The Making Of Donald Trump

By David Cay Johnston

(Melville House, £18.99)

ONE of my favourite remarks about politics calls the profession, if it can be described as such, “showbusiness for ugly people”. Show business is, of course, not the real world. Nor is it all laughs – it is often full of mishap and tragedy and not every performance or performer is to be savoured.

The Pulitzer prize-winning columnist David Cay Johnston maintains that Donald Trump makes, and lives in, his own reality. It may therefore be that this showbusiness analogy is a good way of approaching the bizarre spectacle that is the current US Presidential election, an election which could result in the most powerful elected office in the world being filled by a man who has had – according to Johnston’s introductory chapter – “lifelong entanglements with a major cocaine trafficker, with mobsters and many mob associates, with con artists and swindlers” and who has “been sued thousands of times for refusing to pay employees, vendors and others ... investors have [also] sued him for fraud in a number of different cities”.

In addition, asserts Johnston, Donald Trump’s “most highly refined skill is his ability to deflect or shut down law enforcement investigations ... he [uses] threats of litigation to deter news organisations from looking behind the curtain”.

Johnston, who sometimes comes across as being almost as self-satisfied and assertive as Trump, first started reporting on Trump in Atlantic City in 1988 and the 24 short chapters of the very readable book contain substantial detail regarding Trump’s activities since that time. They also dig into his earlier years and some of his family background. As to the truth of these claims, readers will need to make up their own minds.

When Trump started on the campaign trail for the Republican nomination in June 2015 with an announcement to cheering crowds of young people assembled in the lobby of the Trump Tower in Manhattan (those crowds bulked up, it is now clear, by paid actors), Johnston drew up a list of 21 questions that he thought Trump’s opponents should ask. It is, he notes, to be regretted that virtually none of them were put to the candidate although towards the end of the primaries Marco Rubio raised Trump University (“the best of the best” said Trump although the venture was a disaster which is still the subject of legal actions for fraud) and Ted Cruz asked about Trump’s dealings with the Genovese and Gambino crime families.

The other questions touch on issues as diverse as Trump’s failure to publish his tax returns, his boasts about his own philanthropy, his retention of a casino licence in circumstances in which anyone else would have lost it, his poor record in running a company, his assertions about his own wealth and the withdrawal of support from his nephew’s disabled child because of a dispute about his father’s will.

Johnston is also clear about Trump’s use of legal action – even with no prospect of success – to silence criticism but also to “always get even”, which is achieved by ensuring that you “hit back harder than you were hit”. These unpleasant (and decidedly un-Christian) lifelong strategies of Trump’s are allied to highly skilled media techniques. For example Johnston maintains that Trump has “studied conventions of journalists and displays more genius at exploiting them to his advantage than anyone else I have known”. Trump’s manipulation of individuals is also scrutinised by Johnston, including allegations regarding the use of political campaign donations to smooth away legal and regulatory problems.

This type of Reservoir Dogs politics as showbusiness makes our activities seem like Mary Poppins. In Scotland, such a vast accumulation of damaging baggage over many years would make an individual unelectable yet Trump is no stranger to politics, having suggested himself back in 1988 (quite seriously) as the best running mate for George Bush. In 2000 he ran on the Reform Party ticket, claiming that he would make a profit by so doing – something he is now achieving, given that US campaign law demands he rents to himself at full value his plane, his helicopter and his offices while he is the candidate.

He tried to get the Republican nomination again in 2012 though Johnston maintains this was merely to strengthen his negotiating hand with NBC over a new series of Celebrity Apprentice.

In 2016, things are different. This time he is serious, not least because his television career looked as if it was coming to an end and he could not bear the thought of being fired himself. So to validate his own reality – his own image of himself as the greatest in everything – he decided to take the highest prize in the country.

Trump’s most used insult (though he has a complete lectionary of abuse as has been seen as the campaign has progressed) is “loser”. What Donald wants, he says, Donald gets. So we may be witnessing, in Eliot’s definition of tragedy, something that was funny and then is no longer funny. For Trump could win.

Inauguration, unlike baptism, does not wash away sins nor confer wisdom. If even a 10th of David Cay Johnston’s stories are true, then Trump is morally, intellectually, culturally, economically, legally and politically unfit for office of any sort. No wonder so much of the world is shaking its head but also holding its breath.