Understanding Donald Trump


One of the fascinating things about the Trump campaign has been the number of theories that it has spawned about the man himself, his supporters, and what that combination says about the nature of American politics today. What has triggered this is a sense of incredulity that someone so seemingly vain, shallow, ignorant, childish, and boastful could generate such enthusiasm in so many people that he could possibly be elected president. Even if he loses, we can expect about 50 million Americans to have chosen him. That’s an extraordinary number and cannot be dismissed as fringe elements.

One set of theories has suggested that he is none of those things, that he is really a shrewd and manipulative operator, a salesman, who realized early on, long before his rivals, that there was a market for a particular kind of candidate and that he was perfectly suited to step into that role and so he created this persona. Another set of theories suggests that there is no façade, that he is exactly what he looks like, and that he just happened to be the right person at the right time to be the person that a significant number of the public were looking for. Others that he does not really want to be president but is actually trying to destroy the Republican party. Another that this is his way of keeping his name in front of the public that he can monetize later after he loses. Some of the theories looking for pathologies in both Trump and his supporters are deep into speculative psychological weeds, and can lack evidentiary support.

David Cay Johnston is a veteran Pulitzer-prize winning investigative reporter who specializes in economics and taxes and has written several books ( Perfectly Legal: The Covert Campaign to Rig Our Tax System to Benefit the Super-Rich–and Cheat Everybody Else and Free Lunch: How the Wealthiest Americans Enrich Themselves at Government Expense and Stick You With The Bill are two that I own and they are very readable) about the way that the wealthy in this country have manipulated the government and its laws for their benefit. I have written about his excellent work before (see here, here, and here).

Johnston has been covering Trump since the 1980s. He has a new book The Making of Donald Trump about Trump and his business practices and was interviewed by Steven Rosenfeld.

As you know, I’ve been trying to show people how government is creating inequality though all of these rules and laws that nobody knows about. The political donor class—a phrase that I coined by the way—are doing what economists call rent seeking. So I understand people who are terrified—they should be—and who think the government has worked against them. What’s nutty is this belief that Donald Trump is their friend.

This is a man who started his [presidential] campaign by saying wages are too high. This is a man who, when he does construction projects, deals with mob-controlled unions. That’s why Trump Towers [in Manhattan] are concrete, because the steelworkers are an honest union. This is a man who cheats workers out of their pay. Four dollars an hour he paid, and he cheated them out of some of their pay. That’s what a judge found. This is a man who tells vendors, Do this work. They do it and then he says, I am not going to pay you.

I don’t know if you saw the piece the other day where the manager, or whoever was responsible as his witness, at the Doral [Miami], over this guy who didn’t get paid the last $34,000 for his paint—he was a Benjamin Moore paint dealer—testified Mr. Trump felt he had paid enough. Nobody runs their business on that basis. You can think, and with good reason, of all sorts of bad things that corporations do. But they don’t go around saying to vendors or workers, “Uh, we paid enough. We’re not going to pay you.”

He is an enemy of these people. He is an active enemy of the people who have been ruined by this economy. And they’re buying his con job.

Donald is 70 years old. I’m almost the same age, I’m 67. He’s not any different than when I met him, when he was in his early 40s. Donald is a guy who has no empathy for other people, who doesn’t see other people as human beings. He sees them as things to be used. That’s why when he was challenged about cutting off health care for his sickly grandnephew, over money, and he was asked, as I report in the book, “Don’t you think that will look cold-hearted?” [He replied] “What else can I do?” There is no moral core inside Donald Trump. There is no moral compass. It doesn’t exist.

His skill at shutting down law enforcement investigations—I cite those four grand juries, etc.—is extraordinary. He knows when to run to the cops and rat out people, or tell them information that will help them. He knows how to use the court system to cover up what he’s done by making a settlement on the condition that the record be sealed. And he’s masterful at this. It’s just astonishing how masterful he is at it. And then he’s masterful at the conventions of journalism.

Donald is not a good negotiator. He’s not a good businessman. And he often overplays his hand because of hubris. What he does when that happens is that he threatens to make terrible trouble for people with litigation, to tie them all up, so what they’ll do is settle with him, because who wants to spend—as one brave guy in the demolition workers did—spend 18 years in litigation with Trump.

Johnston says that while he has been all over the world media talking about his book, he has not been on major American ones and there is a reason for that.

None of the three U.S. networks have had a word bout my book. And they have not had me on the Sunday morning talk shows.

I had a producer for a cable show, who I know and bitched about some of this with, and who said to me, “David, they would never have you on a Sunday morning talk show for the most obvious reason. You should know that.” I said, “What’s the obvious reason?” She said, “Well, you would talk actual facts and substance. Watch these shows, they’re all superficial nonsense.” That’s my word—superficial nonsense. It would show up to audiences—the paucity of this. PBS had me on. Everything I said that dealt with Donald and crooks and mobsters, they cut out.

When the election is over, I am going to write some big pieces. One of them is about the press.

Johnston is a good writer and his books are well worth reading.

Comments

  1. TGAP Dad says

    Caveat: I am no psychologist. That said, from my readings in the behavioral sciences, this excerpt from the interview referring to Tiny Hands appears to be a textbook example of psychopathy:
    “Donald is a guy who has no empathy for other people, who doesn’t see other people as human beings. He sees them as things to be used. That’s why when he was challenged about cutting off health care for his sickly grandnephew, over money, and he was asked, as I report in the book, “Don’t you think that will look cold-hearted?” [He replied] “What else can I do?” There is no moral core inside Donald Trump. There is no moral compass. It doesn’t exist”

  2. Pierce R. Butler says

    The blockquote section includes a repeated paragraph.

    Note to David Cay Johnston: PBS can add up potential lawyer-hours too. Pls remember they (& NPR) have been politically and budgetarily castrated by the US Congress ever since the rollicking days of Newt Gingrich in that benighted assembly.

  3. Matt G says

    I never cease to be amazed at how The Donald’s strongest supporters are those he is most likely to screw over. Of course, Republicans have been doing this since The Ronald and supply side economics (aka trickle down economics, aka voodoo economics). It’s sinister: we are going to screw you economically, and then convince you that somebody else is screwing you. The church does it too: we are going to convince you that you are broken, and that we are the only people who can fix you. Reminds me of Stockholm Syndrome.

  4. Jake Harban says

    I suspect Trump is popular here for the same reason Brexit was popular in Britain or Golden Dawn in Greece or ISIS in Iraq and Syria.

    When people have been consistently screwed over by the same entity for years (if not their entire lives), and they are suddenly offered the choice of “something else,” they tend to jump at it without looking too closely. That the “something else” is worse than the thing screwing them over or represents the worst aspects of the thing screwing them over may well be true, but people who are being screwed over likely aren’t going to double check before they start supporting what superficially resembles a way out or a way to fight back.

  5. Mano Singham says

    Pierce,

    Thanks. I have replaced the repeated paragraph with the one that was originally intended to be there.

  6. laurentweppe says

    I never cease to be amazed at how The Donald’s strongest supporters are those he is most likely to screw over.

    I’m not. The thing about con-artists is that they don’t succeed when they convince their marks that they’re dealing with an honest partner: it’s when they convince the marks that they’re his accomplices.
    Trump voters, like far-right european voters know their champions are parasites seeking to plunder the countries they claim to love so much: their folly is that they’ve convinced themselves that part of the loot will be given to them.

  7. Chiroptera says

    Mano Singham: One set of theories has suggested that he is none of those things, that he is really a shrewd and manipulative operator, a salesman, who realized early on, long before his rivals, that there was a market for a particular kind of candidate and that he was perfectly suited to step into that role and so he created this persona.

    While I can understand the tendency to believe that no one who gets as far as Trump has can be so ignorant, stupid, and evil, I have have a hard time believing that someone can maintain such a false facade for so long.

    But maybe I’m wrong; with 7 billion people on the planet, surely someone has that kind of talent.

  8. kestrel says

    I don’t think one can understand Trump because I don’t believe what he does is at all planned or sensible. The attempts to understand his actions are all predicated on him being normal and I simply don’t believe that he is. The reason I think this is due to personal experience with people who do not behave normally.

    I think the reason he has gotten as far as he has is because he has a great deal of money or at least people perceive him to have a lot of money. But I am sorry to say I don’t think there is any great plan.

  9. John Smith says

    Textbook case of a person with the Dunning Kruger effect who was born with a silver spoon.

  10. Henry Gale says

    My theory – Trump believes he and his children are special. They are meant to rule over us commoners. They can lie, cheat, steal, and it’s not seeing because they are above it all.

    When Trump’s daughter spoke at the convention I believe she lied from the first word. She has no stories of her father doing any good deeds. So she made them up. It’s ok though because they’re special. His wife and lie. His boys can lie.

    I think Trump wants to have Kennedy like dynasty. He believes it’s destiny that he and his spawn take their rightful place and rule over is peasants.

  11. says

    I started listening to the audio version. (digital now available) It confirms much of what we already knew, but the extent of his shady dealings and sketchy associates was new to me. Anyone with less money or fewer connections would be in jail.

  12. besomyka says

    Trump always struck me as, not a maker of news, but a consumer. He’s just like all the other people that read Brietbart, listen to InfoWars on occasion, and chat it up with the other people that also frequent those sights. The difference is that he has some money, and a carnival barkers aptitude to try at turn those things into $$ for himself. He’s a con artist that really only knows the world as filtered by the AltRight new sources.

  13. says

    I know I’ve stated previously in comments that I’m more in agreement with the idea that Trump is largely being himself. That was based on at least some evidence. I had seen a video where he was testifying in front of, I recall, some congressional committee. It had something to do with some Trump apartments being in trouble for discriminatory practices and Trump had said something terribly racist.
    As for the misogyny, that seems to just come to him too easily for him to be faking it.
    I did recall, though, one area that he is obviously faking, and that is with his pandering to the religious right. (“Two Corinthians,” anyone?) In that case, Trump is a bit of a mix.

  14. KG says

    Jake Harban@4,

    There’s something in what you say, but in many cases it’s over-generous. Racism (lightly euphemised as “concern about immigration”) was the very core of the Brexit campaign. Those who voted that way could not very well have missed it. What the Brexit campaign offered to many people – by no means all among those near the bottom of the heap* – was a target: a group of people they could look down on, and realistically hope to hurt.

    *It’s worth noting that it was UKIP and Tory voters who gave Brexit its majority. While UKIP voters are predominantly near the bottom of the economic heap, Tory voters are not: many prosperous Tories must have voted Leave. Labour voters are estimated to have voted 2:1 Remain, black voters – who would perhaps best fit your characterisation of those who’ve been consistently screwed over – 3:1 Remain.

  15. KG says

    Another set of theories suggests that there is no façade, that he is exactly what he looks like, and that he just happened to be the right person at the right time to be the person that a significant number of the public were looking for.

    I’ve yet to see any significant evidence that contradicts this. His record of expressing liberal views (e.g. on abortion) is sometimes mentioned as evidence he wants to “destroy the Republican Party from within”, but it’s perfectly compatible with the hypothesis that he will pander to anyone whose support he wants at a particular time, just as he’s now doing to the religious right (given the eagerness with which many have embraced him, perhaps “religious” should be scare-quoted). One ex-staffer said he didn’t originally expect to win, but then became convinced he could. It’s notable that he’d expressed interest in running in previous years but not done so – so maybe this time, when he first began to float the idea, he found he was getting a more positive response, and so went ahead – typical of con-artists, who have to be opportunists.

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