|Donald & Marla, 1990|
One night in 1990, my Presbyterian minister wife and I were seated on the couch, watching raptly along with thirty million Americans as Diane Sawyer scored her exclusive interview with the woman of the hour -- Marla Maples, the girlfriend of Donald Trump. The real estate mogul was leaving his wife Ivana for this foxy anonymous model, and the nation was transfixed. The tale was taking on biblical proportions, like David and Bathsheba.
Suddenly I sat up. What the hell were we doing? Neither of us cared a fig for moguls or models. How had this semi-scandalous affair become a national obsession? How had it sucked us in?
Well, it wasn't her. Marla soon faded back into anonymity, just another ex-wife. But the Donald never went away. I can't stand him, never want to be in the same room with him, cringe with terror at the thought of his becoming president. But like millions of hapless onlookers, I still can't take my eyeballs off him. What is going on?
"I'm very rich." "I'm pretty!" "I'm very smart." "I am the greatest."
These well-known quotes come from two famous Americans who otherwise could not be more unlike. The first and third are from the Donald, the others from Muhammad Ali. I loved Ali, and wince even to put his name in the same sentence with Trump's. Ali knew what he was doing and was indeed the greatest at it, champion of the world. He was brave, ironical, witty, and acutely in tune with reality -- as he told Playboy magazine in 1975, "this is one nigger they're not gonna get."
Playboy Trump is cowardly, witless, inarticulate, detached from reality, a draft dodger rather than a conscientious objector. But they do have one vital trait in common. What, you ask?
My friend (back slap!) it is simple. Some call it ego, or vanity, or narcissism -- but it is best known by its plain American name: Confidence.
Confidence has nothing to do with self-esteem, or self-knowledge. Those are deep, confidence is shallow -- based not on self-regard, but self-centered indifference to others. It is the feeling -- true or false -- that your act will go over, your shtick will click, you are irresistible in some way, even to those who hate you. You are irresistible because you have what everyone else wants. To believe in yourself without reservations, to truly hold the thought that you are the greatest, is the real American Dream, the apogee of self-reliance, independence, freedom.
In the end, baseball ended for the Babe, boxing caught up with Ali. But their confidence survived, because it was unconditional -- not dependent on anyone's validation. And so is the Donald's.
Demographics will probably defeat him in November, but he will not learn his lesson and go away. (If he loses, she cheated.) His loathsomeness will live on, animated by pure ego, rolling down the road like a Cadillac hubcap, celebrating and singing itself, America singing, loud and blissfully out of tune...
Copyright 2016 by Tom Phillips