There’s something in “The Making of Donald Trump” for everyone. For Christians, one of Donald Trump’s favorite Bible verses is an “eye for an eye.” For lawyers, Trump’s apparent enjoyment of lawsuits doesn’t seem to keep him from settling more than he’s won, yet he claims that “he never settles” because “you have to hit those who screw you ten times harder.” For esoteric-tax-law enthusiasts, Pulitzer Prize winner David Cay Johnston provides a thorough tour of loopholes and exceptions to the rules via Trump’s management of his assets, properties, private jets and more. For those who think the country should be run like a business and no one can do that better than soi-disant billionaire Trump, examples of his colossal failures abound. One headline read “You May Be Worth More Than Donald Trump.”
For anyone who’s wondering how our democracy could produce such a candidate, Johnston’s outline of Trump’s life and career is an exquisite, easy-to-follow explication of Trump’s choices and conduct.
As Johnston reports on Trump’s various dealings, he details the intersection of the many systems that played vital roles in the rise of Donald Trump. Johnston does wonder why a particular judge or regulatory body at times might not have asked further questions of Trump’s conduct, history, record or shady connections with the mob, and notes that, without government intervention, Donald Trump would have likely been “swept into the dustbin of history.” He does not attribute Trump’s rise to anything beyond that, but it is the failure of the overall system – the courts, auditors, governors or attorneys general, regulatory bodies and legal loopholes that have enabled Trump to sustain his dishonest, exploitative and vindictive practices.
Johnston also does not point out that the failure of these systems to protect the average consumer or worker, in favor of protecting the wealthy, is why so many voters are questioning business, politics, economics or education as usual. And those voters are casting Trump, whose rise in politics depends not on the current systems’ dismantling, but its perennial dysfunction, as their savior.
By Johnston’s account Trump is a serial liar, swindler and unsuccessful businessman. He should not be anywhere near the presidency, let alone threatening to clinch it. Presenting the facts of Trump’s activities should cause voters to pause; yet for some it hasn’t. That is not included in Johnston’s account, but surely, it is itself crucial to the making of Donald Trump as well.
Johnston’s short chapters and conversational, occasionally sardonic, style reveal case study after case study of auditors, commissioners and regulators of all stripes (from casino to building-permit to IRS) turning the other cheek, to quote another passage from Christian scripture. Johnston provides the right amount of family history to introduce his book. Then he launchs into Trump’s deals with mobsters, his failure to pay illegal immigrants for demolishing a skyscraper with no safety gear and nothing but sledge hammers, the wildly varying estimates of his wealth, other contradictory claims and the many lawsuits oozing with entitlement and blinkered disregard for limits, whether in the form of regulations or other people’s needs.
The real making of Donald Trump is not just that he followed in his father’s and grandfather’s crooked footsteps, but in the blind eye the legal and regulatory systems turned on his odious conduct as a casino operator, landlord, property owner and taxpayer and in the financial help of the government. “If government hadn’t saved him by taking his side against his bankers, we almost certainly would not be imagining the prospect of Donald Trump living at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. Instead, he would have drowned in a sea of red ink,” Johnston writes. But he seems to treat this governmental failure as a one-off; at the end of his book, he affirms the system by encouraging citizens to do their duty and vote.
It’s not that a reader can’t get a keen sense of the deal-wielding, rule-bending, self-aggrandizing personality that is the 2016 Republican Party presidential nominee. It’s that precisely this profile of a chaotically greedy, serially dishonest man whom no amount of attention, money or fame seems to satiate is exactly what the people think they want.
Johnston has been an award-winning journalist for almost 50 years, but what journalists do is report facts. Johnston says, “What I have attempted to do here was take my direct knowledge of Trump and the many thousands of pages of Trump documents I’ve collected in my nearly half a century as an investigative reporter and focus on the aspects of Trump’s conduct that I think are most important for voters to ponder before they cast their ballots in November 2016.” But he does not address what happens when facts that should at the very least give any voter pause are either irrelevant or themselves serve to garner support for a very dangerous man. That’s where we seem to be right now as a society. This is why, while I learned much about Trump I hadn’t already heard, it’s hard to see what one more piece of fact recitation will do about the state that American politics and our society is in.
For it is not anymore a lack of information that makes people flock to perhaps the most ardently underqualified (to say the least) candidate in history for the highest office in the land. We in the Information Age are saturated; we suffer from awareness fatigue, not awareness deficits. As late-stage, allegedly free-market capitalism spits out more and more people; as technological advancement, which was supposed to be the bastion of that ever-elusive ideal of progress, renders more and more human beings obsolete in terms of labor markets; as fewer and fewer governments move quickly enough to meaningfully represent their citizens’ interests; the growing number of people who have been hurt by the system wants no more of the same. Trump, for all his incoherence, bigotry and blustering, is a powerful symbol of hope for those the status quo is crippling. We are no longer in a narrative, culturally speaking, where a clear, well-backed presentation of facts holds sway. The stories offered by liberalism, progressivism and capitalism, much as they’ve weathered before, are crumbling and the void they’re leaving behind is the exact size and shape of Donald Trump. Proof of this is that all the reports of Trump’s persistent disregard for others, his willingness to lie, cheat and make claims he could change at any moment, his racism, sexism, ableism, xenophobia have not gotten the round rejection for his candidacy yet. Will knowledge of facts like what Johnston provides be enough for Americans to keep such ideologies out of the White House?