Trump’s ‘Rosebud’: What Happened?

"Who's that, behind me? Oh, it is you again, Mr. Trump!" The candidate with some employees at his golf course, yesterday in Florida.  (Jonathan Ernst / Reuters)
Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

Yesterday, in installment #148 of the time capsules, I contrasted circa-2008 videos of a (comparatively) thoughtful-sounding Donald Trump with the splenetic buffoon we see today, and asked, What happened?

Readers offer three hypotheses.

1) You’re fooling yourself. There’s no change. From a reader in California:

I differ with your take on Trump’s comments about the movie. (Caveat: I have a serious problem watching film at all.) I’m not interested in cinematography, never mind Trump’s views of same. However, your statement, “For any rich person to say these things about the movie would be something,” is simply mistaken. Trump isn’t saying anything about “the movie.” He’s riffing on his own self-absorbed impressions of wealth, women, and personal relationships. He makes one bland remark about the camera’s emphasis on the extent of the table ...

In sum, “this other Trump” is not by a stretch another Trump. He’s the same Trump, but at the time one who wasn’t running for POTUS.

FWIW, what struck me about Trump’s “Rosebud” comments was not his assessment of Citizen Kane as a film itself but rather his allusions to the distancing effects of wealth. Through the past year, we’ve heard him say “I’m really rich!” (or used to, back in the “self-funding” days). We still hear him say “I’m so smart” and “I have the greatest temperament.” It’s a different tone in these clips.


2) It’s a change, but on purpose. From another reader:

What happened? This has been my theory from day one: Trump the movie critic, the wheeler-dealer, as well as the X-rated media guru, is the genuine article, while Trump the religious, pro-life, GOP conservative, redneck, Tea Partier ... is fake.

An act. A stunt. A last gasp for something big before its too late ... that somehow won a primary ... then two ... then the nomination.

Nobody was more shocked than he was.

He is a lifelong New Yorker, city slicker, playboy, Democrat ... now playing a character from rural Mississippi(?) ... or West Virginia. Other days he’s Archie Bunker, in a one-man play, on stage. The crowd loves him!

He’s done enough of these stump speeches that he can probably do them in his sleep. But the pro-gun (bwaahaha!) Trump is kinda like me singing in the shower: not my real voice, out of tune, probably haven’t really studied the lyrics.

More proof for my theory: Go back and look at the stuff that leaked out after his meeting with the New York Times editorial board. He basically said, “Can you guys believe this? I’ve got them eating out of my hands!” (And “Oh, and about those illegal immigrants, meh. Whatever. We’ll figure something out later.”)


3) It’s a change, and not on purpose. An assessment that is downbeat in a different way:

The answer, I suspect, to your question in #148 is ... age.

I’ve become increasingly suspicious of opinion that doesn’t take this into account. We would all like lives lived to four score and ten without any diminishment, and that happens regularly now, but those who remain acute and fully engaged for six score or more are rare no matter how much we would all like to join the club.

The increasingly demented things that Trump says are, er, well, demented and do not come from the hormone-ridden enthusiasms of an uncontrolled 30 year old; they come from a 70 year old. He remembers what the 30 year old was like, believes he is the same incarnate, and wants to make his mark on history as the end approaches. It is clear he now has no control of his expression on a stage where his (putative) wealth and its implied authority and a very long time before the public eye can have disastrous consequences.

Take your pick; elements of truth in all of these, I think. Also, on the “Rosebud” question in the conventional sense, of what makes Trump the way he is, please check out this fascinating NYT piece by Michael Barbaro on Trump’s longstanding and powerful dread of public humiliation or loss of status. (And ironically enough, the result of this campaign ... )

Twelve days and some hours to go. Tax returns still not released. Paul Ryan and Reince Priebus still on board, saying Make This Man POTUS!