Some photos of Donald Trump watching various sporting events, and some thoughts on alternate timelines and what gets lost in a crowd.
Photo by Robert Deutsch-USA TODAY Sports
What you're looking at here is a photo of Donald Trump taken a few seconds after Carlos Beltran watched a dematerializing Adam Wainwright breaking pitch cross the plate for the last out of the 2006 National League Championship Series. Or, more accurately, it's more a photo of a bunch of Mets fans at the moment their souls left their bodies that also happens to have Trump levitating darkly in the middle of it, looming over the proceedings like some Thicc Nosferatu. His face is blurry, because he is not the focus of this photo, and it's hard to tell if his expression is registering disapproval or if it's just his usual resting pucker. Jeff Wilpon, the Mets' ranking failson, is at lower right, approximately 45 degrees on the right angle made by a celebrating Yadier Molina's arms. We should at least consider the possibility that Trump's wife is standing to his right, in a rain-slicked Mets poncho. That would be off-brand for this family, but Trump's brand was also a different thing then.
Ten years ago Wednesday, when that photo was taken, Trump was still a deeply kitsch pop-cultural figure. The Apprentice had just started its second season, and was still very popular. Trump's signature bloat was already creeping up on the show—the second season finale was three hours long, and watched by nearly half as many viewers as the first season's—but after years of haunting the broader culture like the horny ghost of the 1980s, thirstily angling for mentions in checkout-line magazines and collecting acrimonious public divorces, Trump was at least back in the game. Or, anyway, he was playing a boss on television, which was close enough.
In the photos you see of a younger Trump, he smiles or smirks and generally aims to project vigor and confidence. In a lot of the photos since The Apprentice, though, he is strictly in character as the boss he played on that show: glowering and jowly, squinting and wearing on his powdered blobfish mug the sort of pained and impatient facial expression you might also see on a baby with gas.
This is Trump at the U.S. Open in September of 2015, a little less than nine years later and a little more than three months after he announced his candidacy for President of the United States. He's watching a quarterfinal match between Venus and Serena Williams, which Serena won in three sets. We can assume that Trump didn't know he was being photographed, just as all the people around him watching the tennis or watching their phones or in various degrees of derpy repose did not know. But this is not really much different than the in-character face that Trump adopted a decade earlier on The Apprentice.
He has enhanced it, though, because enhancement is what Trump does. The wall is always getting taller; every grievance is inflated, and the grievance inflates him in turn. Trump was starting to look like the man we recognize by this point, puffy and lacquered, the old managerial scowl collapsing toward a cartoonish frown that could be described as "Mussolini, But Pooping."
Then as now, Trump's grievances cycle wildly, as befits a brain that is constantly flipping from one channel to another; the grievances are all deeply felt, if only to the extent that they have to do with him, but they come and go without any relation to the world going on around him. The morning of October 28, 2012, as Trump's home of New York City prepared for Hurricane Sandy with mandatory evacuations in low-lying areas, Trump hopped on Twitter and expressed his deep displeasure with Bette Midler's appearance.
Two days later, with all of lower Manhattan and much of Brooklyn without electricity, and with homes still burning in the Rockaways, Trump announced that he was extending his offer to contribute $5 million to Barack Obama's "favorite charity" in exchange for his long-form birth certificate until noon that Thursday, because of the hurricane.
Can we say that Trump was already then what he has become now, which is a gilded fire hose swinging loose, blasting hot acid through shop windows and down sidewalks, hissing and scorching into the gutter? I think it's just as likely that he was always like this, just this petty and this boring, a person who never quite finished becoming a person. It has been a long time since anyone mistook him for anything but that, and it is tempting to imagine a world in which the response to him was salutary neglect, and the world turned and left him to plod through icy penthouses, improperly advance his lie in endless Florida golf games against his rancid divorce-collecting peers, leave small tips on big checks, and engage in the more genteel forms of tax evasion. As part of that, he might periodically pop up on a JumboTron, looking constipated and baggy in someone else's luxury box, as the crowd rustles briefly with recognition—oh wow, that guy from the 1980s—before the control room cuts to a shot of someone better known. Maybe Suzanne Somers is at the game. Maybe the guy who played Major Dad in Major Dad.
Think of this as an image from that possible alternate timeline. It's also Trump talking to Bill O'Reilly at a game between the New York Knicks and the Cleveland Cavaliers in September of 2014, which the Cavs won, 90-87. Quincy Acy started for the Knicks that night; Tim Hardaway Jr. had 20 points in 21 minutes off the bench in a losing effort. There is a future where these two slackening old ulcers just sit there watching the game, talking about the triangle offense or thugs. They leave early, because it's a Tuesday night and they have to be up in the morning. Each gets into a limo that has been idling outside all night, and they sit alone in the seat furthest back, looking at their phones as they sit stuck in the permanent white-noise traffic around the arena, keeping their eyes down as the din from the street grow quieter once they push uptown.
Of all the possible outcomes, the one in which we arrive at this moment has to qualify as one of the least likely. If we did not quite get the future in which Trump faded further and further into thirsty camp, wheedling the occasional gossip page notice and doing harm to no one other than those with the misfortune to be near him, we could very well have had one in which he leveled out about where he was at that basketball game with Bill O'Reilly. That is, as a guy from TV who tweeted stupid memes sometimes and retained a certain down-market patina among more credulous types while serving as a punch line for others. Each group could believe those things while seeing him more or less as he is—a swinging-dick turbo-narcissist with bad taste and nothing much to say, a self-caricature drawn in red and gold crayon, a soft, dull man with a great deal invested in how other people see him but without the sticktoitiveness or basic courage to back it up. Some people would look at that image and see success. Some people would look at it and see, under the gilded balustrades and Versailles-reproduction chaise lounges, something deeply boring.
Donald Trump could probably have lived with either, because what matters most to him is being seen. The culture is lousy with people like this, some of them washed out of politics or entertainment or sports media, and some of them still in it, and we see them passing from one channel to the next. They live from TV appearance to TV appearance, and if those moments between are difficult to imagine, that may just be because there is nothing much there to imagine. They retire to an office lined with books they'll never read, decorated by someone whose name they forgot or never bothered to learn, and they wait for the phone to ring. It's hard to say how good or bad these people are, because they have slipped the surly bonds of whatever they used to be, so that they can more fully Be On Facebook. That is another way that this could all have gone.
I'm not going to ask you to pity Donald Trump, because he does not deserve that. He is vain and cruel and vastly stupid; if he is not alone among contemporary politicians, or even in this campaign, in being willing to immiserate or immolate a thousand people in order to prove some petty point about himself to himself, he is also floridly and multiply defective enough as a human being to stand out among those peers. To consider what it must be like to be Trump, or what he might have been thinking at any of these moments at any of these games, is less frightening than it is exhausting. For all the real and reasonable questions about his soul—what is it, where is it, is it—the answers we can find there in Trump's life all show us someone who is wildly boring, and whose life is terribly small.
The manifest ugliness that has defined Trump's campaign is in every way the outgrowth of his base unwillingness to honor anything but whatever is stinking up his mind at the moment. He doesn't know anything, really, or care; he evinces little capacity for empathy or critical thought, or any interest in anything interesting. Because he is the sort of person who would tweet about Bette Midler's physique as a hurricane flooded his hometown, he is also the sort of person who would torpedo his own Presidential campaign because he just had to tell someone a story about the time he tried and failed to fuck one of the co-hosts of Entertainment Tonight, and dude has indeed done that. He watches television constantly—a former Apprentice contestant, in her statement detailing the sexual assault she alleges Trump forced on her in 2007, describes him saying to her "let's lay down and watch some telly-telly"—and only reads news stories in which he appears; he has poached himself prune-y in the rancid bathwater of cable news and refuses to get out of that robustly befouled tub. The man is in every way a disgrace, and his disgrace grows by the day. That will not end on Election Day, nor will what he represents disappear.
The trouble that Trump brings us every day is a reflection of his own ugliness, and the damage he has done mirrors what is damaged in him. But the blight at the heart of him is not only there, and the atavism that animates his campaign was here long before he was, latent in our politics and our culture and ourselves. All of it—the rank reactive cowardice posturing as toughness, the sophistries and cynicism that excuse a constellation of self-serving cruelties great and small, the weakness for any comforting lie over every troubling truth—will still be here when Trump is, once again, a face in the crowd.
As citizens in a democracy, the fight against what Trump is and does is the fight of our lives, and always has been; every ungenerous and impatient and unfaithful thing that he is and every old and ugly crudity that he awakens in crowds, tracks with the weaknesses that unmake us as individuals. We could have forgotten him long ago, and should have, but that is not really us, either. When we reckon with Trump, we also reckon with ourselves, and the world we have made with our weaknesses and elisions and decisions not to care. In this falling-down season, that is the most dispiriting thing of all: not that we were so lazy or so unkind or so unserious as to have invited this stupid, stupid viciousness into our homes but that it was already there in the frame, indistinct, unmistakable, alien, us. That's not all we are, of course, and that's not the end of the story. We don't know that just yet, and we won't learn that on Election Day, either. We will, one way or the other, have some say in it.
Correction: This post originally misstated the US Open round in which Serena faced Venus. It was the quarterfinals, not the semifinals.