Last month, I made a public challenge to Donald Trump, which I will repeat here: If he or either of his sons will box me for one round, I will make the maximum legal contribution to his campaign and donate $100,000 to the charity of his choice.
In challenging Trump to box me, I was parodying one of his own favored tactics. Four years ago, he famously offered to donate $5 million to the charity of President Obama’s choice if Obama would release his passport, college applications, and other personal documents. I’m not as fabulously wealthy as Trump claims to be, so my offer was lower than his, but it’s a challenge that Trump should eagerly accept, given his professed love of combat and competition. (Moreover, it’s not unprecedented for a recent Republican presidential candidate to engage in a charity boxing match—2012 nominee Mitt Romney did so with Evander Holyfield just last year.) Of course, I never seriously expected Trump to take me up on my challenge, and don’t expect him to do so now. Donald Trump, you see, is a coward.
That’s not necessarily how Trump is perceived. Ask almost any Donald Trump supporter what their favorite quality of Trump is and they will invariably say something along the lines of He’s tough or He tells it like it is or He speaks his mind, even when it’s not politically correct. Ask almost any Trump opponent what they like least about Trump, and you’re likely to get similar substance, though with a very different gloss—He’s unstable or He has no filter or He’s dangerous.
As a fan of combat sports, I’m intrigued by this persona. Trump’s temperament often seems borrowed from the larger-than-life bravado of a prize fighter, or even a professional wrestler, which—lest we forget—is an actual job title that Donald Trump once held. So, I was curious: How much of this tough guy persona is based in reality, and how much of it is an invention? Not to put too fine a point on it, but can The Donald actually back up his tough talk? Is there any evidence that he’s actually a guy who lusts for combat, as he so often claims?
Trump certainly looks the part of a tough guy. He’s a physically imposing presence who stands 6’3” and amplifies that height with military posture (a residue of his military prep school days) and a chin that he seems to keep perpetually tilted above the little people. He has a robust build, perhaps more fat than muscle on close examination, but nevertheless a physique that evinces power. He scowls perpetually, his eyebrows forming a near-perfect V, with his eyes locked in a tight squint as his cheeks flush a fiery red. His chiseled jaw juts out. Finally, and most important, is the hair. It is carefully glued in place, which gives it an icy—even steely—and imperturbable presence, swept over his forehead in a configuration resembling a medieval battle helmet, and dyed a glowing reddish hue, nature’s designated color of danger.
Trump’s mannerisms only serve to underscore this perception. He emphasizes his physicality at every opportunity. He gesticulates violently. He raises his voice at the slightest provocation, real or imagined. He snarls his upper lip, flashing his shockingly-white teeth like an angry dog with a patina of foam on its maw. If one watched him on mute, they could just as easily believe that Trump was delivering a pre-fight promo as a speech on economic policy.
His rhetoric, of course, is where Trump’s naked physical aggression is most on display. “Man is the most vicious of all animals,” Trump once said, seemingly echoing the wisdom of Arthur Leigh Allen, “and life is a series of battles ending in victory or defeat.” He shouts down his political opponents, his voice literally overpowering them into submission. He threatens hecklers with a “punch in the jaw” or with having them “taken out on a stretcher.” He brags about loving to fight. He advocates physical violence as policy, saying he’ll order soldiers to torture. Even his books ooze physicality: a pair of recent titles advise his readers to Get Tough and Kick Ass. So Trump certainly looks, acts, and talks the part of a tough guy.
But is he?
Almost since he emerged as a public figure, Trump developed a reputation for his outspoken opinions on the military. In 1987, during the pre-launch publicity period for his first book, The Art of The Deal, Trump took out full page ads in The New York Times, the Washington Post and the Boston Globe, addressed to “The American People,” to lambast then-president Ronald Reagan over his command of the military. “There’s nothing wrong with America’s Foreign Defense policy that a little backbone can’t cure,” Trump’s ad brayed. Other nations, he continued, were taking advantage of the weakness of our politicians; if they wanted U.S. military protection, they should pay for it, a simple message remarkably similar to one that he has trumpeted repeatedly during his current run for the White House.
Shortly thereafter, Trump offered perhaps the first preview of his eventual presidential aspirations in a speech to the Portsmouth, New Hampshire Rotary Club. Before an audience of several hundred Rotarians, Trump warned, “If the right man doesn’t get into office, you’re going to see a catastrophe in this country in the next four years like you’re never going to believe, and then you’ll be begging for the right man.” Trump wasn’t yet a candidate—on his own initiative, he issued a press release shortly after denying interest in a number of elected offices, although the release went out of its way to note that he would “not comment” on his potential presidential ambitions—but he already wanted to be the kingmaker, and was already flexing his muscles before a crowd to show that he had the “backbone” that he felt Reagan lacked.
Trump’s current campaign has included no shortage of equally incendiary rhetoric. Early on, Trump famously appeared to question the heroism of prisoners of war in general, and John McCain in particular. “He’s not a war hero,” Trump mused. “He is a war hero because he was captured. I like people who weren’t captured, okay?” (To put this statement in context, it’s helpful to review the events of McCain’s capture. McCain flew his A-4 Skyhawk directly into heavy anti-aircraft fire over Hanoi: “almost a suicide mission,” one witness reflected. His alarms blared that he was being tracked by enemy radar, but he pressed on, even as two members of his squadron were shot down alongside him. He managed to drop his bombs in the vicinity of his target, later earning him a Bronze Star, before his plane’s wing was blown off by a Soviet missile. McCain was knocked unconscious as he ejected, breaking both arms and his right knee in the process. After sinking to the bottom of a lake, he was able to inflate his life vest using only his teeth, as neither arm would move, and was taken into captivity upon surfacing. He was stripped naked, had a rifle butt smashed into his shoulder, and was bayonetted in his groin and ankle. By the time he arrived at the POW camp, he was in such poor shape that his captors thought he was already dead. He spent the next five and a half years as a prisoner, where he was tortured regularly, leaving him with permanent damage to both arms. His actions earned him a Silver Star and a Purple Heart. None of this, according to Donald Trump, qualified him as a hero.)
Of course, more recently, Trump has found himself embroiled in another controversy when he refused to acknowledge the heroism of the late Humayun Khan, an Army captain who died at 27 years old in Iraq in 2004. Khan’s heroism was, if it’s possible, even harder to dispute than McCain’s: The young man perished in a car bombing even after he’d been given permission to protect himself. But when Khan’s parents made an impassioned speech at the Democratic National Convention, decrying the anti-Muslim prejudices Trump’s campaign has inflamed, Trump declared himself the victim of a “vicious attack” and lashed out in response. Trump suggested that Khan’s mother had remained silent for reasons other than profound sadness, and surrogates did everything from directly questioning Khan’s heroism to attempting to link his family to the Muslim Brotherhood. It was only after other Republican leaders called Khan a hero—and Trump’s own son claimed that his father had referred to Khan as a hero—that Trump reluctantly called Khan a hero in a tweet. Even there, though, he immediately reiterated that “this is about RADICAL ISLAMIC TERROR.”
Upon what basis does Trump feel entitled to speak about military heroism, weak leaders, and backbone? He has often pointed to his education at New York Military Academy, a private, military-style boarding school whose alumni include composer Stephen Sondheim, bandleader Les Brown, and AIG CEO Bob Benmosche. (It’s also where infamous mafioso John Gotti chose to send his son, John Gotti, Jr.) Although NYMA is not connected with the U.S. Armed Forces, and its military curricula consisted largely of wearing dress uniforms and participating in marches and drills, Trump has insisted that at NYMA he “received more training militarily than a lot of the guys that go into the military.” He later expanded on these statements in an interview with Michael D’Antonio, author of the superb Never Enough: Donald Trump and the Pursuit of Success.“I always thought I was in the military,” Trump said. “I felt like I was in the military in a true sense because I dealt with the people [at NYMA].”
Given Trump’s apparent feeling of connection to the actual military after his time at NYMA, one could be forgiven for expecting him to have an impressive combat résumé. Alas, that’s not what happened. During the Vietnam War, Trump received four student deferments, the last of which expired at the height of hostilities in July 1968, just months after McCain was captured. Trump, like millions of other young men, was then classified as 1-A, available immediately for the draft. Did this professed lover of combat run to his nearest recruiting station to enlist? No—he ran to a doctor instead, who classified him as medically unfit. When, in 2014, D’Antonio pressed Trump on the physical disability that had spared him a combat role in Vietnam, “Trump slipped off his black loafer and pointed to his heel, where a little bulge pushed against his sock. ‘Heel spurs,’ he explained. ‘On both feet.’”
Donald Trump describes himself as a “very brave soldier” for having had sex.
For those unfamiliar with heel spurs, the Mayo Clinic explains that most “cause no symptoms and may go undetected for years.” WebMD describes them as “often painless.” Perhaps Trump’s spurs were more painful than most; but it seems unlikely. Trump himself has bragged about his athletic prowess at that time of his deferments, going so far as to describe himself as one of the best baseball players in all of New York State. And the spurs couldn’t have been that painful, as he showed the still-extant supposed deformity to D’Antonio as recently as 2014, suggesting he’d never sought treatment. In fact, the spurs were so inconsequential that Trump can’t even keep his story about them straight. During a 2015 campaign stop in Iowa, he claimed that his medical disability had been a heel spur in one foot, though he couldn’t remember whether it was the left or right. “You’ll have to look it up,” he eventually told reporters. His campaign later issued a press release reaffirming that the spurs were in both feet. The bottom line is that it’s all but impossible that Trump’s medical condition kept him from combat. Trump simply dodged the draft.
It’s clear enough, then, that Donald Trump is the very definition of a chickenhawk. He talks tough about the military, and even fancies himself as having served because he put in five years wearing dress uniforms at a boarding school, but runs away on his supposedly deformed feet when it comes time to actually fight. Let’s be generous, though, and give Trump a pass for that; after all, lots of people dodged the draft to avoid serving in an unjust war in Vietnam. Ultimately, it doesn’t affect the analysis, for the rest of Trump’s loudly-trumpeted history of fighting is even thinner.
It’s worth reiterating that Donald Trump’s professed love of combat is not merely a philosophical metaphor for his business and political strategies; rather, Trump has often reminisced fondly about his pugnacious past on the campaign trail, including when he calls upon his followers to rough up any protesters in attendance. But, for all Trump’s talk of fighting, the Washington Post investigated and found scant evidence of Trump having ever thrown any real punches.
Trump’s first alleged physical encounter came as a 7-year-old student at the tony Kew-Forest School in New York, where Trump claims to have given a music teacher a black eye “because I didn’t think he knew anything about music.” This admittedly hilarious image can pretty quickly be dismissed as fantasy; no other classmate ever seems to have corroborated it, even though they do recall other instances of young Trump getting in trouble. But even taking Trump at his word doesn’t do much for Trump’s image. For a music teacher to even be in range of a 7-year-old’s punch, he must have been hunched over, and for one to have failed to block or dodge it, it must have been a sucker punch. Anyway, punching an elementary school teacher is more an act of sociopathy than anything requiring toughness, as there was no chance that the teacher would have punched back. That Trump still seems to relish the memory of the incident, and talks it up as evidence of his toughness, speaks volumes about how insubstantial his actual history of fighting must be.
An NPR examination found that the young Trump’s displays of “toughness” took a different form. Classmates do remember mild hijinks like chucking spitballs and passing notes against the teacher’s orders, neither of which do much for Trump’s self-image as a miniature Rocky Marciano. But one classmate recalled a very specific example of Trump flexing his muscle: In a bid to psych out an opposing soccer team with his toughness, Trump once made a show of eating the standard-issue halftime orange without peeling it first. Eating orange peels on a suburban elementary school soccer pitch: this is the extent of physical toughness that Trump’s grade school classmates actually recall.
The only physical confrontation for which there’s any real evidentiary support took place while Trump was a student at NYMA. After Trump messed up the bed of the smallest kid in the class, Ted Levine (who then stood 4’11” and 120 pounds, to Trump’s 6’2”, 180 pounds) Levine came at Trump with a broomstick. The two men tussled and, according to Levine—an enthusiastic Trump admirer who, NJ.com noted, is similarly prone to hyperbole—it took three kids to break them up. That’s it. One scuffle between Trump, the self-professed best athlete at the school, and the shortest kid in his class. That’s the extent of Donald Trump’s verifiable record of physical confrontation. A mismatch in a boarding-school dorm room.
So, then, it’s fair to say that Donald Trump is not the warrior he would have you believe. Again, though, let’s be generous and cut Trump a break. Physical violence never solves things, after all. Perhaps Trump’s toughness can be revealed in other facets of his life—how he deals with embarrassment, intimidation, or emotional distress, say. Or, perhaps not.
Donald Trump’s father, Fred Trump, was the son of German immigrants from the small town of Kallstadt, close to the German borders with France and Luxembourg. Fred Trump’s German heritage became politically inconvenient as he rose to prominence in heavily Jewish New York, building housing for World War II vets fresh back from the European campaign against Hitler. His response was to do something that he regularly did when faced with an inconvenient fact: he lied. Fred Trump claimed that he was, in fact, Swedish, the son of Swedish—not German—immigrants.
Of course, by the time Donald came of age in the late 1970s and 1980s, anti-German sentiments had dissipated. John Kennedy had long since told the world the proudest boast was “Ich bin ein Berliner,” Werner von Braun had helped the U.S. vanquish the Soviets in the space race, West Germany was one of the West’s key allies against the Eastern bloc, and even German consumer products that were once directly associated with the Nazis, from Mercedes-Benzes to Hugo Boss suits, were symbols of the emerging yuppie class. In short, being German was no longer going to prevent him from doing business in New York.
Moreover, it’s clear that Donald was not only aware of his German heritage, but felt some connection to it. As Vanity Fair reported in 1990:
Donald Trump appears to take aspects of his German background seriously. John Walter [Trump’s cousin and the Trump family historian] works for the Trump Organization, and when he visits Donald in his office, Ivana told a friend, he clicks his heels and says, “Heil Hitler,” possibly as a family joke.
Vanity Fair further revealed that Trump kept a collection of Hitler’s speeches, entitled My New Order, in a cabinet by his bed. When pressed on it, Trump responded, with what we might now recognize as his typical reckless disregard for the truth, “Actually, it was my friend Marty Davis from Paramount who gave me a copy of Mein Kampf, and he’s a Jew.” When Vanity Fair contacted Davis, he confirmed that he had given Trump the copy of My New Order—not Mein Kampf—but, Davis clarified, he was definitely not a Jew.
So Trump was the grandson of German immigrants, aware of his heritage, and, it would seem, felt some connection to it, perhaps to the extent of at least jokingly admiring the former Führer. All of this makes it puzzling that Trump has repeatedly claimed to be Swedish. As D’Antonio reports, in a 1976 profile for The New York Times, Trump told reporter Judy Klemesrud that “though he was often mistaken for Jewish, he was actually Swedish.” In his 1987 autobiography, The Art of the Deal, Trump doubled down on the myth, describing his father as the son of Swedish immigrants. Trump’s refusal to publicly own his German heritage, perhaps because it might have been looked down upon in some New York circles, was cowardly enough, but his response to being called on it escalated matters to a new level. When finally confronted on the contradiction by Vanity Fair, Trump showed off a backbone as stiff as a Swedish fish:
Actually, it was very difficult. My father was not German; my father’s parents were German … Swedish, and really sort of all over Europe … and I was even thinking in the second edition of putting more emphasis on other places because I was getting so many letters from Sweden: Would I come over and speak to Parliament? Would I come meet with the president?
In the space of just three sentences, Trump provided no fewer than four separate, inconsistent alternate explanations. One can almost picture the rivulets of sweat pouring down his artificially-tanned forehead, as Trump desperately prays for something—anything—to stick.
Can you imagine an actual fighter responding this way? Can you imagine Muhammad Ali cowering before Ernie Terrell, muttering a muddled response along the the lines of, “Well, yes, it’s true, my given name is actually Cassius Clay, it was the name my parents gave to me, but well, did you know that Muhammad is actually the most common name on the planet … and I have often been asked to take steps to link myself with the common man”? It’s inconceivable. Of course, a real tough guy wouldn’t have allowed himself to be trapped in a meaningless lie to begin with, but that’s not the point here. Confronted with a reporter armed with facts, rather than just proudly own his German heritage, Trump panicked, dissembled, and desperately tried to escape. In short, he tried to dodge the question like a coward.
Okay, so we have now established that Donald Trump is not above hiding his family heritage, but what about his iconic name, which he’s plastered on everything he’s ever come into contact with, from skyscrapers and casinos to bottled water to Trump Vodka (which he shamelessly hawked even though Trump himself is a teetotaler who advises others not to drink)? This is the name that Trump has sworn, under oath, is worth $3 billion as a brand. Surely, Trump would never run from his own name, right? Well ...
In 1980, Trump was in the process of constructing what would become his signature project: Trump Tower in Manhattan. Early in the process, a controversy arose over two limestone friezes that were attached to the old Bonwit Teller building, which was being demolished to make room for Trump’s development. The friezes were widely considered architecturally significant, and whether or not they were, Trump pledged to save them if possible and donate them to the Metropolitan Museum of Art. When demolition began, however, Trump oversaw their destruction, which saved time and expense on his already bargain-basement demolition plan. (The demolition was dependent on the use of hundreds of underpaid and often unauthorized Polish laborers, a revelation that has come back to haunt Trump in the current campaign.)
Naturally, Trump’s unannounced about-face elicited a great deal of press and public scrutiny. But, for the first time in his life, Trump wasn’t available to speak to the press. Instead, all media inquiries were directed to John Baron, vice-president of the Trump Organization. Baron told the media that the friezes were worth less than $10,000 and that removing them would incurred significant costs. Thus, Baron concluded, “The merit of these stones was not great enough to justify saving them.” Baron’s argument was rejected by, among others, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, but it stood as the unpopular but official position of the Trump Organization.
Over the years, Baron made a number of other public statements when it was not convenient for Donald to do so. At one point in 1986, Baron even went after quarterback Doug Flutie in an effort to get other USFL owners to provide Trump with partial reimbursement for overpaying the Boston College star to lure him away from the NFL. According to the NY Times, John Baron, “a Vice President with the Trump Organization,” asserted that “When a guy goes out and spends more money than a player is worth, he expects to get partial reimbursement from the other owners.” So who was this John Baron, besides the Trump Organization’s dedicated press agent for bad news?
There was no John Baron; Donald Trump was John Baron. Yes, Donald Trump would later admit, under oath, that he occasionally used the alias John Baron when speaking to the press. Donald Trump lacked the courage to make unpopular or perhaps self-serving statements on his own behalf, so he simply invented a wholly fictional character to take the heat for him. It was not the last time he would do so.
In June 1996, the New York Post reported that Trump had ended his long-term relationship with Marla Maples, who had been his mistress during his first marriage to Ivana Trump, and that Trump was now seeing model Carla Bruni, who would later become the First Lady of France. When People magazine contacted Trump’s office looking for more details, their reporter was called back by a “John Miller,” who claimed he’d been deputized to speak to the press on this matter. After Miller declared Trump’s relationship with Maples over—shocking and devastating news to her—he turned his attention to the rest of Trump’s love life. As People described it:
[Miller] went on to brag about the army of women he said were rabidly chasing The Donald: Madonna was one, he said, Kim Basinger another. “Important, beautiful women call him all the time ...”
But, once again, there was no John Miller. John Miller was Donald Trump, just as John Baron was before him. Once again, Trump was using an alias to plant stories favorable to him in the press. This time his target was not the New York art set or an overpaid quarterback, but his longtime girlfriend, a relatively anonymous and powerless woman half his age. If it seems unusually cowardly to deploy an alias to plant gossip in the press to play games with a significant other, over whom you already wielded significant power, that’s because it is. Trump is an incredible coward.
Donald Trump loves to brag that he doesn’t settle lawsuits. He is also well-known for his public feuds with everyone from his ex-wife Ivana to Rosie O’Donnell, and his sometimes obstinate refusal to apologize for the outrageous or offensive words he spews. All of these supposed characteristics are tent poles supporting the grand myth of Trump: that he is a tough guy who relishes a good scrape and doesn’t back down. Once again, however, a review of Trump’s easily-verified history shows that, more often than not, the opposite is true: Donald Trump caves all the time. He just doesn’t like to admit it. As one of his former attorneys told Vanity Fair, “The key to Donald, like with any bully, is to tell him to go fuck himself.” And when people have done that, literally or metaphorically, Trump, more often than not, has reacted in much the same way he did when faced with the draft: He’s found a way to get out as quickly and quietly as possible.
Donald Trump’s first exposure to high-profile bad publicity came when the Trump Organization, of which Donald was already president, was sued for racial discrimination in 1972. The Trumps brought in their regular lawyer, Roy Cohn (best known for his role in the Joe McCarthy hearings in the 1950s), who launched a scorched earth defense. The government engaged in “gestapo tactics,” Cohn charged. (In fairness, Cohn knew a thing or two about unchecked government power; proving a leopard can’t always change his spots, Cohn threatened the prosecutor on the Trump case, claiming that he would call the White House and have her fired). The Trumps even filed a countersuit for $100,000,000, but the judge laughed it out of court. Having made a lot of noise, the Trumps were ultimately forced to slink away with their tails between their legs: in the ground-breaking settlement, the Trumps agreed to provide vacancy lists to the Urban League, provide preferential treatment to minority applicants in buildings that contained less than 10% black or Hispanic tenants, and to make a public pledge of nondiscrimination. While the settlement agreement did not contain an admission of liability—settlements with the government commonly do not contain admissions or denials for a variety of reasons—it was a big win for the government and a big loss for the Trumps, who had invested a significant amount of time and money fighting the case, only to give in quietly when their bullying tactics failed.
The above example demonstrates that, contrary to his hyperbolic claims, Trump and his organization have settled lawsuits, and on very unfavorable terms. But what about in his personal life? For a high profile example of this, one must turn to Donald’s divorce from his first wife, Ivana Trump. When media reports broke that Donald had been carrying on a long term affair with Marla Maples, and that he’d yoked wife Ivana with a restrictive prenuptial agreement, Trump initially seemed to enjoy the attention, even if it much of it was negative. After all, in his mind, dating Maples proved that Trump was “sexy,” and protecting his assets from Ivana—who managed many of Trump’s businesses—could be viewed as savvy, albeit cutthroat, business management. As he smugly told Vanity Fair, “When a man leaves a woman, especially when it was perceived that he has left for a piece of ass—a good one!—there are 50 percent of the population who will love the woman who was left.”
Trump’s tough façade cracked immediately when the negative stories started to impact his (increasingly shaky) business, though. When a team of Japanese investors, uncomfortable with scandal, began to balk at sealing a deal with Trump, he called up Ivana and begged her to pose for pictures with him and claim that their entire divorce had been a publicity stunt. He eventually agreed to appear with her in a Pizza Hut commercial making light of their differences. And while the terms of their divorce settlement remain confidential, Ivana was widely perceived to have come out on top. As she would later say, playing herself in the movie The First Wives Club, “Don’t get mad, get everything.” (Around the same time that film was being made, Trump—going through one of his periodic financial collapses—would, somewhat pathetically, confess to Marla Maples that he had passed a homeless man on the street that day and felt a momentary connection when he realized that they had the same net worth.)
In the most recent campaign, little has changed. Remember when Trump questioned John McCain’s heroism? Well, when Trump saw it was hurting him with the veterans and independent conservatives whose support he desperately need to wage his insurgent campaign, he quickly and completely walked it back. Appearing on The O’Reilly Factor, Trump unequivocally stated that McCain was a hero, and added, “Certainly if there was a misunderstanding, I would totally take that back.” He backs down a bit more on Khan every day.
Trump caused another uproar last year when Rolling Stone quoted him as saying of his opponent, the former Hewlett Packard CEO, Carly Fiorina, “Look at that face! Would anyone vote for that?” It was typical Trump bombast and misogyny—this was, after all, the same man who had just opined that supermodel Heidi Klum was no longer a “10” in his assessment—and no one reading the article could have understood the comment as anything other than what it appeared to be. But when Trump actually had to go face-to-face with Fiorina on stage in a Republican debate, before a live audience, he suddenly went weak in the knees.
First, Trump tried to dissemble: It was her “persona,” not her physical appearance that he was referring to when he mentioned her face. When Fiorina replied that “women all over this country heard very clearly what Mr. Trump said,” the audience erupted in applause and Trump looked hopelessly lost. Realizing that his initial deflection had failed to sell anyone, Trump spun desperately. “I think she’s got a beautiful face,” Trump offered weakly. “And I think she’s a beautiful woman.” This was not just an apology; it was complete capitulation. Fiorina, to her credit, simply rolled her eyes and let Trump stew in his own humiliation.
A month later, in the run-up to Iowa primary, Trump retweeted one of his followers who had suggested that Trump was trailing in the polls because some genetically modified ingredient in corn was damaging the brains of Iowa voters. When Iowans responded with outrage, Trump—who famously handles his own Twitter account—quietly deleted the retweet and then blamed an unnamed young intern for having “accidentally” retweeted the offensive tweet via Trump’s account. Once again, Trump not only backed down, he tried to pin it on an unnamed, likely nonexistent, scapegoat, a 21st century John Baron. And, of course, Trump has been careful not to insult the voters of any other states since he lost Iowa.
There is a common thread that unites all of this, and it is key to understanding the mind of Donald Trump. He says shocking and outrageous things all the time, but it is not because he is bold, or because he is passionate, or because he lacks a filter. To the contrary, each of the things Trump said is specifically calculated to garner attention for him. Whether that attention is good or bad is more or less irrelevant up to a point, and that point is where someone of more or less equal stature looks back and, in the colorful words of Trump’s former attorney, tells him “to go fuck himself.” When that happens, Trump always folds. He folds because he never believed what he said in the first place. He folds because he is a coward.
In Never Enough, Michael D’Antonio opens with a telling image. Trump is at the 2011 White House Correspondents’ Dinner. It’s the peak of his birther crusade. Comedian Seth Meyers is laying into Trump about it for a solid two and a half minutes, and Trump is nonplussed. “His face remained unmoving, and glowering, as even the diners at his own table found themselves unable to resist the tide of laughter,” D’Antonio writes. But then President Obama gets up to speak, and at some point, he too turns his focus to Trump, and the absurdity of his birther allegations. This time, Trump is different, says D’Antonio,
Confronted by a critic who stood rungs above him in the status hierarchy, Trump did not offer the killer stare. Instead he allowed the corners of his mouth to turn up, ever so slightly, which deepened the crow’s feet that framed his eyes. He then offered a wave to the president.
Even when in jest, Donald Trump knows when he’s being told to go fuck himself. And he handles it the only way he’s ever known: to back down.
At the end of the day, the evidence is conclusive. Donald Trump talks tough but can’t back it up. He talks about his love of fighting, claims to have felt like he was in the military, and casts aspersions at actual war heroes, but he dodged the draft and the only fight of his that anyone remembers was a scuffle in a prep school dorm room against the smallest kid in his class. He talks about his pride in his family history, but felt the need (like his father before him) to fudge his German heritage, even after it was a well-established fact. He talks about being the ultimate ladies man, but then felt the need to use an alias to plant stories about his love life in New York tabloids to help pressure his girlfriend, even though he had infinitely more power than her to begin with. He says outrageous things, but if he ever actually risks alienating his intended audience, he back down without a whimper. Donald Trump, in short, is a coward.
Right now, we’re witnessing this play out on a national scale. Under withering attack for his statements about the Khans, about fellow Republican leaders, about nuclear weapons, Trump appears to be imploding. His responses are increasingly defensive, unhinged, and off-message. It is exactly what Trump’s lawyer predicted back in 1990: Faced with a firm opponent who won’t back down (in this case, Hillary, or the media, or the truth, or even his own party), Trump is trying to slink away. He’s even making excuses for an eventual loss in November, claiming that he fears the election is rigged. It’s the last gasp tactic of a coward backing away from a fight. It’s the very antithesis of a true fighter.
So how did everyone get Donald Trump so wrong? As we stated at the outset, Trump simply looks the part of the tough guy, and no feature is more important to that appearance than that hair—so carefully glued in place, swept so deliberately over his forehead in its medieval battle helmet configuration, and dyed its shocking and unnatural red. Trump’s hair stands out as the very essence of the myth of his toughness. But a closer look reveals that Trump’s hair is not the impregnable shield it appears to be from a distance. It’s an illusion, a mask, a veil, a grand performance designed to create the appearance that Trump is something he manifestly is not. Brush it aside, even slightly, and a plain truth is revealed: there is nothing beneath it at all.
So, we return to where we started: My challenge to Trump. One round of boxing, for the maximum legal donation to his struggling campaign and $100,000 to the charity of his choice. I’m far from a great athlete, and I’m certainly no Evander Holyfield. And, Trump, only a few months older than Romney—a man he has repeatedly characterized as a “loser,” and even explicitly compared to someone who chokes in athletics—would have several inches and maybe as much as 75 lbs on me. It might be an easy fight for Trump. But it would be a fight for him, and that’s how I know it will never happen.
Daniel Roberts (IronMikeGallego) is a longtime boxing fan and occasional contributor to Deadspin. He can be found on Twitter @DRobertsIMG or at DRobertsIMG@gmail.com. GIF by Sam Woolley.