I photographed Trump for Fortune in January 2000, almost 21 years to the day of him reluctantly leaving office tomorrow. Mentioning his stubby fingers in the first paragraph, writer Jerry Useem, made him sound like a power-grubbing brat with questionable net worth. And in hiring me to take his portrait, Fortune’s photo department certainly couldn’t have had flattery in mind. I followed him all over his property for two days and seeing that it was going to be impossible to get a picture where he let his guard down, I decided to photograph him far away, where you couldn’t hardly see his face. I wanted to dwarf him in the opulence of Mar-a-Lago. But, however unflattering, the Fortune piece ran and nevertheless advanced his caricature brand.
11 years earlier, Trump had enflamed the populace of New York City around the Central Park Five by taking out a full page ad calling for the return of the death penalty. The accused were only 14 to 16 years old. Yusef Salaam, one of the young men, told The Guardian in 2016, “Common citizens were being manipulated and swayed into believing that we were guilty.” All five have since been exonerated, but not before they had served 6-7 year prison sentences.
Seeing the trajectory of his presidential aspirations in 2000 become a reality–from descending the escalator at Trump Tower in 2015 announcing his candidacy, to the smoldering remains of the US Capitol 2 weeks ago–I regret any role, however small, I may have played in this man’s success.
My hope for the future is that we will never again celebrate toxic masculinity as a sign of success and make sexism and racism disqualifying for all. Salaam’s words were prophetic, and can be applied to any other aspect of the Trump Presidency, like when you see Americans with jobs, families and wealth scaling the walls of the US Capitol to right a falsely perceived wrong.
As this dark chapter in American history comes to a close, I imagine we will study and dissect how this troubled man was enabled and survived every career-ending event and still rose to the highest office in the country. But I suspect that we will conclude that it wasn’t because of him, it was because of us.