If you’re obsessed with the news cycle and inclined toward anxiety, one way to get through this strange time in American history is to see it as just that: another chapter in a long national story, full of novelistic characters with rich back stories and complex motivations.
Peel away the politics and unfounded innuendo from “Fire and Fury,” Michael Wolff’s book about the first months of the Trump administration, and that’s what you get: a family saga about a colorful band of social climbing publicity hounds who never expected to actually be handed global power, and don’t really know what to do with it.
These same characters are the focus of “Born Trump,” the new family biography by Vanity Fair senior reporter Emily Jane Fox. But unlike “Fire and Fury,” this book is not concerned with policy positions, or really about government at all. It starts on the day of Trump’s inauguration, then promptly moves backward in time to become an encyclopedic retelling of pre-2016 Trump family drama (largely featuring the children, along with Jared Kushner), for those of us who weren’t following the New York gossip press for all of those decades.
Fox notes in her afterword that she spent hours talking to hundreds of Trump friends, acquaintances, and associates who shared behind-the-scenes tales of boarding school, college, and work within the Trump and Kushner organizations. These sources, all anonymous, likely produced some of the book’s garden-variety stories about partying rich kids and stingy moguls, attestations that Ivanka Trump was “uncommonly kind” in the context of wealthy prep schoolers, and some details about the lush, “classic Trump’’ decor in the family’s triplex apartment in Trump Tower (24-carat gold accents and “a Michelangelo-style mural’’). They provide the occasional small new insight, such as the fact that Ivanka believed that one of her father’s most famous campaign gaffes, when he said Megyn Kelly had “blood coming out of her wherever,” couldn’t possibly have been a reference to Kelly’s period, because her dad thinks menstruation is icky.
For the most part, though, this book is what’s known in the business as a “clip job”: a meticulous cataloguing of details from stories in the New York Post, the New York Observer, various Trump autobiographies, national magazines, and television interviews. There is a summary of the courtship and unraveling of Trump’s relationships with Ivana Trump and Marla Maples; catalogues of Melania Trump’s modeling shoots and evening wear; celebrity guest lists for various weddings; detailed descriptions of wedding cakes so large and complex that they have internal scaffolding and can’t actually be cut.
There is a fair amount of pop psychology, especially when it comes to a brief chapter on Tiffany Trump, who only got wall-to-wall gossip-page coverage up until the age of 3. It all gets a little repetitious, down to the descriptions. In the span of a few paragraphs about Don Trump Jr.’s 2005 wedding at Mar-a-Lago, Fox writes that the groom wore a “honking silver bow tie,” while his mother’s necklace was studded with “honking pastel stones.” There are only so many adjectives, it seems, that can capture a Trumpian level of conspicuous consumption.
As characters, the Trumps themselves have similar limits, at least in this telling: They’re interesting, to a point, but not particularly original. There are the elder Kushners, a billionaire couple who lord over their children with a cunning mix of generosity and cruelty; Marla, the Other Woman who combines social ambition with surprising naivete; Ivanka, the favored daughter who jealously guards her place in her father’s life and maintains a cold command of her image. There is Don Jr., who grew up hating his father for dumping his mother with great public fanfare, and as a grown-up finds refuge in his pickup truck, hunting game in the woods. And Jared, the dutiful, confident, sometimes-capable son of a tyrant who becomes equally loyal to his tyrant-in-law. They’re all the kind of people you might invent yourself if you were crafting a “Dynasty”-style TV drama. And they are uniquely American — our national version of the British royals, except that their glory is gaudy, crass, self-made, and self-fulfilling.
This is the ultimate message of the book, and it’s either a celebration or an indictment of a country that, before it elevated the Trumps to genuine power, allowed them to occupy so much space in the public imagination. In America, if you want to be viewed as ridiculously rich, all you need to do is act ridiculously rich, regardless of how much you’re actually leveraged. If you want attention, all you need to do is act shamelessly enough and the press will cover you, enough to provide ample source material for biographers and turn your parties into celebrity events. And celebrity, we know by now, can be its own reward. The Trumps of “Born Trump,” hard as they work at the family business, don’t come across as serious-minded, policy-driven, intellectual, or particularly worthy — the “Kardashianification of the Kennedys’’ as Fox concludes. History will judge them for that eventually. But for now, they’re in the White House.
Inside America’s First Family
By Emily Jane Fox
Harper, 352 pp., $27.99
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