Show me a person who has no true friendships and I’ll show you someone with little if any talent for generosity, which is a muscle built through interactions with those who have no biological or legal claim to you but lean on you nonetheless.
Show me a person who has no true friendships and I’ll show you someone who can’t see the world through another’s eyes. A novel or movie gets you only so far down the road to empathy; to go the distance, you need more intimate, immediate experience of hurts and aspirations not your own. You need friends.
Show me a person who has no true friendships and I’ll show you someone with no adequately moderating influences on his whims, no sufficient cushion for his moods. I’ll show you a full-blown narcissist or full-throttle paranoiac or some combination of both.
I’ll show you the president of the United States.
On Tuesday, two of his campaign aides, Corey Lewandowski and David Bossie, published a book about their time with him, “Let Trump Be Trump.” It’s a cunning volume, adulatory on the surface but with just enough grime underneath to promote sales.
Racing through it, I had three main thoughts. One, Trump needs fiber. (McDonald’s isn’t so much his guilty pleasure as his daily trough.) Two, Trump needs friends. Three, so much of Trump can be explained through the absence of them. His rages and rampages are fruits of his friendlessness.
In the book he doesn’t have people he communes and commiserates with in any raw, real way. He has people he yells at and people he sucks labor and favors from. He has minions, Lewandowski and Bossie among them.
They gush about the pleasure savored by Trump’s dinner companions: “He would regale them with stories from his amazing life.” “Friends” are his rapt audience when there’s no other audience around.
And they’re replaceable. Trump bluntly told Lewandowski that someone else could easily be put in his job. Soon enough someone was.
Lewandowksi and Bossie crow of having observed the man up close, but Trump, cold and monarchic, exists across a moat of his own making.
I’ve been struck by this before.
In October, The Washington Post published a fascinating profile of Thomas Barrack, a billionaire real estate investor described as “one of President Trump’s oldest friends.” The profile’s author, Michael Kranish, wrote that Barrack often wonders how he has lasted 30 years with such a tempestuous, egomaniacal man.
His conclusion? “I’ve never needed anything from him,” Barrack told Kranish. “I was always subservient to him.” That’s obviously how Trump prefers the people around him. On bended knee. In full genuflection.
The Trump biographer Michael D’Antonio told me, “He has hangers-on and he has employees and he has other dependents, but I don’t think he has friends.” He’s too twitchily suspicious. Too vain. And so that twitchiness and vanity go unchecked. They metastasize.
“He had no friends in his military academy who stuck,” D’Antonio said. “He had no friends in college who stuck. He was a USFL owner, and all the other owners wound up hating him.”
I ran D’Antonio’s assessment by Mike Tollin, who produced and directed a documentary about the USFL, a short-lived competitor to the NFL. He told me that Trump “showed no interest in, and seemed largely incapable of, genuine friendship.”
I asked Tollin what a person unschooled in friendship might also be unpracticed at. “Compassion?” he responded. “Compromise? Those are things you learn from friendship.”
Chris Christie was supposedly a friend of Trump’s. I think I can end this paragraph here.
The real estate tycoon Richard LeFrak is ostensibly friendly with Trump. He told The Times’ Alan Feuer in early 2016, “If we’re both in Florida, Donald might call and say, ‘Come have dinner at Mar-a-Lago.’” But if LeFrak suggested that Trump instead come to his place? “He probably won’t do it.”
For Trump, “friendship” isn’t a two-way street. It’s a cul-de-sac. You can spin round and round there, in the shadow of his castle, or you can take your vehicle somewhere else.
Is he all that much different with his kids? When Ivanka and the crew sat with CNN’s Anderson Cooper last year to give testimonials about Trump’s presence and parenting back in the day, they repeatedly (and perhaps inadvertently) noted that for quality time with him, they went to his office, his construction sites. They met him on his terms and terrain.
Everyone does, and that’s anathema to decency and good governance. He gathers and discards allies at will. He acts to sate his own needs, unworried about the impact on others. For him they don’t fully exist. There’s no space for them, because he has never forced himself to carve it out.
“I think of it as an absolute void,” D’Antonio said. It’s no way to live, and it’s no way to lead.
Frank Bruni, an Op-Ed columnist for The New York Times since 2011, joined the newspaper in 1995. Over his years, he has worn a wide variety of hats, including chief restaurant critic and Rome bureau chief.