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‘Trump: An American Dream’ shows the president’s struggles with empathy
The Netflix docuseries charts 40 years of the Donald.
For many Americans and spectators around the world, the election of President Donald Trump was unexpected, shocking, and—above all else—random.
But nothing ever truly happens by chance and docuseries Trump: An American Dream, produced by 72 Films for the U.K.’s Channel 4 and picked up by Netflix, seeks to prove that by diving into the last four decades of Trump’s life. Through collected footage and interviews with both friends and enemies of Trump, the series provides background information about the ascent of the business mogul into a politician. Most importantly, the series uses that context to build an argument about Trump’s personality—one that shows him lacking morals and empathy for others.
Beginning in 1976 when Trump first obtained a multimillion-dollar tax abatement to refurbish the Commodore Hotel, each episode thematically chronicles one decade of his life, beginning with his rise in power in the Manhattan real estate industry. Episode two focuses on his casinos in Atlantic City—including the infamous Taj Mahal that went bankrupt—and episode three explores his divorce with his first wife, Ivana, and second wife Marla Maples. Finally, the fourth episode follows his dive into politics that leads him to announce his run for the presidency on June 16, 2015.
At times, the docuseries drags and gets boring, but that’s only because of the producers’ attention to detail as it ties together moments and decisions made by Trump to piece together his personality. For example, as viewers learn about his pursuit of tax breaks in New York City throughout the ‘70s and ‘80s, they see how Trump used the same tactics he did in the 2016 election—like using hyperbole and attacking his opponents’ characters—to get what he wanted.
The evidence collected throughout the series leads viewers to perceive Trump as a value-less, self-centered sociopath—yes, those exact words are used at least once in the series—who also happens to be incredibly driven and an excellent salesman. And while it includes infamous moments in Trump’s career, like Obama’s White House correspondents’ dinner speech that allegedly drove Trump to pursue the presidency, it also shows how Trump had been flirting with politics well before 2010.
The series also begins to dive into the fascinating tactics Trump used to convince voters and introduces viewers to key players who taught them to him. We meet Jesse Ventura, the wrestler who became the 38th governor of Minnesota by using talking points awfully similar to those used by Trump, including attacking the press and super PACs. Viewers also meet the man who introduced Trump to Twitter, where he originally found a base of constituents begging him to run for president and then later used the app to create focus groups that decided his campaign’s key issues.
Of course, no docuseries can ever tell the whole story behind one person, and it’s interesting to consider what Trump: An American Dream leaves out. While it explores his relationships with Ivana, Marla, and Melania, it makes no mention of the dozens of women who’ve come forward with sexual harassment and assault accusations. There’s only about a total of five minutes dedicated to his children, who now help run the White House. The docuseries ends right after Trump announces his intention to run for president, so the words “Breitbart” and “Russia” are never mentioned either.
At the end of episode one, a reporter asks Trump in 1979 what he will do if New York City Mayor Ed Koch refuses to give him a multi-million dollar tax abatement to build Trump Tower.
“Then what I’ll do is I’ll wait for a more progressive administration and more importantly, I’ll wait for bad times,” Trump told the reporter. “When bad times come, then I’ll get whatever I want.”
Those are some foreboding words from the future president, who used fear during tense times in the U.S. to sway voters in 2016. In 1979 he won that tax abatement—just like he won the presidency almost 40 years later.
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Tess Cagle is a reporter who focuses on politics, lifestyle, and streaming entertainment. Her work has appeared in the New York Times, Texas Monthly, the Austin American-Statesman, Damn Joan, and Community Impact Newspaper. She’s also a portrait, events, and live music photographer in Central Texas.