The saga of President Donald Trump consists of several parallel and intersecting stories.
This article was originally published at Salon.
There is the structural dimension. Trump’s victory over Hillary Clinton was not entirely unpredictable or shocking. America’s crisis in civic literacy, political polarization, rampant anti-intellectualism, deeply embedded sexism and racism, greed, broken schools and weakened democratic institutions, as well as a hollowed-out public sphere where people confuse celebrity with human worth made the election someone like Trump nearly inevitable.
There is Donald Trump the man, who seems to revel in the very worst human values. His closest family members — including his father and grandfather — taught him the “value” of unrepentant greed and ambition. He also displays the symptoms of malignant narcissism, as well as sociopathy. In all, Trump is a master of manipulation who leads a political cult.
How do these factors combine in Donald Trump’s presidency and the type of society that he and the Republican Party want to create? Are matters actually worse than they appear, in terms of how we assess the political and social crisis of the Trump’s presidency? What strategy should Democrats use to stop Trump and the Republican Party? If Trump is removed from office because of his increasingly obvious efforts to obstruct justice, how will his public respond? Will there be violence?
In an effort to answer these questions, I recently spoke with Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative reporter David Cay Johnston. For 30 years, Johnston has covered Trump’s life and career, of Donald Trump as detailed in the bestselling book “The Making of Donald Trump.” His new book is “It’s Even Worse Than You Think: What the Trump Administration is Doing to America.”
This conversation has been edited for clarity and length. A longer version of this conversation can also be heard on my podcast.
How was Donald Trump able to defeat Hillary Clinton and win the White House?
Well, a series of events came together. First of all, Hillary Clinton had a lot of baggage and as Donna Brazile’s book “Hacks” shows, she ran a poor campaign and did not listen to the advice of people who told her she needed to pay attention to what Trump was doing.
Secondly, the Republican challengers were a clown car of utterly unqualified people, which meant his lack of qualifications was not so noticeable. The one qualified candidate in that field was John Kasich.
Next, Donald ran on an economic platform that on the surface spoke to inequality and frustration. For example, in 2012, the bottom 90 percent of the Americans reported a smaller income than in 1967. Donald tapped into that problem, but he’s a con artist who promised to drain the swamp and then stocked it with swamp monsters.
Another factor was the utter failure of journalists to vet Donald Trump. You can read about Barack Obama’s kindergarten playmates in Indonesia by name, the boys he smoked dope with in high school by name and some of the women he dated in college by name. But the New York Times, in the 16 months from Trump’s [campaign] announcement to Election Day, had exactly four references that had “Trump” and “Mafia” in the same story and they were all in passing and inconsequential.
They also didn’t report on the two income tax fraud trials that Trump lost. There was just a lot of stuff about Trump that was never reported because his campaign was like looking at a car crash on the other side of the highway but it had dancing girls and a marching band and so you couldn’t turn away from it.
For 40 years the Republicans have done serious work preparing for the day when, as a minority party, they wanted to still be in control. So they have reduced the franchise. They’ve passed laws like this horrible law in Michigan that lets you throw out ballots on the most bogus grounds, entire precincts. All that combined to help Trump win the Electoral College.
Why were so many journalists and pundits unable to understand the true power of Trump’s campaign? So much of what he did and continues to do is political performance art drawn from professional wrestling and reality TV. It isn’t complicated.
Remember that campaign reporters cover the horse race. They focus on the sizzle and not the steak. Everybody was so taken by his unusual campaign that they just forgot about the basics.
You have studied and written about Donald Trump for three decades. What does the public need to know about his background to understand his behavior as president?
Here are the key things people should know about Donald Trump. He comes from a family of criminals: His grandfather made his fortune running whorehouses in Seattle and in the Yukon Territory. His father, Fred, had a business partner named Willie Tomasello, who was an associate of the Gambino crime family. Trump’s father was also investigated by the U.S. Senate for ripping off the government for what would be the equivalent of $36 million in today’s money. Donald got his showmanship from his dad as well as his comfort with organized criminals.
I think it is very important for religious Americans to know that Donald Trump says that his personal philosophy of life is revenge. He has called anyone who turns the other cheek — which is a fundamental teaching of Christ in the Sermon on the Mount — a fool, an idiot or a schmuck. Trump is a man who says things that are absolutely contrary to the teachings of the New Testament. He also denigrates Christians. Yet you see all of these ministers endorsing him.
I’ve followed Donald for 30 years, I don’t see any evidence that he has changed and he certainly hasn’t repented, which is a fundamental Christian obligation.
He is a racist through and through. He has been found in formal judicial proceedings to discriminate against nonwhites in rentals and employment.
It’s important to understand that Trump is aggressively anti-Christian despite claiming to be one. He is bluntly a racist. Most importantly, he is literally ignorant about almost everything.
Trump’s voters will not abandon him under any circumstances. He leads the Republican Party and thus has its news media and other resources at his disposal. Some folks believe that there will be a “blue wave” of Democratic votes that will wash him and the Republican Party out to sea in 2018 and 2020. I don’t see that happening. I think Trump wins in 2020. Am I being too cynical?
Well, he may win again in 2020. The November elections are the most important American elections since the Civil War, and I’m including 1932.
Based just on normal historic averages, the Republicans should lose control of the House by about four seats. They should lose control of the Senate as well, although the map is pretty awful for the Democrats. If Republicans retain control then I believe what will happen over time is that someone who shares Trump’s dictatorial and authoritarian tendencies but doesn’t have his baggage — someone who is a competent manager and just as charismatic — will eventually arise and you can kiss your individual liberties goodbye. That will take time but it’s the trend we are heading towards.
On the other hand, if enough people go to the polls — remember, roughly 100 million people did not vote in 2016 — if the Democrats get organized, if they can persuade the public they have an agenda that goes beyond just getting just get rid of Trump and they get control of Congress, they will move to impeach him. They need a two-thirds majority in the Senate to convict him but they will certainly move to have public hearings.
Is Trump an ideologue?
No. That’s the whole point of the first chapter of my book, “President Like No Other.” The 44 previous presidents were all over the map. There were smart people and dumb people, there were people of impeccable integrity such as Barack Obama and Jimmy Carter, there were absolute scoundrels like Warren G. Harding. We had a murderous racist in the White House whose painting hangs in the Oval Office now looking down on Trump. What distinguishes all those presidents, particularly Chester B. Arthur, the one closest to Trump, is that they tried in the context of their times to make America better.
Donald Trump is a man with this desperate need for adoration. He is an empty vessel, the exact opposite of Henry David Thoreau — a “life unexamined.” His only philosophy is the glorification of Donald.
If you were going to consult with the Democratic Party about how to defeat Trump and the Republican Party, what would you suggest?
I think most of what Hillary said came across as “blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah.” What I would say to the Democrats is, “Your first and fundamental mission is to tell people what you are for.” Not that you’re against Trump. Being against Trump doesn’t get you very far. It will get you some people who hate Trump. But what are you for? What you want to say is: We will get the incredible burden of health care off the back of small businesses. We will make it so you don’t have to stick with an employer because you have health care and you don’t want to run the risk of switching or losing it. We want to relieve business of the burden of health care like every other modern country, and it will save everyone money.
We want to invest in the future of America. So we will put more money into education and basic science. Did you know that half the economic growth in this country since the end of World War II can be traced to taxpayer investments in science?
We want investments at home that will create jobs. Our country is falling apart in front of our eyes. That will create an enormous number of jobs but it will also make the economy more efficient. We want to invest in that future, which will make us all much better off. We’re about building a prosperous future. We’re not about looking back, as Donald Trump is, to the past.
This is a crucial point. People who’ve been had by con artists are ashamed and the world is full of cases, I’ve written about some of them, you see see it in movies and TV shows. They just can’t face the fact that they were tricked. It makes them feel stupid and foolish.
Well, people who got conned by Trump — it’s painful for many of them and they will do anything to avoid it. You don’t want to confront them, you don’t want to make them feel stupid.
What do you think will happen with the Mueller investigation? Trump is not acting like an innocent person.
Well, Mueller has assembled an extraordinarily talented team. Here is what Mueller is going to find. Mueller has the Trump tax returns. A competent prosecutor would have them by now. The Trump tax returns are the beginning point. You have to get the books and records–Donald has a long history of hiding books and records when they’re sought by auditors. As for the Russians, it is beyond dispute at this point that the Trump campaign was actively involved in a conspiracy.
He’s not exactly what Putin wanted, but most importantly Trump’s not Hillary Clinton, who would have gone up to the edge of war to make Putin give up Crimea. She made that very clear in a campaign. He would be in severe pain if he didn’t give up the Crimean peninsula in eastern Ukraine. So he didn’t want her under any circumstances. Mueller is going to report on tax fraud, he’s going to report on the Russians and he is going to show that the Trump campaign was knowingly being helped by the Russians. Remember that the Australian, Dutch and British intelligence agencies, and maybe others, went to the FBI, State Department and other contacts and said, “You folks have a problem. ”
Where exactly Mueller will go beyond that, I don’t know. His mission is the Russians and the Russians are tied in with the tax returns. But remember this: The job of a prosecutor is not to bring the perfect case, it’s not to bring the case that should be brought for political reasons. It’s to bring the easiest, most solid case that wins. Mueller will do that. There is nothing that prevents indicting a sitting president, but it is an untested issue. Mueller is going to have to decide whether to indict him or to go to Congress.
If the overwhelming conclusion of the Mueller report is that the Russians put Trump in the White House, then you face a second terrible problem: What do you do about Mike Pence who is also the beneficiary of Russian interference?
If the Congress impeaches and removes Trump and Pence, it will only be because the Democrats control Congress. So unless something else changes, we get President Nancy Pelosi. You can just imagine the people who will be in the streets screaming coup d’état if she’s president. I think the only way to address that is for her, or whoever is speaker, to announce they will be a caretaker president who is not going to do anything extreme.
There is no good ending to the story. America will survive this, we’ll get past it, but whenever Trump leaves, there’s no good ending. If Trump is removed by impeachment or by the voters, whether in a Republican primary or a general election, I know what he will do. He’s already told us what he will do by his actions. Trump will spend the rest of his days fomenting violence and revolution in this country.
He’s be careful not to directly say “revolution,” but he will call the government illegitimate. He might even call it criminal, since he called Democrats who didn’t stand up during his State of the Union speech treasonous. If they’re going to impeach Trump, I believe they have to have a plan to indict, try, convict and imprison him. But Trump will be a role model for some people and there may well be violence over it.
As Malcolm Nance and others have warned, Russia’s interference in the 2016 election and likely infiltration of Trump’s inner circle could be one of the worst intelligence disasters in American history, a failure of Benedict Arnold or Rosenberg proportions.
Let me be very clear and quotable about this. At an absolute minimum, Donald Trump has divided loyalties, and the evidence we already have suggests that Donald Trump is a traitor. In fact, I would say that the evidence we already have, the public materials such as emails for example, strongly indicate that Donald Trump is a traitor. However, I don’t even think he understands what he’s done.