"Do you know what trolling is?" I asked Donald Trump.
It was late one January afternoon last year, and we were sitting in a dimly lit den at the billionaire's 17-acre Palm Beach estate. He responded that he was unfamiliar with the term, and at his request I attempted to define it for him. "It's basically saying or doing things just to provoke people," I said, explaining that there were many who considered him a troll because "provocation is your ultimate goal."
Trump bristled at the characterization. "That's not my ultimate goal," he protested. "My ultimate goal is to make this country great again!" But then, he thought about it for a moment. "I do love provoking people," he conceded. "There is truth to that."
We ended up spending a good portion of our interview that afternoon discussing Trump's notorious trolling tactics — how he picks his targets, how he aims to elicit the most hysterical reactions possible, how he is better at this than everyone else. At one point, he briefly swerved toward introspection. "I don't know if it's a good thing or a bad thing, by the way," he confided. But then he corrected course and shrugged. "That's just the nature of me."
On Tuesday, Trump put those natural-born instincts on full display as he glided majestically down the gold-framed escalator in his eponymous Manhattan skyscraper; seized the podium at the head of an atrium packed with more than 100 reporters; and launched into a rambling, hour-long rant on national TV that was studded with incendiary rhetoric aimed squarely at the listeners' viscera.
Every outrageous line that tumbled out of Trump's mouth ricocheted across Twitter, and kept the cameras trained on him for much longer than live TV usually allows. The performance was too irresistible.
Trump on Mexican immigrants: "They're bringing drugs, they're bringing crime, they're rapists, and some, I assume, are good people."
Trump on Islamic terrorists: "They've become rich. I'm in competition with them."
Trump on China: "I'm not saying they're stupid. I like China. I just sold an apartment for $15 million. Am I supposed to dislike 'em? ... But their leaders are much smarter than our leaders. And we can't sustain ourselves with that. It's like, take the New England Patriots and Tom Brady and have them play your high school football team."
Bellicose diatribes like these are why Trump is sometimes referred to in political circles as a "carnival barker" — a description President Obama famously used while skewering the right-wing real estate mogul at the 2011 White House Correspondents Dinner. But the term isn't quite right. In America's electoral circus, Trump doesn't play the part of the fast-talking promoter who entices passersby with "Step right up!" invitations to come see the weird, wondrous, and wild spectacles within. He is, himself, the Bearded Lady. And like any good sideshow attraction, he knows the only way to keep eyeballs on him is to find new tricks intended to shock, rattle, rile, incite, and inflame.
By these standards, his performance at Trump Tower on Tuesday might have seemed like a success — yet another triumph for the celebrity troll who successfully hijacked the day's news cycle. But in this case, it was unclear who, exactly, was trolling whom.
"Ladies and gentlemen," he proclaimed, grandly extending his arm in a sweeping gesture as though unveiling a new line of branded neckties. "I am officially running for president of the United States."
Trump has been publicly teasing the possibility of a political career for about a quarter-century now — constantly claiming that he is on the brink of running for president, only to back out at the last minute after gobbling up thousands of news media man-hours. This scheme proved for years to be a reliable attention magnet for Trump, but by the end of 2012, the political class — having been strung along for months of increasingly ludicrous and toxic partisan showmanship — had largely soured on the charade. Media coverage dwindled. Conservative goodwill evaporated. No one seemed to believe him when he tried stoking 2016 speculation.
Such was the dire state of Trump-mentum when I caught up with him early last year. Even inside the billionaire's bubble of lavish wealth and fawning yes-men serving a steady diet of praise and plaudits, Trump seemed alarmed by his fading political relevance. He was positively starved for validation from the political world, and consumed with a surprising amount of status anxiety.
That's the story I ended up writing.
Suffice it to say, he didn't like it.
What Trump was beginning to realize was that he had backed himself into a corner. The serious attention he craved from political elites was never going to return until he officially uttered the words, "I'm running for president." He had no options left. He had to run. But even now that he's a candidate, the coverage so far has seemed to treat his campaign like something between performance art and outright farce.
There are good reasons for the skepticism. The "financial disclosure" Trump released this week — declaring $9 billion in assets — more closely resembles a dream board than a set of official financial documents. If he actually discloses his tax returns like a credible, real-life candidate, he risks revealing a messier and more modest personal fortune. Not classy.
It is also worth noting that Trump has not yet actually filed the requisite paperwork with the Federal Election Commission that would make his candidacy official. He has 15 days to do so, and a spokesperson promised the New York Times that he would. In the meantime, voters face the possibility of being forced to settle for one of the other 397 candidates who have legally declared.
A liberal blogger even claimed Tuesday night that he recognized a professional actor — posing in a campaign T-shirt — from one of the photos of Trump's kickoff event. I tracked down the actor's name and emailed him requesting comment, but got no response. When I asked a Trump spokesperson whether they had hired actors to fill the event, his campaign manager, Corey Lewandowoski, called back with a roundabout denial. "I recommend you go and do your homework before you write something that's completely factually untrue," he said. "You've tried that already."
Perhaps the most interesting question hovering over Trump's 2016 high-wire act is what kind of net he has installed to catch him when he inevitably finds himself in free fall. Unlike the last election, when an abnormally unappealing collection of candidates and a dissatisfied electorate conspired briefly to land Trump on top of a couple hypothetical polls, his standing in today's race is decidedly unimpressive. One poll in April found that 62% of Republicans would not even consider voting for him. He is viewed less favorably than almost every other contender. Many polls show him sitting at around ninth place in the field.
Last time we spoke, Trump let me in on his wife Melania's theory about his prospects. "She said, 'You know darling, if you ever announce that you're actually running, your polls will go through the roof,'" Trump said. "I think that might be right. A lot of people, they like me but they say, 'I'm not gonna play this game.' Because they think it's a game. It's not a game!" He repeated the rationale a few more times, and he could probably discern my skepticism, because eventually he added, "Pollsters are telling me the same thing. Professional pollsters."
Maybe Melania will end up confounding the data journalists. But if not, Trump may soon find himself in a precarious situation. The entire ethos of his empire is premised on the notion that Donald Trump is a winner, and his critics are irrelevant, jealous, pathetic failures. How would he square that perception with reality if he flames out as a single-digit also-ran in Iowa?
Trump routinely insists that if he had run in 2012, he would be in the Oval Office today. When I was with him, he even argued that Romney would have won if his campaign had made better use of The Donald as a surrogate.
Why didn't they recognize such an obvious path to victory? I asked.
"Stuart Stevens is a loser," Trump shrugged, referring to the campaign's chief strategist. He then mused that Romney was "afraid of me," and claimed the candidate's aides were concerned that next to a dynamic, commanding figure like himself, Mitt "would look secondary, not like a presidential contender."
Trump has been able to make claims like these for the past 25 years because he has never had to test them. Every time he storms onto the national political stage, he makes sure a trap door awaits that will allow him to make a quick, clean exit before the lights get too hot. It has been the most important face-saving mechanism in his political "career." He no longer has it at his disposal.