What drives Donald Trump, the journalist Michael Lewis asked in The New York Times in 1990? Not greed, was his assessment, but “a pathological need for control”.
Exactly what he wants to control, Lewis isn’t completely sure to this day. Reviewing Trump: Surviving at the Top, he found that Trump “seems merely to want to control the opinion others hold of him”. His article described three deceptively simple tricks by which Trump creates and sustains his image.
1. Saying how admired and loved he is.
“When he walks down Fifth Avenue about 25 perfect strangers wave and shout, ‘Hi, Donald’ and ‘How’re you doing Donald?’ and ‘Keep up the good work’.”
2. Giving a new name to things or people – a deed, a failure, a building, a wife. His name, usually.
“Pick the wrong name, and no matter what else you do you’ll never be a hit,” counsels Trump. This was his explanation for calling one of his casinos simply "Trump".
3. Making up a story after the fact.
When Trump was near bankruptcy and no longer able to afford his yacht, Trump Princess, he explained the setback not by a lack of money but as a spiritual rebirth: “Impressive as it’s been to my casino customers, I think I’m giving up the game of who’s got the best boat ... It’s funny how the boat seemed more appropriate to my life in the past than to my future.”
The tricks serve the guiding principle of Trump-the-businessman, as Lewis presciently identified from the book: “Success, so often, is just a matter of perception.”
A crisis where he can’t be the hero
Success as perception is an unfortunate rule of thumb for someone now in charge of fighting the corona crisis. In a pandemic, even success is often perceived as failure.
“The problem with this problem,” Michael Lewis tells me, speaking via Skype from his writing cabin at home in Berkeley, California, “is that if you actually do it optimally, everybody is pissed off at you. Because from everybody’s else’s point of view, you’ve done it too soon. Nothing [bad] happened.”
There’s no glory in prevention, as the saying goes. “And we now have a president of the United States who has no interest in anything where there is no glory. We have leadership that is psychologically ill-equipped to deal with this problem.”
With 4% of the world’s population, the US has reported 28% of the deaths from Covid-19
This may not come as a surprise if you suspect, as Lewis does, that Trump doesn’t really want to be president. And not because Trump doesn’t believe in government, or wants “small government”. In reality, Trump is disinterested in governing. He just lacks appetite for the day-to-day running of the organisation where he’s been put in charge. (To call this libertarianism is another example of making up a story after the fact.)
A pandemic demands a centralised, coordinated government strategy. “It’s a problem like a war, that’s naturally centralised,’’ Lewis says. However, the 50 states of America are expected to figure it out on their own with minimal assistance from the White House. Many even encounter active opposition to their efforts.
“If Russia invaded the United States,” Lewis tells me, “the president wouldn’t be saying: ‘Go on, governors, raise your army, and see what you can do about this. Hey Montana, if you wanna talk to South Dakota about coordinating forces, go ahead!’ You wouldn’t do that, but that’s what he’s done. He said, basically: ‘I have no responsibility for this’.”
Lewis sees the consequences in the coronavirus statistics. “That’s maybe the big reason why we have 100,000 deaths. We’re what, 4% of the world population, and we have 28% of the deaths? We’re supposed to be the most sophisticated, data-drenched scientific establishment in the world. In many ways we have the best tools of everybody.”
“The analogy I keep coming back to is: we’re a team filled with all these talented players that has a really crappy coach. It’s a coach who managed to take lots of talent and turn it into the worst team in the league. It’s almost hard to do. It’s funny: what sport could you do that in? It’d be hard to do in basketball or baseball, but in American football you could do that. Because strategy is so important.
“You could actually screw it up so badly that the most talented team loses. So he’s like a really bad football coach.”
Urgent question: how is he going to kill me?
If this sounds like book material, here’s some news: Lewis – the author of Liar’s Poker, Moneyball, The Big Short and more, and host of the podcast Against the Rules ( season 2 just went online, prompting the interview) – is writing a book about the pandemic. Just two days before our conversation he promised to deliver a manuscript to his publisher by summer 2021.
“The material is natural material for me, because The Fifth Risk, my last book, was just this thing. It was asking: what happens when the government is not managing the risks? You know there’re a thousand different risks it’s supposed to manage. What happens if one actually happens?”
Government isn’t just bureaucracy, it’s a whole network of interesting and competent people motivated by passion for the common good
The Fifth Risk (2018) emerged from a deep sense of existential dread. In late January 2017 Lewis was lying in his own bed at home, recovering from hip surgery and groggy from painkillers, watching the television broadcast of Trump entering the White House. The question that consumed him was: how is he gonna kill me?
“The first thing was: nukes,” Lewis says. “When you think ‘president’ and ‘risk’ you think ‘nukes’. He’s got the nuclear arsenal at his fingertips. He is going to press a button, and we’re all going to go up in smoke.”
That question prompted a quest to discover exactly what the apparatus that Trump would be running – the government – did, does, and can do. Lewis had written previously about Obama: “to see what the world looks like sitting in that seat, with all this insanity moving around him.” But the machinery of the government itself had never interested him. Why would it? The government is an “amorphous, sluggish, seemingly indestructible thing”. A fact of life, in the way that parents are when you’re a child: they’re there and they do their best – that’s it.
Trump’s disdain for the apparatus he was meant to lead changed all that. So Lewis wrote a book that described the government not as a cumbersome bureaucracy, but as the employer of a whole network of interesting and competent people, motivated not by money but by a passion for “the common good”.
Above all, Lewis discovered, the US government was exciting – a dynamic manager of “the biggest portfolio of risks in human history”.
Reasons to be interested in the government
Sure, the nuclear risks that Lewis had feared through a haze of post-surgery pills were real enough. But the government also has to manage a wide array of more subtle, less tangible, more improbable threats. Like natural disasters, power outages, food insecurity and reliable food supply, a tendency to over-medicalisation, inequality (and how this can lead to revolution) or, on page 25, “an airborne virus that causes millions of deaths”.
A poorly led government makes all those improbable disasters slightly less improbable. (And vice versa, a well-led government can make all sorts of unlikely positive outcomes slightly more likely, Lewis pointed out.) A first problem when Trump took office was that the government machine was in poor condition after decades of neglect.
Then came a second problem: the new president engaged it as if the government were a hostile enemy. Repeat: that’s right: Trump treated the apparatus he was supposed to operate like an enemy. “It was already a tool in disrepair, and then Trump comes in and takes a sledgehammer to it,” Lewis says. In a sense, Trump was the logical outcome of a decades-long process. A society that systematically neglects and undervalues its government ends up with a president who does not want to be president.
The story can almost have no facts in it that are true. But Trump believes the story. There’s this great line that the best con men believe their own con
Just last year, Lewis speculated that it would take “a pandemic” for the US public to truly appreciate the value of the government – and of competent leadership. A hurricane or earthquake would not have the same effect, because those are localised phenomena which can be explained and dismissed as isolated incidents. “Then everybody thinks: oh, that happened to them.”
A pandemic, by definition, reaches far and wide. “I thought a pandemic might do it. One: it affects everybody. Two: it’s terrifying, and the big thing is that elites can’t avoid it. Even the investment bankers get sick and die. So everybody is all of a sudden woken up to this existential dread that I felt three years ago.”
What are his thoughts today – now the pandemic has actually arrived, and a poorly led government has to fight it? “People don’t like to change their political opinions. And you can see that his support has not quite collapsed yet,” Lewis tells me. “But when all of a sudden people are dying around you … other narratives can pop into your head. If anything’s going to change American society’s attitude toward its own government, it’s this. The only other thing would be like a world war. If this doesn’t do it, it’s hard to imagine what would.”
All sorts of rich, powerful people are suddenly taking an interest
Naturally, Trump is trying to spin the pandemic in all sorts of ways. He gives it another name, a different twist, some other explanation – just as he did with the yacht he could no longer afford. Success is a matter of perception.
The most severe forecasts predicted over 2 million corona-related deaths in the US. Anything under two million, and Trump will sell it as a success. He appears immune to political scandals, more so than any politician before him. Why wouldn’t he get away with this too?
Lewis: “I don’t doubt that they’ll try to do that. I do doubt that they’ll be successful. It’s simply that there’s so much of Trump on tape that you can glue together for political advertisements. Saying that nobody’s gonna die, saying it’s a hoax, saying all that stuff he said. I don’t think Americans are gonna buy that it’s a success when two million people die. What he will do is lie and say two million people didn’t die. But there are the bodies.”
Trump will do what he’s been doing all his life, predicts Lewis. “After the fact he makes up a story. And the story can almost have no facts in it that are true. But he believes the story. There’s this great line that the best con men believe their own con. He gets himself into a state … From everybody else’s perspective, [to anybody] who knows anything, he’s just lying through his teeth. But for him it becomes the story.”
Political ads will air on a loop in Pennsylvania and Wisconsin and Michigan and Florida. There won’t be a person in Wisconsin that won’t have seen them 10 times
The story that Trump will tell will contain three elements, according to Lewis: “First: They’re lying about how many people died – not many people died. Second: I did a great job because all these people were supposed to die and they didn’t. Third: somehow, some way the Democrats or people in the blue states obstructed my ability to deal with the problem.”
And yet Lewis doubts that Trump can get away with it this time.
“The difference is the fear of Donald Trump and the worry about the effect that he has, is much greater than it was four years ago. Nobody thought he was ever going to win. Now you have Michael Bloomberg, sitting there with 50 billion dollars, willing to spend half of it on political ads. And it’s not just Michael Bloomberg.
"You have big, rich powerful people on the other side who have the capacity to get the truth out. And it’s bi-partisan ... All these people are now being forced to re-evaluate their complacency, because they see the effect. That silent but very powerful side of America, especially business leadership, I think is going to show up in a way they didn’t show up.
“These ads will land hard. And they will air on a loop in Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin and Michigan and Florida. I won’t be seeing those ads in California, but there won’t be a person in Wisconsin that won’t have seen them 10 times.
“Take the reddest of red America: Oklahoma City. You may really like Trump and you may only watch Fox News, but you will know a few people who died. And you can’t deny that. And you will also know that Oklahoma City is only a minuscule fraction of America. You’ll be able to make that crude calculation. It’s just going to be really hard to deny the deaths.”
You won’t make Michael Lewis feel hopeless
Two big questions hang in the air. First, whether Trump will leave the White House. Second, whether the US American public could rediscover how useful a functioning government can be. “We need to be coached like a team, rather than two teams fighting each other.” Is that possible? “Yes. We’re a very weird society. We shape-shift. So, yes, it’s possible. You’ve got to remember: it wasn’t that long ago that we elected a black man to be president of the United States. Who saw that coming?
“This whole event [the virus] has been powerful evidence for the importance of leadership. The difference between a good leader and a bad leader is amazing. I don’t know if Biden has it in him, I hope he does, but if he doesn’t, maybe he’s got a vice-president who’s got it in him or her. Maybe a voice will emerge that’s basically unifying the country from Washington, that people will attend to.”
I’m reminded of a comment from earlier in our interview. Lewis brought up the work of Max Stier, CEO of the non-profit Partnership for Public Service, who worked to get legislation which required a sitting administration to prepare an incoming administration on how to run the government. Obama’s people had prepared detailed briefings for Trump’s people, only to discover that Trump’s people weren’t interested. So why not make it mandatory, too, I asked, for incoming governments to get educated?
Stier, when I speak to him, puts my naive question to bed. If an incoming administration is just not interested, making political education mandatory won’t work. “Better rules can help but will never solve mediocre or poor leadership,” he says. But they can help. Stier is focused on changing two sets of rules. One: reducing the number of political appointees that a new government has to make. Two: getting better qualified people to fill the roles. “The one helps achieve the other,” Stier says. “If there are fewer people you need to appoint, then you’ll have less incompetent people.”
Lewis also doubts that incoming presidents should have to take an obligatory course in how to lead. “The better idea would be for the American people to elect someone to be president who actually wants to manage the government,” he says. And yes – this can happen. “I don’t feel hopeless,” he says laughing. “If you’re trying to get me to feel hopeless, you’ll fail.”
‘I hunt the world for characters’
If he’s honest, Lewis says, the pandemic has worked out fairly well for him on a personal level. “If we could have pandemic rules for two months a year ... [he would]. Two months where you’re not allowed to travel, two months your children have to be home with you, two months where your life gets very simple ... It gets rid of all this noise. There’s so many things that I would have done in these two months that I didn’t really want to do, but that I kind of had to do (...) and it all just fell away. If we could have that without the death and the illness ... "
I’m a lazy writer. If you have a character that’s disruptive to his environment, it’s really easy to describe
The prospect of writing a new book helped to keep him going. His enjoyment is palpable, although he refuses to say a word about the book itself. “It’s a rule I have. It’s a really bad idea to talk about the books before they are written. It screws me up in how I do it. Because sometimes it changes in the middle of the thing and I get wedded and attached, so I’m not going to talk about it.”
It’s guesswork, but reasonable to assume this new book will be about the private sector initiatives compensating for the government’s many failures – a theme that Lewis has hinted at in interviews, where he compared Trump to an alcoholic father in the family, someone that everyone tries to work around wherever possible.
A safe bet is that the book will be populated by yet more adventurous protagonists. All Lewis’s books are filled with disruptive characters (including Lewis himself) characterised by “an uncomfortable relationship with the status quo; they’re aware that something is wrong”. Their encounters sweep the reader along on a journey to explore frequently complex topics (from semiconductors to baseball statistics, financial derivatives or high-frequency trading).
By his own account, the quest for leading characters “may be an indication of how lazy I am as a writer. If you have a character that is disruptive in some way to his environment, it’s really easy to describe the character. But it also makes it easier to describe the environment, because he is mucking around”.
Lewis needs characters. Unlike, say, Malcolm Gladwell who can make a topic come to life all by himself. Or, as I put it to Lewis bluntly: “Malcolm Gladwell doesn’t really need people.” Perhaps a bit harsh, but Lewis responds enthusiastically that he’ll send Gladwell – a friend and a colleague – a teasing email about this. “Because it’s true.”
“I am much happier, it’s more fun for me, to find characters who are vehicles. If I can attach a reader to a person on the page, that character will take the reader all kinds of places I would find it very hard to take them myself. You can infect the reader with the character’s passions, and make the character’s passions the readers’ passions. And that lets you do all kinds of stuff that is really not obvious. It gets people to want to understand things they did not know they wanted to understand ... It’s totally true: I move through the world hunting for characters.”
‘I can’t just go out and write a good book about climate change’
All this means Lewis won’t write about a topic simply because it’s important. For example: climate change.
“My oldest child is 21, a sophomore in college, and she is obsessed – rightly – with climate change. She keeps saying, ‘Dad, you really have to write a book about climate change’. And I say, ‘Fine, but what’s the book? How am I going to electrify the material? And make this something other than what everybody knows?’ I would have to find the person to write it through. Or people. And I haven’t. I haven’t spent a lot of time looking, but I do pay attention and I haven’t seen a way to do it.”
If you want to read a book by Michael Lewis on the topic of climate change, in other words, first give him a compelling main character to write about. The problem isn’t the topic. The problem is the lack of a suitable character: “Climate change is very hard to dramatise, that’s the problem.” He pauses for a fraction of a second. “Until it’s too late. Then it’s easy to dramatise.”
Note to world: someone please find Michael Lewis a character.
Lewis and I also talked about the second season of his podcast, Against the Rules, and about the insane professionalisation of US American youth sports. He’s just finished a book about the softball "career" of his teenage daughter Dixie. Listen to our interview in the podcast at the top of this article.