What Donald Trump and Versace’s Killer Have in Common
Trump’s father once told him, “You are a killer...You are a king.”
Photograph courtesy of FX Networks.
“The answer for every question about him really, no matter what the question is, is ‘dominance,’ the need to dominate,” said Gwenda Blair—the author of the not-exactly-briefly named The Trumps: Three Generations of Builders and a Presidential Candidate—in a 2016 interview with Yahoo News about the tiny-handed presidential candidate and his big, presidential aspirations. “Everything is focused on that, that’s his whole MO, and it all goes back to his dad, and to getting out of the outer boroughs.” Harry Hurt III, another Trump biographer, agrees: “It all goes back to his father. Since he was a child, he’s been vying for his father’s attention and everything else in his disturbed existence is rooted in the crazy need to prove he can outdo his father.”
Hurt’s biography of Donald Trump has the title Lost Tycoon. It might as easily be called A Life In Dollars—something said by Andrew Cunanan’s stockbroker father, Modesto, in an interview at Merrill Lynch in this week’s episode. The monologue that he delivers is so speechifying and dramatic that it sounds less anecdotal than like propaganda. “I have lived a life in dollars,” he assures them. “I was born in the Philippines, in a house that any of you gentlemen could buy with the money in your wallets…. I bought my first home [in America for] $12,000. A few months later, I moved to an $80,000 home. Now is that biography, or business? Because I will tell your investors that’s what I plan to do with their money. I will cross oceans with it. I will take it to new lands. I’m talking about growth they can’t imagine.”
Like some presidents, it turns out that Modesto also happens to be something of a con man: one who flies the stars-and-stripes flag in his yard, and calls America “the greatest country in the world.” (The name “Modesto” is another of those real-life ironies this story’s riddled with; it is the perhaps the opposite of nominative determinism.) Aiming to transform himself into a more American American, he tricks a very, very aged woman out of her life’s savings. “Yes, I stole,” he tells his son after he’s fingered by the FBI for selling phony stocks, and has to flee back to Manilla. “But only what I needed to be an American. You can’t go to America and start from nothing—that’s the lie.”
This lie is flexible. To start from nothing can be possible, assuming that you have the something of familial love as a foundation. When the mother of the young Gianni Versace notices his interest in her dressmaking in this week’s opening scene, we brace for conflict; happily, none is forthcoming. This is Reggio Calabria, Italy, in the 1950s—and although the boy is called a pervert by his teacher, and a pansy by a schoolmate, she remains as tender as the mother in a fairytale. Denied her childhood dream of growing up to be a doctor, she does not believe that parents should police their children’s aspirations in accordance with a thing as tedious, or nebulous, as classic heterosexual gender roles.
“I see you watch me work,” she tells him, softly. “There’s no need to hide.” “Success,” she adds, encouraging her son to make his first dress from a pattern scribbled down covertly in a language class, “only comes with hard work: many hours, many weeks, and many years. And it’s never easy. But that’s alright, that’s why it’s special.” Contrast this with the advice Modesto Cunanan gives to his son, whom he refers to as “Prince Andrew,” an odd affectation that feels somehow creepy rather than paternal: “Every morning when you wake up, and every night when you go to sleep, I want you to remember something: that you’re special. And when you’re special, success will follow.”
If the current president were not the current president, it would be easier to believe that Gianni’s mother was correct, and that Modesto was in error. Thinking that success is special only when you work for it seems more right, or more ethical, than thinking that some persons are de facto special and deserving of whatever they desire. But “more ethical” does not mean, necessarily, more true.
Now that we’re almost through with American Crime Story: The Assassination of Gianni Versace, what appear to be the series’ themes? That there is no authentic shortcut to success; that genius cannot be approximated; that our early family lives sow seeds that will eventually grow into something inescapable, for good or bad: a thing that bears fruit, or a choking weed.
From early childhood, Hurt says in his Trump biography, Fred Trump would tell his son: “‘You are a killer…You are a king…You are a killer…You are a king…’ Donald believers he can’t be one without the other. As his father has pointed out over and over again, most people are weaklings. Only the strong survive. You have to be a killer if you want to be a king.” Following Modesto to Manila not long after graduating high school, Andew Cunanan expects to find an answer as to why his father gamed the system, sold the family’s assets, and then cut and ran. Instead, he finds the thing that he most fears: a coward, penniless and living like a ghost—no go-getter, no hero, but a deadbeat bum. “I can’t be you,” says Andrew. “If you’re a lie, then I’m a lie.”
“You’re not upset that I stole; you’re upset that I stopped,” Modesto snarls back. “Now you have to work. You’re a sissy kid, with a sissy mind.” He spits on Andrew, and the son—begotten by the father, but not yet his double—grabs a knife, but is incapable of striking with it. Both men watch each other with the tense uncertainty that only comes from two male animals not knowing who is predator, and who is prey. The moment is near Biblical in tone.
“Do it!” screams Modesto. “Be a man, for once!”
“I’ll never be like you,” Andrew Cunanan says, before he leaves. But you can’t go back as if your parents don’t exist, and start from nothing—that’s the lie.