Donald Trump is scary to a lot of people, but he has never scared me. I am inoculated against men like him. Most people, decent and good-hearted people, listen to Trump and their stomachs churn. I listen to Trump and hear only a death rattle. I know how men like him end. I already outlasted that kind of toxic masculinity. I had to survive my father, a small-time crook who played at having millions the same way Trump plays at having billions.
I used to look up to my father. His name was Tom Bateman, and he was, for a time, as big as the whole world. He was built like a refrigerator. He was the man, the drake, the alpha. He was an ex-college football star and successful businessman who had all the answers. He flew planes, repossessed cars, and owned scores of firearms. Nobody screwed with him, nobody talked back to him, and nobody told him what to do. He was an irresistible force who won every fight, because he sucker-punched every foe.
Then, in 1994, while attending a convention for auto dealers, he encountered a warm white light in his hotel room. The light suffused his body. A lilting female voice with a Welsh accent assured him he would never have to work again.
When he got home, he assembled me, my mother, and my brother around the dinner table. “I have to show you all something,” he said, removing his t-shirt. “It’s absolutely awesome.”
There, on my father’s bare left pec, was a tattoo of a wolf’s head. He thumped his chest and pointed at me. “I heard my mother’s voice and felt her warmth. She told me I was free to be me. There are going to be big changes.”
“Why aren’t you at the dealership right now?” asked my mother. “It’s two o’clock in the afternoon.”
“I’m never working again,” he replied. “It’s not an option. But I am going to grow the ponytails I was meant to have.”
He was true to his word: He stopped running his business, which he left in the care of my older brother, and proceeded to grow a series of ponytails, each of which he carefully snipped and sealed in a Ziploc bag. He then more or less vanished for two years, traveling through the Pacific Northwest, and only occasionally bothered to send us support. After he left my mother, he seduced various women and stole their money.
My father started dating online in the early days of the Internet. I wrote his first Yahoo! Personals ad in 1996. I was 14 years old. It said that he had “arms you can get lost in and a gap-toothed smile as big as the whole world.”
While catfishing for sugar mamas on the World Wide Web, my father often mused about death. “I’m ready to meet my maker,” he declared, adding that he “didn’t care what happened to any of us. His explanation: “Death will be the happy end.”
But he kept on living, and grifting, for far longer than he or anyone else expected.
Since he didn’t work, my father had unlimited free time and Internet access. All of the women he lived with sprang for high-speed because he couldn’t bear to wait while his favorite websites loaded. He used skiptracing services to locate his high school sweetheart, whom he had “dumped like a hot potato” the day he left for college. He used the Web to stay in touch with me after the two of them bought and furnished an expensive house — with her money and several credit cards he opened in her name — near Glacier National Park in Montana.
And by staying in touch, I mean he would send me two or three dozen emails a day.
Initially the emails were innocuous. When I neglected to contact him, he would write, “Your fingers broke, Moses?” But as he got older and closer to the end, the emails became longer and darker in tone. He spiraled into detail.
He began exploring big themes, trying to impart what he believed were valuable moral lessons for me, a young man who was coming of age in a dangerous world. Between 2002 and his death in 2014, I received tens of thousands of emails from him, most of which I never opened. These emails were his legacy. They were scattered fragments of the world he had wanted to make for me.
An email he sent me in 2013 serves as a kind of overarching manifesto. He wrote:
Rambling non-apologies were sent one after another. He didn’t believe in apologizing, “because if you did it, you must have meant it.” Yet he began to change his tone. He began to assure me that he had “no regrets…except all of them.”
And what did he have to regret? Sure, he had abused me and my mother. He beat us black and blue. He concocted a scheme that led to her indictment by a grand jury on charges of child abuse. The case made national headlines. I was called to testify against her, reciting outrageous claims that he had fabricated. I was 14 years old.
He stole hundreds of thousands of dollars from those who were closest to him — including us. Sometimes the scams were big and egregious, as when he chose to stay married to his dying first wife for seven years after he moved in with my mother, just to collect a bunch of term life insurance payouts.And sometimes they were pathetic, as when he convinced me to give him the $1,500 I had earned from my first job, ostensibly so that he could help me buy a computer.
“It’s for safekeeping,” he claimed. “I’ll take better care of it than any bank, and you’ll get what you wanted.”
Sure enough, I got the computer — a crummy Gateway model used primarily for his online dating — as well as a credit card bill for over $2,000. He had pocketed the money I gave him, used my social security number to secure financing for the computer, and then neglected to make a single payment.
When I confronted him about having knowingly ruined my credit, he didn’t flinch. “You got the computer, right? That’s just life,” he explained. “We do what we have to do to survive.”
He had done all these things, he assured me, because he had to. He had to because he was arrested on assault charges filed by my mother and he needed to regain the upper hand. He had to because he was under yet another audit by the IRS. He had to because somehow he hadn’t paid taxes for 30 years. And he did it because he thought it would all work out in the end.
“I’ll go to jail, but I sure as hell won’t ever go to prison,” he kept telling me. “I’m not felonious like the rest of my fucking family of fucking idiots.”
Once he wrote me this note, late at night:
Here’s the thing about these emails: They were gritty and unpleasant, but also filled with reveries. My father had an amazing imagination.
“It’s not true unless it’s true for you,” he’d write me. He would insist that only you could be the judge of the goodness or badness of your own actions.
In his later messages, he had developed all sorts of catchphrases and in-jokes. One of his favorites was: “Better to be subjective than subjugated.”
The father I had always known was a vicious thug. He was abusive, miserable, delusional.
But the writer of these emails was someone searching for meaning.
This writer had hated playing football and only did it because it was a simple way for him to impress everyone else. He also hated “doing jobs” and “hurting people,” but did so because he was “always chasing a buck” and “it was easy for a big guy to do.”
Even as this guy dispensed pearls of wisdom about “killing or being killed,” he expressed dissatisfaction with his ruthlessness and bleak existence. What my father really wanted, deep down more than anything else, was to have had the life of Michael Crawford, right down to the Broadway performer’s thick head of curly hair. Or maybe it was to dance like John Travolta in Saturday Night Fever. Or maybe to have a cooking show like Julia Child. In his wildest dreams, he wasn’t some self-interested tough guy. He was a singer, a dancer, a chef. He could let his guard down. He didn’t actually have to kill anybody, nor did he have to worry about being killed.
Looking at it all now, I realize that the manly world my father had tried to make wasn’t even a world he wanted to live in.
But he was so desperate for something, anything, to call his own — and he only saw one way. He couldn’t fill the gaping void in anyone else’s heart because a valve in his own heart was leaking.
This is a man whose own father’s last words to him from a hospice bed were: “What the fuck are you doing here, fat boy?”
He was blessed with bigness, but it was a big nothingness. He covered up this lack with a veneer of masculine aggression that almost killed me — and following a series of heart attacks, finally killed him. He grasped for the words to explain this empty ache in one of his final missives to me:
Like my father, Donald Trump is an awful businessman. They both boasted about having unlimited resources while living on borrowed credit.
Both men bulked large and puffy in expensive power suits, wearing flashy watches with enormous faces that hugged their thick wrists. That time on their hands was money, and money talked, but neither ever had the time to talk about who they really were. These were scared men. They were empty vessels who covered their exposed tops with toupees.
I know what terrifies people about Trump. They see his vast, overbearing maleness and believe he will go on forever. He is turning their hard-working middle-class grandfathers’ America orange and he cannot be stopped. Or, even if he is stopped after the election, other men like him will feel empowered to snarl and rage for eternity. It doesn’t matter if he loses and concedes. We fear that we will never be rid of him.
But I am here to tell you that this isn’t true. I am living proof. I have seen the final moments of men like him. Their endings are not triumphant, but sad, small, and cold. Nobody needs to stop Trump because, just like my father, he’s destroying himself.
By the very end, my father was 400 pounds of ponytailed, bearded weird, living on the Canadian border and using female shih tzus as pet mediums to commune with dead family members. “You have to use the female dogs to get through to the ghosts,” he’d tell me. “They conduct way more spirit energy.”
When I asked him what he had learned from these ghosts, he shrugged. “Not a thing. They were 110% assholes when they were alive, and they’re no different now. What do you expect?”
His expectations were modest, to be sure. He had been the college athlete, the small-time tough guy, the slick businessman. Now he was wearing adult diapers, pulling his own teeth, and sleeping on rubber sheets. He summed it up this way: “Life’s a joke and it was on ME.”
Trump doesn’t ask for forgiveness. Neither did my father. But who needs it? An apology is just words. Death is an action. When I reflect on my father today, he’s no larger than the wooden urn in my mother’s garage that contains what’s left of him. In his emails, he begged never to be stored there. But my mother still keeps his ashes because they remind her that he too was a victim of his own life — of his crime, deception, and emotional abuse. He seemed huge, but he was a fraud, a liar, and a charlatan. And he couldn’t escape himself.
Some of Trump’s fans have branded him the “ultimate alpha” or “the last real man.” My hunch is that they are right. Trump, his whole brand, that whole strain of toxic maleness out in the world — it’s already finished.
Oliver Lee Bateman is a writer, lawyer, and former history professor living in Pittsburgh, PA. He presented a version of this text live at Matter Studios’ “Total Power Move” event in Manhattan on November 2, 2016.