Johnson and Trump, Power and Celebrity
It’s a curious feeling to read a Robert Caro book in the Trump age. I read The Power Broker for the first time — after years of it sitting on the table next to my bed — in late 2015, six months into Trump’s campaign, just as his candidacy started to shift from joke to is this really happening?. I was struck by how much Robert Moses, The Power Broker’s subject and New York master builder who shaped so much of the city, resembled the Trump campaign: the bullying; the childish nicknames; the self-serving, do anything to get ahead mentality.
Early last summer, during a short getaway to Woodstock, in upstate New York, we stumbled upon a big library sale. Among the boxes of books we carted back to Brooklyn with us, were the entirety of Caro’s Lyndon Johnson biographies. I read the first, The Path to Power, almost immediately and am currently in the middle of the second, The Means of Ascent, marking a new summer reading tradition. Deep into this volume, the similarities between Caro’s subject and our current president are, once again, striking.
When Johnson took the presidency, he was the richest man to do so. Despite calls to separate his business assets — to put them in a blind trust — he remained involved and reportedly had a telephone installed in the oval office that connected directly to his Texas companies so he could direct decisions while serving in office. He repeatedly claimed Lady Bird owned and ran the business and he had no interest in its operation. When he started to accumulate some power of his own in Washington, while serving as the Congressional secretary to Texas congressman Joe Kleiberg, he started putting his friends into job when they opened up. The requirements for Johnson to give his friends jobs were not qualifications, intelligence, or even independent success, but rather loyalty. “In public, he talked about ‘loyalty’;” Caro writes,“in private, he gave staff members his definition of that quality.‘I want real loyalty’, he told one young staffer. ‘I want someone who will kiss my ass in Macy’s windows, and say it smells like roses.’”
In college, Johnson was given the nickname “Bull” — short for “Bullshit” — which came from his repeated lies and stretched truths, often exaggerating his own accomplishments and standing. Here’s Caro on the origins of this nickname:
So deeply and widely mistrusted had Lyndon Johnson been at little Southwest Texas State Teachers College in the Hill Country that the nickname he bore during his years on campus was “Bull” (for “Bullshit”) Johnson. And his fellow students (who used his nickname to his face—“hiya, Bull,” “How doing’, Bull?”) believed not only that he lied to them—lied to them constantly, lied about big matters and small, lied so incessantly that he was, in a widely used phrase, “The biggest liar on campus”—but also that some psychological element impelled him to lie, made him lie even when he knew the lie might be discovered, made him, in fact, repeat a lie even after it had been discovered, made him, in one classmate’s words, “a man who just could not tell the truth.”
Caro’s interest is in power. His biographies of both Robert Moses and Lyndon Johnson, while comprehensive, engrossing, and detailed, always look at their subjects through their own quest for power. He’s interested in how power corrupts and seduces. He’s wants to see what happens to men (and yes, for Caro, it’s unfortunately always men) when the goals shift from acquiring power as a means to something else (building a better city, helping a congressional district) to acquiring power just to have power. For Caro, this is where Robert Moses and Lyndon Johnson intersect. “A hallmark of Johnson’s career had been a lack of any consistent ideology or principle, of any moral foundation whatsoever” Caro writes in The Path to Power, “but a willingness to march with any ally who would help his personal advancement.”
The more history I’ve read in the last few years, the better I’ve come to understand this current moment — that this didn’t come out of nowhere. There is a clear line from Johnson to Trump. It was during Johnson’s presidency, of course, that the term ‘credibility gap’ entered our lexicon. It was during the Johnson presidency that the American public began to no longer give the President of the United States the benefit of the doubt, to respect the office unquestionably. If was during the Johnson presidency that we lost faith in our governing officials. (This was galvanized and made public with Nixon, of course, but Caro argues it began with Johnson.)
Now at 83, Caro is still working on his Johnson biographies. They reportedly have now taken longer to write than it took Johnson to live them. Yet I’ve found myself thinking, more than once, how fascinating a Robert Caro-penned Trump biography would be — to go back into his life and look for the signs that would have predicted our current moment, to maybe help us explain the horrors of our time. I’m sure they are there.
But the more I’ve thought about it, and the more I talked with friends about my desire to read such a book, I’ve started to realize that Trump is different in one key way: where Johnson (and Moses) are driven by power, I’m not sure that’s what Trump is actually after. What drives Trump is not power, but celebrity. Where Johnson wanted power just to have power, I think Donald Trump wants to be famous just to be famous. Daniel Boorstin defined ‘celebrity’ as a person who’s famous for being famous. Trump wants to be liked, to be praised, to be talked about. His campaign talking points were driven by poll numbers, ratings, the amount of Twitter followers. This is why he left the business of actually building his own buildings to simply licensing his name to be used on other buildings. He’s not interested in being in real estate, he’s interested in branding, in seeing his name everywhere. Just last week, as he once again began talking about his 2016 win, he framed it not by victory but by how many people watched television that night. (What?!)
This, perhaps, is the fundamental difference between Donald Trump and most of the others who have served as president. Perhaps this helps explain the continued rallies post-election, the pseudo-event tweets, the press conferences, the reality television style revolving staff. This is entertainment for him. He’s thinking as a television programmer not as a politician.
But celebrity, of course, is its own type of power. Maybe he’s more a Caro subject than it seems. History doesn’t repeat itself, Mark Twain supposedly said, but it certainly does rhyme.