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.