One of the more bizarre and unsettling aspects of Donald Trump’s bizarre and unsettling campaign has been the repeated insistence from some of his supporters that the person he represents on the campaign trail is not who he actually is. “He’s absolutely not a sexist,” his daughter Ivanka said early on. “He’s not a racist guy,” Trump’s old pal Larry King insisted; he just “plays to that crowd.” Family friend Wendi Murdoch has explained it this way: “When people are running for office, sometimes they say things.” This is indisputably true — not just that they “say things” but that they sometimes say different things in public and in private, as we’ve seen from the Clinton campaign’s leaked emails. But there’s a difference between, say, what Clinton does — talking tough on the concept of “Wall Street” to crowds and being mildly empathetic to rooms full of actual financial-services workers — and what Trump’s supporters seem to maintain he is doing, which is acting like a totally different person. As Trump surrogate Ben Carson put it: “There’s two different Donald Trumps. There’s the one you see on the stage and there’s the one who’s very cerebral, sits there and considers things very carefully.”
The idea that there is a Secret Trump, hidden like a matryoshka doll inside the Donald’s hulking carapace, is an idea that his small base of elite and educated supporters have whispered about, among themselves, throughout the many crises of his campaign. “Most people kind of feel like they don’t really know what the truth is,” one New York power broker told me this past summer, after Trump said something offensive, I don’t even remember which thing. For people who are repelled by the idea of Hillary Clinton — and there are many, among the libertarian-leaning one percent — or whose main concern is their tax rate, it’s far less frightening to believe that the other candidate is a skilled strategist with a plan than to believe that he is an incorrigibly impulsive, sexist, racist charlatan whose famous hair conceals a belfry full of bats.
Secret Trump Theory was brought into the open earlier this month, during a debate between Anthony Scaramucci, a hedge fund manager and member of Trump’s economic council, and Marc Lasry, the billionaire founder of Avenue Capital, a longtime Clinton supporter. The event, which was hosted by Harvard Business School’s alumni association and held in the offices of a Park Avenue law firm, had been billed as a discussion of the candidates’ economic policies, which it was, until about halfway through, when the discussion turned, inevitably, to temperament.
“It’s a strategy,” Scaramucci said, when the subject of Trump’s position on China, which he has accused of “beating,” “raping,” and “stealing” from the United States, and his assertion that he might “pull out” of the World Trade Organization came up.
“Here’s the problem with Mr. Trump — he’s a New Yorker,” said Scaramucci, who himself speaks with a Long Island folksiness that belies his background at Harvard and Goldman Sachs. “And so like a lot of us he is prone to these … rhetorical flourishes. When he gets into these meeting rooms he goes a googootz, he goes a little crazy. He says things that are little bit off.”
“He’s also running for president, though,” interjected Lasry.
“He is running for president as a nonpolitician,” countered Scaramucci.
Lasry rolled his eyes. “Come on,” he said. “Everyone is constantly saying with Donald, ‘No, you don’t understand, he didn’t mean that, he wouldn’t do that.’ But he is the guy who may be president of the United States.”
Scaramucci continued. “This isn’t just intuitive reactionary stuff,” he said. “The strategy is, he is trying to galvanize a movement of disaffected people that enjoy the flamethrowing because they are so upset with the political class in Washington. They want to send a Molotov cocktail into Washington with a rhetorical flamethrower. Now you may not like that about him, and to be honest, I don’t like that about him. But he is looking at the math. Let’s talk about Pennsylvania. There are about two million white voters registered in Pennsylvania that did not vote in the 2012 election. The president won that state by about 350,000 votes. If Mr. Trump gets half of those people to the polls, his path to the American presidency becomes way easier and much clearer. And in order to get those people out, many of those people, the reasons why they are not voting is that they are disaffected from the system. They don’t like what is happening in Washington. And by the way, I say candidly, I don’t agree with all of the bellicosity of the rhetoric. But it is a defined strategy to bring out the vote to make him become the American president.”
The idea of a wealthy white man purposely inciting fear and anger in disaffected people merely to fulfill his own agenda of amassing personal power wouldn’t play well in every room. Graduates of Harvard Business School, however, are apparently more used to this kind of thing, and Scaramucci’s response was greeted with murmurs of understanding from both sides of the aisle.
“I get that it’s the strategy,” Lasry said, kind of lamely. “But if the strategy is one where what you are going to do is insult or try to throw cocktails and get people emotionally disturbed and upset — that, to me, is not the person you want to end up having as your president.”
Not everyone was so sure. During the question and answer period, a female investment banker stood up with a question. “I understand what you said, that there is a strategy behind some of the bellicosity,” she said to Scaramucci. “Nonetheless, some of the things he says really give the impression of a person who is not in control. How do you get comfortable with that part of him?”
“Here’s what I can tell you,” Scaramucci said. “When he is in front of people, he is an entertainer. That’s why The Apprentice had the ratings it did. But when he is sitting with a group of advisers getting a security briefing, or an economic briefing, he is well studied, asking good questions, and you would not question his temperament.”
The room pondered this. “But what about at three in the morning, tweeting about Alicia Machado?” the woman asked.
Scaramucci conceded that, yes, that was bad. He didn’t like that episode much either. But he insisted it, too, was strategy. “The guy’s outward media personality, which he’s had for 40 years is, you hit me, I’m gonna hit you ten times,” he explained. “He thinks that persona is what’s driving people. And he’s not wrong,” he pointed out. “Look at the primaries. Lyin’ Ted. Li’l Marco. The guy is a master at decimating his competition.” The conversation went on a bit longer. “All I can tell you,” Scaramucci finally said, “is that behind closed doors, he is a thoughtful, studious person.”
“That nobody’s ever seen,” interjected Lasry.
“I’ve seen him,” insisted Scaramucci, who, perhaps afraid of sounding like a person who claims to have seen Bigfoot, added that his friends have seen him as well. “I have taken many of my Establishment Republican friends on the plane and said, ‘See what you think,’” he said. “And it does change things.”
Afterward, the female investment banker told me that while she was disturbed by Trump’s personality, she was predisposed to vote for him because she had grown up in the Soviet Union and favored a more free-market approach, and she also strongly disliked Hillary Clinton. “They don’t use the term redistribution of income,” she said, referring to the Democrats. “But that’s what they mean.” After hearing from Scaramucci, she said, she felt almost certain of her vote. “It makes sense,” she said. “He is not totally crazy. He does it out of a strategy.”
“Okay,” she told Scaramucci, “You got me.”
Twenty-four hours later, the tape broke of Trump explaining to Billy Bush, literally behind closed doors, that as a famous guy you could grab a woman “by the pussy.” In his video apology, Trump offered up his own version Secret Trump theory — “Anyone who knows me knows these words do not reflect who I am,” he said — but in the following weeks, as he ratcheted up his rhetoric in the face of mounting allegations, the notion that there was ever a Secret Trump, pulling the levers like Oz behind the curtain, began to crumble. Reached on the phone, the female investment banker told me she had been unbothered by the initial comments (“It’s something men do with each other to prove they are tough,” she said.) But in the wake of Trump’s doubling down by attacking his accusers, she changed her mind. “I can’t vote for him; he’s too out of control,” she emailed. “I don’t care what Scaramucci says. Can’t stand her, though. I guess I’ll be abstaining.”