Ted Rall is an editorial cartoonist of long standing; Donald Trump has proven to be a prime subject for editorial cartoons. Readers might expect Rall’s graphic biography of Trump to be funny, incisive and over the top. Those readers are likely to be disappointed.
The book is well-researched and delves into aspects of Trump’s life, such as his childhood and the complexity of his relations with women. Trump had behavior problems as a boy — he was kicked out of one school — and found his place in a strict military school, where he excelled in an environment in which the rules were very clear. By the time he was 15 years old, his goal was to rule a real estate empire like his father’s.
As far as his relations with women, Trump is on surprisingly good terms with a number of women in his life, including both ex-wives; despite his misogynistic rhetoric, he has promoted women (including his first wife and his daughter) to high positions in his businesses. As a former female vice-president of one of Trump’s businesses puts it, “Donald can be totally outrageous ... [but in private] he’s the dearest, most thoughtful, most caring man.” Who’d’ve thunk it?
Despite these nuggets, though, Rall’s book doesn’t really satisfy. Part of the problem is in the organization; it’s not really a biography in the traditional sense, starting with Trump’s childhood and continuing to the present. Rather, it’s a collection of short graphic essays. There doesn’t seem to be any particular logic to the order; a chapter on Trump’s childhood is followed by a chapter on Trump’s candidacy, which is followed by a chapter on Trump’s early business career, and so on. It’s as if Rall was afraid that the reader would lose interest in a linear narrative.
Most readers may want to know how Trump got to be the way he is. Rall can’t answer that question. It appears, at least from this book, that Trump has always been the way he is. And, as you might expect, he’s never been a very nice guy in his business dealings. One example is the story of Barbizon Plaza, a rent-controlled apartment building Trump bought in 1981. To get the tenants to leave, so that he could convert the building to condos, he stopped doing any maintenance, told the building management to refuse to accept mailed packages, sued the tenants’ lawyer and offered empty units to homeless people in a cynical attempt to force the paying tenants to move. It took five years of this before he gave up and bought out the remaining tenants.
A few years earlier, Trump had fought (and lost) a housing discrimination suit at 39 of his buildings, arguing that the government was forcing him to rent to people on welfare.
Rall tries to put Trump in a larger political context by bringing in nuanced comparisons with the rise of Adolf Hitler and fascism, discussing what aspects of Trump’s rise to power seem fascistic and which do not. But the discussion is superficial. Rall doesn’t mention a huge difference between 1930s Germany and the current situation in the U.S.: While Trump’s base of support is fairly large, it is nowhere near as militant or organized as Hitler’s was; and, conversely, the opposition to Trump, which includes both a mobilized mass movement and the governments of many cities and states, is quite strong.
Part of the disappointment with the book is that Rall’s graphics don’t really illuminate the subject. His drawing style is repetitive — almost all his scenes are people talking, and his people, male or female, look largely the same. They all have big noses, receding jaws, prominent upper lips — to the point that it would be easy to confuse their identities if Rall hadn’t thoughtfully provide labels. While Rall’s signature style may work well for single-frame or short editorial cartoons, it gets tiresome in a book of this length.
Echoing his introductory chapter in a three-page afterword, Rall says that the source of Trump’s charisma and how he got so many people to vote for him are not the most important concerns we should be addressing; instead, he says, we should be talking about the failure of the two-party system in addressing Americans’ basic needs.
“What’s notable about Trump’s campaign slogan [‘make America great again’], especially since it comes from the right, is the acknowledgement that things are not great. That people are suffering. ... Tens of millions of people have been willing to overlook Trump’s flaws as a candidate and as a human being because of that acknowledgment.”
In other words, the political climate was ripe for someone like Trump. It remains to be seen if a new progressive coalition can emerge to address the problems that he’s exploited.