One of the preeminent chroniclers of the sociological circus that is New York City, Tom Wolfe recently spoke to TAS at his Upper East Side apartment about the Big Apple’s most famous resident turned presidential candidate.
TAS: Having written so much about New York City, the rise of Donald Trump must be a subject of interest to you.
Tom Wolfe: It is. There is a lot of distress and contempt for government and he is capitalizing on that. He has also said a lot of things that are politically incorrect. He comes out and says things like, no more illegal immigrants from Mexico, no more immigrants from Islamic countries, and so on, and a lot of people say, “Hey, yeah, finally, someone has come out and said what I believe.”
Trump is not caught up in the whole ethos of politics. He goes from gaffe to gaffe and it only helps him. I have never seen anything quite like it.
You would think, for example, that his refusal to be on a television program with Megyn Kelly [at Fox News] would hurt him. My God, if you can’t debate Megyn Kelly, what are you going to do with Vladimir Putin? But it didn’t hurt him at all. That seemed to help him also.
I love the fact that he has a real childish side to him, saying things like: I am too worth ten billion! Most politicians would play that down, that they have all this money, but he is determined to let people know that. And he wants people to know that five billion of it comes from just his name—that you can start a hotel and call it Trump and it is going to be a success.
TAS: Do you see him as a New York original?
Wolfe: He is a lovable megalomaniac. People get a big kick out of going to his office and behind his desk is this wall of pictures of himself in the news. The childishness makes him seem honest.
Many people have pointed out that he doesn’t present policy programs. There is a great scene in one of George Bernard Shaw’s novels involving an old politician who is talking to his young assistant, and they are going over a speech that he is about to deliver. The young man says, “Sir, what you have said is all principles. There are no programs.” And the old politician says, “Ah, now you are catching on, now you are getting the idea.” That seems to be Trump’s approach.
If you go through our history, the strictly intellectual component of the presidency is not all that important. Just look at Reagan. He was a huge success. He was considered an idiot by half of the people in the political field.
I remember Henry Kissinger was at a university once, holding a seminar for ten students and he didn’t know that his remarks were being recorded. And he said something like, “You know, when you first meet Reagan and you spend a half hour with him, you leave saying, ‘Oh my God, how could the future of the free world be dependent on such a stupid guy?’” But then Kissinger said, “And yet every move he makes is right.” Kissinger was horribly embarrassed when that came out. The point is that decision making is not necessarily an intellectual talent.
One of the stories about Reagan that I remember is the time he went to Germany to speak before the Berlin Wall. It was at the time when the Berlin Wall was still a big factor. And so Reagan had a discussion with his advisers about whether or not he should say that the “wall should come down.” And they said, “Oh, don’t say that,” and then told him what he should say instead. But when Reagan gave the speech, he said, “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall,” and it was a real turning point in the Cold War. It was just Reagan’s gut reaction to the facts.
TAS: And what about Hillary Clinton versus Trump? She seems like a political dud who is very vulnerable.
Wolfe: Bill Clinton can take over a room with the warmth of his personality. He can remember all the women’s names and so on. Hillary is very standoffish. She is so unlike Bill Clinton in so many ways.
It is going to be a much more fascinating election than I would have thought. And I have noticed that in publishing, for example, companies are postponing a lot of books, unless they are political, because they think that there is going to be so much interest in this election that people aren’t going to be out buying books.