The Art of the Donald
The Steakhouse Populist
I got to the Hanover Street Chophouse early on a Monday night.
That day I first met Donald Trump had started in a Holiday Inn in New Hampshire and gone downhill steeply. Clinton campaign staff wouldn’t let me into the gymnasium where, after an hour-long line, Bill Clinton was talking about himself on his way toward introducing his wife. Now, instead of sweating it out in a high school gym with the rest of them, I was confined to standing in the hall, watching through a thick glass wall while sixty-something white Democrats grooved terribly atop the bleachers to Latin music. It’s unlikely the few Hispanics in the Manchester audience that day were swayed, though I couldn’t confirm—I was locked out.
Sick of this unsavory offering, I packed into the driver’s seat of a borrowed car and drove with a young reporter through a whiteout blizzard to a stone country church.
There, I found the room was too packed to catch a glimpse of one John Kasich, who had been storming the state, telling everyone who would listen that he was “the Prince of Light,” and everyone else was an A-hole.
After a stopover at Anselm College (where I made my Fox Special Report debut accidentally wandering on camera, to use a bathroom), a cab ride from a fisherman who was in between voting for Marco Rubio and Donald Trump, and a phone call interrogation from Tucker Carlson’s spitfire wife demanding to know if I was supporting Trump or “some squish,” I was ready for a glass of bourbon.
That’s how I got to New Hampshire’s Hanover Street Chophouse early on a Monday night. The day was looking up already.
It’s usually a bore to sit at the bar with someone who doesn’t drink anymore, but Tucker Carlson often manages to cause enough commotion to get a conversation going with someone more inclined toward the drink, and the bar was buzzing when I asked the maître d’ if he got a lot of presidential candidates in his quiet restaurant.
“No, no,” he assured me. “They would never be seen in an expensive steakhouse.” Terrible optics, of course.
Too bad for them, I thought. Good news for me, with Tucker buying.
After a few more reporters arrived, shuffling out of the cold, we saw a pair of Secret Service agents in long black coats enter, alert.
We’ve got one, I thought. Manhattan’s self-styled enemy of Wall Street, Hillary Clinton, must be breaking the rules and ditching New Hampshire’s diners for a little luxury. The headline would write itself. Until it didn’t.
Just a few moments later, Donald J. Trump walked through the door with his entire family and ruined any sugarplum headline that had dared dance through my head.
Who cared if Donald Trump, skyscraper billionaire, wanted a nice steak after a long day? Normal rules of politics aside, who among us wouldn’t?
He came right up to our table, clapping one reporter by the shoulders and telling the whole group, “This guy is a champ! He never stops working—he works nights, he works weekends, he never stops.”
Every one of us knew that was as far from the truth as it could get, and Mr. Trump clearly didn’t know this reporter beyond his name, but what a mover. Every pundit on the news had told us The Donald was a cold fish incapable of human warmth, and here we were. As far as warmth goes, it was like sitting next to a furnace.
His sons pulled out their phones and showed me their prize kills from the hunting trail—an impressive gallery a Massachusetts boy had no shot at relating to. But I had played the arcade classic Big Buck Hunter, and when they showed me a particularly massive mountain goat carcass, I bragged I’d achieved the rank of “Buck Hunter Hero” on that very level. Their eyes betrayed worry I was mad, but
they were too polite to ask. “Aren’t there any pictures of your kids?” I wondered.
“That’s exactly what my wife says!” one of them laughed.
Their father, meanwhile, was entertaining the table with stories from the debate two nights earlier. “I was standing near the guy on the debate stage. The guy just sweating and sweating,” he said, sharing what was likely not deep-seated concern for Florida’s junior senator, Marco Rubio.
“And I was like, ‘Hey, are you okay, man?’ ” he went on, his head cranking to the side, eyes opening wide in a worried expression as authentic as any you’ll get.
It was believable. And it was funny.
It didn’t even matter that he was a billionaire in a steakhouse in a depressed, former industrial town beset by heroin. It didn’t even matter that he ordered his steak well-done and passed on the wine. Our shallow conversations in the dining room had shattered all my TV-derived opinions, even against my strong preference for a man who drinks daily and eats rare meat.
As the sun rose the next morning, I walked alone into a packed diner where Tucker and his cohost Steve Doocy were filming Fox & Friends, talking with locals eager for a little camera time and waiting for the steady troop of presidential celebrities sure to swing by.
When I walked in, a booth lay open right beside the set, and I sat down to hold it for a car of sleepy reporters coming in behind me. Jeb Bush was alone at the diner’s bar, arms on
the table, head sagging, waiting for the hit. With New Hampshire’s humans unable to pass through the live set, he was by himself. It could have been a sad painting. He was tired, no doubt, and after his interview he left through a back door.
Chris Christie was next, coming in through the door Jeb had exited, sitting down for a quick hit on the camera and exiting the same.
Then the Secret Service Uniformed Division came in, including one officer so pretty it almost wasn’t terrible to have to get my ID checked when I used the restroom. They were protecting Donald Trump again, and while his squirrelly old campaign manager, Corey Lewandowski, buried himself in his smartphone, Trump and Melania jumped into the thick of the crowd.
By the time he finally sat down for a Fox interview, he knew the staff’s names. Calling to Sue in the back of the kitchen, he yelled, “Just tell me who are you voting for?”
“America!” she yelled back, to a round of applause.
“I love her!” Trump hollered.
“Make it two eggs, over tremendous!” Tucker laughed.
“And she’s seen everybody come in, they’ve all seen Sue, but she just, I walked in she said, ‘Mr. Trump, I’m voting for you.’ That’s why I asked the question, you think I would have asked the question if I . . . ?”
The segment wrapped up, but an hour later Secret Service was still checking IDs for bathroom users—Donald Trump and his wife were still in a booth, now in the middle of the
diner, digging in on a carb-heavy, sweet-toothed breakfast plate and chatting it up with a small audience of New Hampshire voters.
In the sharp suit and the tie, he looked as at home as the folks bundled up in winter jackets and snow boots. He fit right in with a crowd whose combined wealth didn’t compare to his own. And he loved it.
Donald Trump walloped the competition that day—not only in doubling the runner-up’s votes, but in winning the hearts of the people who met him.
A steakhouse billionaire who was at home with a hot stack in a bright diner was pulling up a chair at Washington, D.C.’s table.
From what he said to what he ate, whom he hired and how he played, Donald Trump broke nearly every rule of American politics. Before he did that, he broke a few in business. And before he’s done, he’ll likely break a few in the White House.
It’s too late for a lot of politicians who doubted the real estate television star, but for the millions of Americans who supported him, there’s a lot to learn about living the good life, running your own affairs, building a team, communicating your ideas, dealing with critics, and, finally, winning. Winning so much you get tired of winning.
Let’s see if the rest of the country wises up.