It can’t have happened too often in history that world leaders turned to Playboy for intelligence on their counterparts.
But that’s exactly what German Chancellor Angela Merkel did before her meeting with Donald Trump, according to German officials cited by Reuters, who said the German leader paid particular attention to a famous 1990 interview with Playboy where he touched on many of the themes which helped propel him to victory in 2016.
That interview makes for interesting reading now, not only as proof of how long Trump has held some of his core convictions, but also as a window into the mercurial mind and Hobbesian worldview of our commander-in-chief.
And then there’s the stuff about nukes.
There’s no question that Trump’s opposition to free trade deals is longstanding, if not quite consistent — he used to be more worried about Japan than China. So is his skepticism about America’s international commitments.
In the Playboy interview, he frames this as healthy self-interest: “People need ego, whole nations need ego. I think our country needs more ego, because it is being ripped off so badly by our so-called allies; i.e., Japan, West Germany, Saudi Arabia, South Korea, etc… We Americans are laughed at around the world for losing a $150 billion year after year, for defending wealthy nations for nothing, nations that would be wiped off the face of the earth in about 15 minutes if it weren’t for us. Our ‘allies’ are making billions screwing us.”
In another familiar refrain, Trump praised these economic rivals and ungrateful allies for having better leadership than the U.S.: “I give great credit to the Japanese and their leaders, because they have made our leaders look totally second-rate.”
Images of mockery and derision from outsiders also figures prominently in his worldview. For example, in his explanation of why he wants to “bring back” the death penalty: “Because I hate seeing this country go to hell. We’re laughed at by the rest of the world. In order to bring law and order back into our cities, we need the death penalty and authority given back to the police.”
The fear of mockery is rooted in an adversarial worldview, based on the essential principle that other people are not trustworthy, as Trump explains, a judgment which apparently extends to people he considers friends.
“I’m a very untrusting guy. I study people all the time, automatically; it’s my way of life, for better or worse… I am very skeptical about people; that’s self-preservation at work. I believe that, unfortunately, people are out for themselves. At this point, it’s to many people’s advantage to like me. Would the phone stop ringing, would these people kissing ass disappear if things were not going well? I enjoy testing friendship…. Everything in life to me is a psychological game, a series of challenges you either meet or don’t. I am always testing people who work for me.”
Trump also reveals his obsession with public acclamation, foreshadowing his frequent boasts about poll numbers in the 2016 primaries and election, as well as his already complicated relationship with the media. It serves as a mirror of his greatness and an arch-enemy symbolizing the whole establishment.
On the former subject, Trump justifies his support for the death penalty, stated in a full-page newspaper ad, in terms of the public response: “I got 15,000 positive letters on the death-penalty ad. I got 10 negative or slightly negative ones.” Regarding the media, he cites the interview itself as evidence of his success, based on the same harsh worldview: “I instinctively mistrust many people. It is not a negative in my life but a positive. Playboy wouldn’t be talking to me today if I weren’t a cynic.”
On the other hand, coverage of Trump’s business in The New York Times has already made an enemy of the newspaper, and one reviewer in particular: “Paul Goldberger has extraordinarily bad taste. He reviews buildings that are failures and loves them. Paul suffers from one malady that I don’t believe is curable. As an architecture critic, you can’t afford the luxury of having bad taste.”
As for his dalliances, Trump admits to enjoying “flirtations” with women, but frankly admits that a lot of this enjoyment derives from his own narcissistic qualities: “I think any man enjoys flirtations, and if he said he didn’t, he’d be lying or he’d be a politician trying to get the extra four votes. I think everybody likes knowing he’s well responded to. Especially as you get into certain strata where there is an ego involved and a high level of success, it’s important. People really like the idea that other people respond well to them.”
Trump is already crafting his persona as a wealthy everyman, whose riches don’t alienate ordinary people because they were all earned, while proudly pointing to his status as an outsider in elite circles:
“Rich men are less likely to like me, but the working man likes me because he knows I worked hard and didn’t inherit what I’ve built. Hey, I made it myself; I have a right to do what I want with it… The fact that I built this large company by myself–working people respect that. But the people who are at high levels don’t like it. They’d like it for themselves.”
For all his pride in his accomplishments, Trump also occasionally strikes an oddly existentialist note, suggesting that all endeavor, including the constant showmanship, is ultimately meaningless: “The show is ‘Trump’ and it is sold-out performances everywhere. I’ve had fun doing it and will continue to have fun, and I think most people enjoy it… We’re here and we live our sixty, seventy or eighty years and we’re gone. You win, you win, and in the end, it doesn’t mean a hell of a lot. But it is something to do–to keep you interested.”
Returning to foreign policy, Trump showed himself remarkably prescient about the Soviet Union, predicting its imminent collapse due to the weakness of Gorbachev’s leadership: “What you will see there soon is a revolution; the signs are all there with the demonstrations and picketing. Russia is out of control, and the leadership knows it. That’s my problem with Gorbachev. Not a firm enough hand.”
Trump goes on to express admiration for the the Chinese government’s handling of the protests in Tiananmen Square: “Then they were vicious, they were horrible, but they put it down with strength. That shows you the power of strength. Our country is right now perceived as weak … as being spit on by the rest of the world.”
By his own account, Trump also spent a good deal of time thinking about the possibility of nuclear war: “I often think of nuclear war… I believe the greatest of all stupidities is people’s believing it will never happen, because everybody knows how destructive it will be, so nobody uses weapons.
"What bullshit… It’s like thinking the Titantic can’t sink. Too many countries have nuclear weapons; nobody knows where they’re all pointed, what button it takes to launch them.”