eyes on the U.S.

A Mean Life: Donald Trump And The Purpose Of Politics

Trump makes his case
Trump makes his case
Robert Samuels and Shawn Boburg
NEW YORK â€" In October 1980, in his first major interview on network television, Donald Trump sat on a couch in his Fifth Avenue apartment discussing the tough decisions he had made as a builder. ("Rona Barrett Looks at Today's Super Rich" would air the following year.) Then the 34-year-old Trump abruptly turned the casual interview into something more controversial: a lecture on the lack of leadership in the United States.

Gas prices were soaring, and inflation was rampant. More than four dozen Americans who had been kidnapped from the U.S. Embassy in Iran were being held hostage while, according to Trump, "we just sit back and take everybody's abuse. . . . I just don't feel the country is going forward in the proper direction."

Barrett was taken aback by Trump's shift to politics. "Would you like to be president of the United States?" she asked.

No, he said. Politics was a "mean life. . . . Abraham Lincoln would probably not be electable today because of television. He was not a handsome man, and he did not smile at all." Trump said he knew people who would be "excellent" presidents because they were "extraordinarily brilliant . . . very, very confident . . . and have the respect of everybody." None of them would seek the office because of the media scrutiny, which he called a tragedy.

"One man could turn this country around. The one proper president could turn this country around," he said.

Trump would spend decades waiting for him.

This story is based on reporting for "Trump Revealed," a broad, comprehensive examination of the life of the presumptive Republican nominee for president. The biography, written by Washington Post reporters Michael Kranish and Marc Fisher in a collaboration with more than two dozen Post reporters, researchers and editors, is scheduled to be published by Scribner on Aug. 23.

Since his rise as a businessman in the 1980s, Trump showed few constants when it came to politics, with one exception: He tried to align himself with winners, people who could raise his profile and further his business goals. He teetered back and forth between political parties and offered conflicting clues about his core beliefs, from health care to abortion rights. Trump helped candidates on opposite ends of the political spectrum with money and endorsements, while often expressing concern that the country was losing its spirit and its stature.

Seven years after Trump's Rona Barrett interview, in the spring of 1987, Michael Dunbar, a furniture-maker in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, tried to convince Trump that he was the man who could turn things around. The Republican Party activist became fascinated by news reports about Trump's business acumen and personality. He sent out mailers encouraging Republicans to "draft Trump." Friends told him the idea was laughable, but Dunbar invited Trump to speak to the local Rotary Club. Trump, intrigued, invited Dunbar to discuss the idea at Trump Tower that summer.

In his 26th-floor office, Trump offered Dunbar a Diet Coke as they talked over the plan: Trump would fly his private helicopter to a New Hampshire airfield, speak to the Rotary crowd at Yoken's restaurant and hold a news conference. They had a deal.

A few weeks later, Trump took out full-page ads opining on foreign policy in three major newspapers. "There's nothing wrong with America's Foreign Defense Policy that a little backbone can't cure," he wrote in the ads, which cost a combined $95,000. He questioned why the United States continued to provide military funds to Japan and Saudi Arabia and implored: "Let's not let our great country be laughed at anymore."

The image of the rest of the world laughing at U.S. leaders would become an enduring theme in Trump's political rhetoric. This time, it came in the seventh year of Ronald Reagan's presidency, just weeks before the publication of Trump's book "The Art of the Deal," in which Trump called Reagan a smooth performer but questioned whether "there's anything beneath that smile."

Donald Trump meets Ronald Reagan in 1987 â€" Photo: White House

On the day Trump's foreign policy ads appeared, he told reporters that he would travel to New Hampshire. He was asked whether he was running for office. "There is absolutely no plan to run for mayor, governor or United States senator," an unidentified spokesman replied. "He will not comment about the presidency."

On the bright morning of Oct. 22, 1987, Trump's helicopter landed at a New Hampshire airfield, where a limousine paid for by Dunbar ferried him to Yoken's restaurant. There, a waiting crowd held placards that said, "Vote Trump for President" and "Vote for an En-"TRUMP"-eneur." In his talk, Trump reprised themes from his advertisements. But he then told the assembled reporters: "I am not interested in running for president."

Dunbar wondered why Trump had even bothered coming to New Hampshire. Was it just a promotional gambit for his book? He later received a copy of Trump's book, inscribed "To Michael: I really appreciate your friendship - You've created a very exciting part of my life - on to the future." Dunbar hoped he had planted a seed.

Trump's brief flirtation with a run for office was over, but he reveled in the curiosity about his emerging political ambitions. Promoting his book, he would continually repeat his stances on issues such as trade. "This sounds like political, presidential talk to me," Oprah Winfrey told Trump when he appeared on her popular talk show in the spring of 1988.

"I just probably wouldn't do it," Trump said, ". . . but I do get tired of seeing what's happening with this country. And if it got so bad, I would never want to rule it out totally."

A few months later, Trump attended his first Republican convention, as George H.W. Bush accepted the party's nomination for the presidency. During an interview on CNN, talk-show host Larry King asked Trump why he was there. Trump said he wanted to see "how the system works." King wanted to know if Trump classified himself as an "Eastern Republican" or a "Rockefeller/Chase Manhattan Republican," shorthand for the liberal wing of the GOP.

"I never thought about it in those terms," Trump replied.

How about a "Bush Republican?" King asked.

Trump, who boasted of his great wealth, decided to cast himself as a man of the people: "You know, wealthy people don't like me because I'm competing against them all the time . . . and I like to win. The fact is, I go down the streets of New York, and the people that really like me are the taxi drivers and the workers."

"Then why are you a Republican?" King asked.

"I have no idea," Trump said. "I'm a Republican because I just believe in certain principles of the Republican Party."

Amazing Bill

Trump became a vocal supporter of Bill Clinton in the late 1990s. "I think Bill Clinton is terrific," Trump said Dec. 27, 1997, on CNN's political talk show "Evans & Novak." "I think he's done an amazing job. I think he's probably got the toughest skin I've ever seen, and I think he's a terrific guy."

One month later, reports surfaced that Clinton had had a secret sexual relationship with an intern named Monica Lewinsky, beginning when she was 22 years old in 1995 and lasting more than two years. Trump was unperturbed. "The best thing he has going is the fact that the economy's doing great," Trump said in August 1998, days after Clinton finally admitted a relationship with Lewinsky. "I've never seen anything like it. You know, they talked about the "80s were good. The "90s are better." Trump suggested that if he were a candidate, he would face similar controversy: "Can you imagine how controversial that'd be? You think about him with the women. How about me with the women?"

As a new election approached, Roger Stone, Trump's longtime lobbyist, examined the potential field, led by Republican George W. Bush and Democrat Al Gore. Stone said that this could be Trump's moment and that the path forward might be within a third party. Ross Perot, a Texas billionaire with no political experience, had won nearly 19 percent of the vote in 1992, and Jesse Ventura, a professional wrestler Trump knew from his involvement with WrestleMania, had improbably won the governorship of Minnesota in 1998 on the Reform Party ticket. Ventura had made his name parading in a feather boa and mocking Hulk Hogan as a World Wrestling Federation commentator. If Ventura could go from being known as "The Body" to being called "The Governing Body," maybe Trump could become president.

On Oct. 8, 1999, Trump announced on "Larry King Live" that he was leaving the Republican Party to join the Reform Party and was forming an exploratory committee to run for president. He made a U-turn on Clinton, calling the previous four years "disgusting" and professing Reagan as his role model because he had helped to regenerate the spirit of the country. Trump said his main competitor for the Reform Party nomination, Pat Buchanan, was too divisive. Trump insisted that he, on the other hand, was all about inclusiveness.

Who, King asked, would Trump pick as his vice-presidential candidate? Trump named Oprah Winfrey.

Although he called himself conservative, Trump was floating many liberal ideas. In the Advocate, a gay-oriented news magazine, he took issue with how Buchanan talked about "Jews, blacks, gays, and Mexicans." Trump called himself a conciliator, saying he would extend the Civil Rights Act to include protections for gay people and would allow them to serve openly in the military, repealing "don't ask, don't tell," the Clinton-era policy that had lifted a ban on gays in the military but forbade them from talking about their orientation while in the service. Trump also called for universal health care and the protection of Social Security, through a one-time tax on the super-wealthy and new money generated by renegotiating trade agreements.

A woman's right

Two weeks after Trump announced his exploratory committee, he appeared on "Meet the Press," where the moderator, Tim Russert, pressed him on a range of issues. At one point, Trump said he supported a right to partial-birth abortion, a procedure in which the fetus is partially removed from the womb before it is aborted. Stone, Trump's political adviser, accompanied him to the interview. When the two left the studio, Stone said, Trump admitted that he didn't know what partial-birth abortion was.

In another book published in January 2000, Trump clarified that he supported a ban on partial-birth abortion after learning more about it. And he said that while he was "uncomfortable" with abortion, "I support a woman's right to choose."

Trump's quasi-campaign traveled to Minnesota for a January 2000 meeting with his role model, Ventura, and his campaign staffers. Trump told them he wanted to learn how a man who started at the bottom of the polls, who was deemed by some to be a joke, ended up as governor. Dean Barkley, who had chaired Ventura's campaign, advised Trump: "Just be honest. It's not what you say, but how you say it. And talk to the public, not at them."

Later that afternoon, Trump and Ventura appeared at a lunch for the local chamber of commerce. Trump the listener was gone; the showbiz Trump had returned. He mocked the Republican candidates, winning laughs: "Are these people stiffs or what?"

But Trump eventually chose not to run. On Feb. 19, 2000, he wrote an op-ed in The New York Times in which he said that his exploratory campaign was the "greatest civics lesson that a private citizen can have." But he was not sure a third-party candidate could win.

Although he had already pulled out of the race, Trump's name remained on the Reform Party ballot in Michigan and California. He won both primaries.

Before he decided to run for office, Trump's political donations were a cost of doing business, suggesting that his practice of politics was transactional, not ideological. He hosted fundraisers and invited politicians to weddings. "I give to everybody. When they call, I give," Trump said. "And you know what? When I need something from them - two years later, three years later - I call them. They are there for me."

Trump and his major companies gave at least $3.1 million to local, state and federal candidates from both parties between 1995 and 2016, not including donations that may have flowed through the scores of limited-liability corporations that Trump controlled.

He donated to Hillary Clinton when she was running to be a U.S. senator from New York. Asked if he voted for her, Trump said: "I never say who I'm going to vote for." He did say in a separate interview, however, that his votes for president were consistently Republican. Although he said he lost respect for the younger President Bush because of his handling of the war in Iraq, which he later called a "disaster," he said he voted for Bush again in 2004 because he felt it was important to "carry the Republican line." Recalling the 2004 vote, Trump said he showed his distance from Bush by not throwing fundraisers for him.

Trump's public statements sent mixed signals about his political leanings. In 2006, he told The New York Times that Sen. John McCain, who would become the 2008 Republican presidential nominee, could not win because he advocated sending more troops to Iraq. Trump praised the future Democratic nominee, then-Sen. Barack Obama, for his "wonderful qualities." Nonetheless, Trump contributed $3,600 to McCain during the 2008 campaign and said he voted for him.

Trump in 2011 â€" Photo: Mark Taylor

Trump changed parties seven times between 1999 and 2012, starting when he left the GOP to consider a run under the Reform Party banner. After registering as a Democrat in 2001, he switched back to the Republicans in 2003. He became a Democrat again in 2005 and a Republican in 2009. He chose not to be affiliated with any party in 2011. Asked what he would say to critics who saw the constant party-switching as proof that he had no core beliefs, Trump responded: "I think it had to do more with practicality because if you're going to run for office, you would have had to make friends."

Then he returned to the GOP in 2012, once again stoking speculation that he had his sights on the presidency.

Trump's celebrity status promptly put him among the 2012 front-runners. An NBC News-Wall Street Journal survey of early-primary-state Republican voters released in April 2011 showed him tied for second place behind Mitt Romney. Among tea party supporters, Trump led the field. And his positions became more aligned with conservatives: Now he was against abortion and no longer advocated making gays a protected class.

He bashed Obama with an intensity he had never displayed for his predecessors. He called the president's signature health-care law a "job killer." He drew wide attention for focusing on the long-discredited assertion that the president had been born not in Hawaii but in Kenya, his father's native country. "I have people that actually have been studying it, and they cannot believe what they're finding. . . . I would like to have him show his birth certificate," Trump said on NBC, cementing his role as a leader in what became known as the birther movement.

Obama put the document on public display and ridiculed the real estate mogul days later at the annual black-tie White House Correspondents' Association dinner, joking that Trump could now turn his attention to whether the United States had faked the moon landing. The audience roared with laughter while Trump looked on stone-faced, although he later insisted that the jokes were fine and the evening "phenomenal."

Two weeks after the dinner, Trump announced that he would not run in 2012, saying that "business is my greatest passion and I am not ready to leave the private sector." In a later interview, he explained the decision: "My children were younger. I was doing numerous jobs, many jobs, and I really wanted to wrap them up."

On Feb. 2, 2012, he endorsed Romney and became an outspoken surrogate. On Election Day, Trump went to Boston to attend what he expected to be a Romney victory party. Romney's loss made him livid.If only the candidate had used him more, Trump said, Romney would have been a winner. Trump took to his increasingly favored medium, Twitter, to vent his frustration: "This election is a total sham and a travesty." "We can't let this happen. . . . The world is laughing at us."

The world is laughing at us. It was the same concern Trump had from his first interview with Rona Barrett, when he said one proper president could turn the country around. Now a full-fledged celebrity, Trump was certain who that man might be.

After Romney's loss, Republican elders huddled to create ways to transform the GOP into a younger, more inclusive party with new ideas. Trump was forming a different plan. Twelve days after the 2012 election, he filed an application with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office. He wanted to trademark an old phrase from Reagan that he planned to make his own: Make America Great Again.

The Washington Post's Jenna Johnson, Michael Kranish and Marc Fisher contributed to this report.

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Coronavirus

Where Lockdowns For LGBTQ Meant Moving Back In With Homophobic Relatives

The confinement experience could turn brutal for those forced to live with relatives who would not tolerate a member of the family living their sexual orientation openly as a young adult. Here are stories from urban and rural India.

At a Rainbow pride walk in Kolkata, India

Sreemanti Sengupta

Abhijith had been working as a radio jockey in the southern Indian city of Thiruvananthapuram when the COVID-19 pandemic hit in March, 2020. When the government imposed a nationwide lockdown, Abhijith returned to the rural Pathanamthitta district , where his parents live with an extended family, including uncles, cousins and grandparents.

Eighteen months later, he recalled that the experience was "unbearable" because he had to live with homophobic relatives. "Apart from the frequent reference to my sexual 'abnormality', they took me to a guruji to 'cure' me," Abhijith recalled. "He gave me something to eat, which made me throw up. The guru assured me that I was throwing up whatever 'demon' was possessing me and 'making' me gay."


Early in 2021, Abhijith travelled back to Thiruvananthapuram, where he found support from the members of the queer collective.

Inspired by their work, he also decided to work towards uplifting the queer community. "I wish no one else goes through the mental trauma I have endured," said Abhijit.

Abhijith's story of mental distress arising from family abuse turns out to be all too common among members of India's LGBTQ+ community, many of whom were trapped in their homes and removed from peer support groups during the pandemic.

Oppressive home situations

As India continues to reel from a pandemic that has claimed more lives (235,524) in three months of the second wave (April-June 2021) than in the one year before that (162,960 deaths in March 2020-March 2021), the LGBTQ community has faced myriad problems. Sexual minorities have historically suffered from mainstream prejudice and the pandemic has aggravated socio-economic inequalities, instigated family and institutionalized abuse, apart from limiting access to essential care. This has resulted in acute mental distress which has overwhelmed queer support infrastructure across the country.

Speaking to queer collective representatives across India, I learned that the heightened levels of distress in the community was due to longstanding factors that were triggered under lockdown conditions. Family members who are intolerant of marginalized sexual identities, often tagging their orientation as a "disorder" or "just a phase", have always featured among the main perpetrators of subtle and overt forms of violence towards queer, trans and homosexual people.

Calls from lesbians and trans men to prevent forced marriages during lockdowns.

Sappho For Equality, a Kolkata-based feminist organization that works for the rights of sexually marginalized women and trans men, recorded a similar trend. Early in the first wave, the organization realized that the existing helpline number was getting overwhelmed with distress calls. It added a second helpline number. The comparative figures indicate a 13-fold jump in numbers: from 290 calls in April 2019-March 20 to 3,940 calls in April 2020-May 2021.

"Most of the calls we have been getting from lesbians and trans men are urgent appeals to prevent forced marriages during lockdowns," said Shreosi, a Sappho member and peer support provider. "If they happen to resist, they are either evicted or forced to flee home. But where to house them? There aren't so many shelters, and ours is at full capacity."

Shreosi says that the nature of distress calls has also changed. "Earlier people would call in for long-term help, such as professional mental health support. But during the pandemic, it has changed to immediate requests to rescue from oppressive home situations. Often, they will speak in whispers so that the parents can't hear."

Lack of spaces

Like many of his fellow queer community members, life for Sumit P., a 30-year-old gay man from Mumbai, has taken a turn for the worse. The lockdown has led to the loss of safe spaces and prolonged residence at home.

"It has been a really difficult time since the beginning of the lockdown. I am suffering from a lot of mental stress since I cannot freely express myself at home. Even while making a call, I have to check my surroundings to see if anybody is there. If I try to go out, my family demands an explanation. I feel suffocated," he said.

The pandemic has forced some queer people to come out

Sumit is also dealing with a risk that has hit the community harder than others – unemployment and income shortage. He's opened a cafe with two other queer friends, which is now running into losses. For others, pandemic-induced job losses have forced queer persons from all over the country to return to their home states and move in with their families who've turned abusive during this long period of confinement.

Lockdowns force coming out

According to Kolkata-based physician, filmmaker and gay rights activist Tirthankar Guha Thakurata, the pandemic has forced some queer people to come out, succumbing to rising discomfort and pressure exerted by homophobic families.

"In most cases, family relations sour when a person reveals their identity. But many do not flee home. They find a breathing space or 'space out' in their workspaces. In the absence of these spaces, mental problems rose significantly," he said.

Not being able to express themselves freely in front of parents who are hostile, intolerant and often address transgender persons by their deadname or misgender them has created situations of severe distress, suicidal thoughts and self-harm.

Psychiatrist and queer feminist activist Ranjita Biswas (she/they) cites an incident. A gender-nonconforming person died under suspicious circumstances just days after leaving their peer group and going home to their birth parents. The final rites were performed with them dressed in bangles and a saree.

"When a member of our community asked their mother why she chose a saree for someone who had worn androgynous clothes all their life, she plainly said it was natural because after all, the deceased 'was her daughter,'" Biswas recalls.

The Indian queer mental health support infrastructure, already compromised with historical prejudice, is now struggling

David Talukdar/ZUMA

"Correctional" therapy

In India, queer people's access to professional mental healthcare has been "very limited," according to community members such as Ankan Biswas, India's first transgender lawyer who has been working with the Human Rights Law Network in West Bengal.

"A large majority of the psychiatrists still consider homosexuality as a disorder and practice 'correctional therapy'. It's only around the big cities that some queer-friendly psychiatrists can be found," Biswas said. "The pandemic has further widened the inequalities in access to mental health support for India's LGBTQ community."

Biswas is spending anxious days fielding an overwhelming amount of calls and rescue requests from queer members trapped in their homes, undergoing mental, verbal and even physical torture. "We don't have the space, I just tell them to wait and bear it a little longer," he said.

Medical care is dismal

Anuradha Krishnan's story, though not involving birth family, outlines how the lack of physical support spaces have affected India's queer population. Abandoned by her birth family when she came out to them as a trans woman in 2017, Anuradha Krishnan (she/they), founder of Queerythm in Kerala who is studying dentistry, had to move into an accommodation with four other persons.

Isolation triggered my depression

"I am used to talking and hanging around with friends. Isolation triggered my depression and I had to seek psychiatric help." Living in cramped quarters did not help with quarantine requirements and all of them tested positive during the first wave.

What is deeply worrying is that the Indian queer mental health support infrastructure, already compromised with historical prejudice, is now struggling, placing more and more pressure on queer collectives and peer support groups whose resources are wearing thin.

During the 10 months of the first wave of the pandemic in India in 2020, Y'all, a queer collective based in Manipur, received about 1,000 distress calls on their helpline number from LGBTQ+ individuals. In May 2021 alone, they received 450 such calls (including texts and WhatsApp messages) indicating a telling escalation in the number of queer people seeking help during the second wave.

As India's queer-friendly mental health support infrastructure continues to be tested, Y'all founder, Sadam Hanjabam, a gay man, says, "Honestly, we are struggling to handle such a large number of calls, it is so overwhelming. We are also dealing with our own anxieties. We are burning out."

Sreemanti Sengupta is a freelance writer, poet, and media studies lecturer based in Kolkata.

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