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  • Richard Conniff writes about behavior, in humans and other animals, on two, four, six, and eight legs, plus the occasional slither.

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Donald Trump and Other Animals

Posted by Richard Conniff on October 15, 2016

                 (Art:  Tim Enthoven)

(Art: Tim Enthoven)

by Richard Conniff/New York Times

I once interviewed Donald Trump for a magazine story. The topic was rivalries, which seemed like a natural for him. But he was so bombastically short on specifics, so braggadociously vague, that in the end there was nothing to quote. I left him out of the story.

So I was surprised recently to learn, by way of an article in The New Yorker, that Mr. Trump had, in fact, quoted me in a passage from his 2004 book “Trump: Think Like a Billionaire.” I would not have imagined that I had ever written anything he would want to quote.

It’s true that I had written about him in my book, “The Natural History of the Rich: A Field Guide,” published in 2002, but there was nothing remotely flattering there, as a glance at the index seemed to confirm:

Trump, Donald

hangingflies, compared to, 16

inherited wealth and, 266

intimidating eyebrows of, 87

Maples’s rating of, 248

multistory erections of, 94

reproductive asset management of, 225

The book was a work of tongue-in-cheek sociology, based partly on the premise that rich people often act like animals in the wild. But as I flipped through the references to Mr. Trump, it dawned on me that my animal analogies had been far too modest.

I had likened him to a male hangingfly, a type of insect that catches and kills other insects, then uses its prize to seduce a passing female. While she dines on his nuptial gift, he gets to mate with her. The bigger the gift, the more leisurely the mating.

Some male hangingflies aren’t all that interested in leisure, though, and this is the part that reminded me of Mr. Trump. They grab back the nuptial gift after a bit and carry it off to seduce other females. It was like Mr. Trump giving his second wife, Marla Maples, a prenuptial agreement that would eventually have provided her with a serious piece of his fortune — then dumping her just months before her entitlement was to come due. Had I known about his $916 million business loss in 1995, I might also have mentioned certain other male insects that are thought to suck all the nutrition out of the nuptial gift first, seducing females with little more than the wrapping.

But then the notorious 2005 “Access Hollywood” video made it abundantly evident that Mr. Trump regarded himself as the gift, splendidly desirable to all women, and entitled, in the event of resistance, to various forms of sexual assault. He was, to be frank, lower than a hangingfly.

I began to entertain the terrible thought that Mr. Trump had not actually read my book. I wasn’t even sure the ghostwriter he’d hired had read it. They merely plundered it for quotes, skipping over the part about how he was born rich but still managed to mock other scions of inherited wealth as members of the “lucky sperm” club, and also the part about how his father incessantly urged him on, chanting, “you are a killer … you are a king.”

The thing in my book that caught Mr. Trump’s eye was a line about the advantages of looking like a lunatic. It’s right up front in his introduction: “Almost all successful alpha personalities display a single-minded determination to impose their vision on the world, an irrational belief in unreasonable goals, bordering at times on lunacy.” He also liked the idea that it was possible to win the game of chicken by convincing opponents that “he might actually enjoy a head-on collision.”

Some writers seem to want to treat this choice of quotes as a frank admission of lunacy. What’s more revealing, though, is what Mr. Trump chose to skip over between the lunacy quote and the game of chicken. That’s where I added the big caveat that “a blindness to consequences characterizes many dominant personalities. They don’t see obstacles. They may not bother or even be capable of seeing other people’s point of view. They tend to think, as Aristotle Onassis once put it, ‘The rules are, there are no rules.’ This blindness is what makes them, with equal ease, outlaws and heroes.”

Mr. Trump also approvingly repeated a quote from my book about the tendency of the rich and powerful to show off by engaging in risky behaviors. As the “Access Hollywood” tape has demonstrated, this was a dangerous tendency even when Mr. Trump was a mere real-estate-mogul-turned-reality-television-star. Dangerous for women, and of course also dangerous for investors.

But did we really need “Access Hollywood” to figure this out? We have known for decades that Donald Trump is a colossal show-off with a rich history of failing to see anything other than his own gilded image in the mirror, never mind the obstacles in his path. What’s astonishing is that the Republican Party would ever have imagined putting all the power of our government — its political prestige, its economic might, its nuclear arsenal — in such hands. That is a game of chicken from which we may still not escape alive.

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