he said. He exerts himself fully by standing in front of an audience for an hour, as he just did. ‘‘That’s exercise.’’ Nor did Trump show much interest in going through the traditional paces of preparing for a presidential debate, which was now 48 hours away. CNN moderators could ask him a million different questions, he said. It makes no sense to lock yourself into a room with briefing books and 20 experts. ‘‘That’s what Romney did, and he was unable to speak,’’ Trump said.
Instead, Trump took his mountain of food and parked himself on a couch next to the big-screen TV. He spent a good part of the three-hour flight staring up into the giant image of Donald J. Trump giving his speech. He kept flipping between Fox News, CNN and MSNBC, sampling the commentary in tiny snippets. Whenever a new talking head came on screen, Trump offered a scouting report based on the overriding factor of how he or she had treated him. ‘‘This guy’s been great to me,’’ he said when Bill O’Reilly of Fox appeared (less so O’Reilly’s guest, Brit Hume, also of Fox). Kevin Madden of CNN, a Republican strategist, was a ‘‘pure Romney guy,’’ while Ana Navarro, a Republican media consultant and Jeb Bush supporter, was ‘‘so bad, so pathetic, awful — I don’t know why she’s on television.’’ Click to Fox News. Jeb Bush was saying something in Spanish. Click to MSNBC. Hillary Clinton was saying she wished Trump would start ‘‘respecting women’’ rather than ‘‘cherishing women.’’ (‘‘She speaks so poorly, I think she’s in trouble,’’ Trump said.) Click to CNN. It showed a graphic reporting that 70 percent of Latinos had a negative view of Trump. Click to Fox News. Trump asked for another plate of au gratin.
After an hour, as Trump continued to watch himself on TV, I tried to draw out some of the particulars of his big, great plans. We were at the part of the rebroadcast in which Trump was discussing people whose families had been ‘‘decimated’’ by illegal immigrants, the emotional apex of his speech. He described illegal-immigrant ‘‘rough dudes’’ that join street gangs and commit murder. When Trump is president, ‘‘they will be out of here so freaking fast,’’ he said in the speech. I asked Trump how he planned to round up and eject these thugs. ‘‘Just get ’em out,’’ he said, waving his hand, not looking away from the screen.
It can be difficult to picture Trump, such a pop-culture showman, presiding over the kinds of presidency-defining ‘‘moments’’ that require solemn empathy. I mentioned Obama after the shooting this summer at a church in Charleston, S.C., or George W. Bush at ground zero in the days after the Sept. 11 attacks. Empathy, he assured me, ‘‘will be one of the strongest things about Trump.’’ But for now, he is in sales mode, trying to convince people that he can do a job. ‘‘When I’m in that position, when we have horrible hurricanes, all kinds of horrible things happen, you’ve got to have empathy.’’
Trump returned to watching himself on the big screen. He was delivering the crescendo of his speech, about how they were all part of a movement to take back the country. ‘‘We will make America great again,’’ he said. Looking up, Trump was pleased.
‘‘Very presidential,’’ he said.
Donald Trump is a dilemma because of the sheer exhaustion he elicits. Every day, there is a fresh feud, a new provocation, an ‘‘inartful description’’ or a ‘‘disgusting’’ story about him somewhere. Not long after I returned from California, there were indications that the Summer of Trump might finally be ceding to a harsher autumn. His lead showed signs of slipping after the last debate. There were slightly tightening polls. He had resorted to taunting Marco Rubio, who was polling better after the debate, for, among other things, sweating a lot.
Still, Trump kept having his aides send me the latest ‘‘beautiful polls.’’ I talked briefly to him before he went on ‘‘The Late Show With Stephen Colbert.’’ ‘‘We did really well in the Morning Consult poll,’’ he told me. ‘‘I guess you saw that one.’’ I observed to Trump that I had never encountered a candidate who talked so much to me about the latest polls. He knew precisely why that was. ‘‘That’s because they’re not leading,’’ he said. Trump signed off by saying that he hoped my article would be fair and added that there was no reason it shouldn’t be. ‘‘I’ve done nothing bad,’’ he told me. ‘‘What have I done bad?’’
How do you answer that question? Trump might be the single most self-involved yet least introspective person I have ever met in my life, in or out of politics. I’m guessing he would say this is a good quality in a president. It spares him unglamorous dilemmas. But it’s unsettling to encounter a prospective leader whose persona is so conspicuous and well defined and yet whose core is so obtuse. The Obama political acolyte David Axelrod has likened campaigns to ‘‘an M.R.I. for the soul.’’ If that’s the case, maybe the most fascinating question for Trump is not where this all ends up, but what his expedition reveals about Donald Trump’s soul, if it reveals anything at all. ‘‘Some people think this will be good for my brand,’’ Trump concluded, as deep as he probes. ‘‘I think it’s irrelevant for my brand.’’
My lasting image from my travels with Trump was imprinted on me after we landed in Los Angeles late on the night of the Dallas rally. Trump, who says he regularly operates on four hours of sleep, appeared to be dragging for the first time. His face was flush, and his barreling gait had slowed as he crossed the tarmac into a waiting car. At the last minute, one of Trump’s aides invited me to ride with Trump to Beverly Hills, where he owns a mansion. I had planned on getting a cab, and in fact was eager to be alone and also leave Trump in peace after an 18-hour day. But it was tricky to get to the terminal, where the cabs were, so it was just easier to ride — again — with Trump.
‘‘Don’t speak,’’ Trump instructed me as I sat down next to him in a Suburban. That was fine by me. None of the five staff members and security people in the vehicle said a word. We sat, per Trump’s dictate, in silence for the half-hour drive. It was almost comforting to me that he would take a break from being Donald, the Brand, and turn relatively ‘‘off’’ in my presence; that he could, as much as he ever does, retreat into himself. I wondered what he was thinking about.
After a few minutes, I saw Trump staring down into a phone glowing up into his shiny face. I checked my phone, too. ‘‘Speech in Dallas went really well,’’ it said in my Twitter feed, courtesy of @realDonaldTrump, who was tweeting next to me in the dark.