Critic's Notebook: 'Frontline' Delivers Dark Psychological Portrait of 'President Trump'

Courtesy of PBS
'President Trump' on PBS' 'Frontline'

Look for a Trump tweet calling for defunding public television after this scathing biography.

It was the most politically calamitous stand-up comedy routine in American history — at least, according to PBS’s Frontline, which in Tuesday night’s documentary President Trump singles out President Barack Obama’s eviscerating takedown of President-elect Donald Trump during the 2011 White House Correspondents' Dinner as the defining moment in which the businessman resolved to run for president. Footage from the event shows the president gleefully delivering one-liners with perfect comic timing as Trump, a frozen smile plastered on his face, seems to emit steam from his ears.

“He’s being treated like a pinata by the president of the United States,” comments New Yorker editor David Remnick.

The segment set the tone of the documentary’s psychological approach to its subject. Featuring incisive comments from journalists, former employees and associates (not to mention such distinguished figures as reality show personality, and expected Trump White House staffer, Omarosa Manigault), it presented a portrait of the president-elect dark enough to make Edgar Allan Poe blanch. Expect a tweet about the upcoming defunding of public television in the very near future.

Described by its narrator as “drawing from” the earlier PBS documentary The Choice 2016, the program recycled the by-now familiar biographical tale of Trump’s hardscrabble upbringing in a palatial house in Queens that the family referred to as “Tara.” His personality mirrors that of his father Fred, a driven real-estate developer who was cold to his children and defined people as either “winners or losers.”

As one of his biographers points out, Trump himself claims that he hasn’t really changed since he was in the first grade. As a teenager, he was so rowdy that his fed-up father decided to send him to the toughest boarding school he could find, the New York Military Academy. Trump apparently thrived in the rigorous environment, and according to one fellow student, his proudest achievement was being designated the school’s “Ladies Man” in its yearbook.

Early in his career, Trump’s chief mentor was Roy Cohn, which pretty much tells you all you need to know. He hired the notorious lawyer, best known as Senator Joe McCarthy’s chief attack dog, to defend him and his father against charges of racial discrimination in their housing developments. After his countersuit was dismissed, Trump was forced to settle, but that didn’t stop him from declaring victory in the case.

Much like Tony Manero in Saturday Night Fever, Trump dreamed of making it big in Manhattan, and he finally did with the grandiose Trump Tower. The building was 58 stories tall, but in true Trump fashion, he claimed it was 60.

“How he got away with that I’m not sure, but he did,” says Barbara Res, who served as executive vice president of the Trump organization during that time.

Predating Stephen Colbert’s coining of “truthiness,” Trump described his promotional style as “truthful hyperbole” in his best-selling book The Art of the Deal. Co-author Tony Schwartz says that he was the one who actually came up with the phrase, which he now describes as “ridiculous.”

Trump began having presidential aspirations as early as 1988 — in part, according to the documentary — to soothe his all-powerful ego bruised by the rejection of Manhattan’s old money elite. Adviser Roger Stone says that Trump wasn’t really serious about it back then, but it’s clear that, as the show’s narrator intones, “He loved the attention.” Trump also inserted himself into such local issues as the Central Park jogger case, publicly calling for the execution of the five young defendants, and has refused to apologize even after they were ultimately exonerated.

If he was watching, Trump was surely displeased by the documentary’s detailing of his many business failures, including the Taj Mahal casino resort in Atlantic City (without a hint of irony, the narrator informs us that it was “huge”), the Plaza Hotel and Trump Airlines, among many others. His failures reduced him to the level of glorified pitchman, as evidenced by clips from his appearances in commercials for Pizza Hut (in which he made light of his marital troubles with Ivana) and McDonald’s. But he roared back to media glory with the reality series The Apprentice, in which, Stone points out, “he looked presidential.”

Trump also garnered much attention with the “birther” controversy, which Cohn would surely have applauded.

In the course of just five years, Trump has gone from being the brunt of Obama’s jokes to sitting next to him in the Oval Office as the president-elect. And it’s all, this documentary suggests, because he didn’t get enough love as a child.