[David Cay Johnston with first copy of his new book The Big Cheat at his home. His shirt refers to Soquel High in Santa Cruz, Calif., where he attended.]
On August 23rd 2016, I attended a talk and book signing by Brighton’s Pulitzer prize winning author and Talker subscriber David Cay Johnston at the New York State Teachers Union’s office on, yes, Union Street. David discussed his recently released biography, The Making of Donald Trump, (2016) a critical account based on public records of Trump’s business dealing from the 1980’s onward.
At the talk, not surprising given the audience, I was not able to find a single open Trump supporter. During the talk, David asked us to show The Making to anyone still considering Trump. David said, if you read the book and still vote for Trump, that’s fine. But at least you’ll know exactly what you’re buying. Alas, I am guessing not enough Trump supporters read it.¹
Unfortunately, I missed the book signing for his second book on Trump, It’s Even Worse Than You Think: What the Trump Administration Is Doing to America (2018).
The other day, just as David’s third book on Trump, The Big Cheat: How Donald Trump Fleeced America and Enriched Himself and His Family (Simon and Schuster), was to be released, we had a Q & A session:
Talker: According to your Wikipedia page, your formal educational credentials are limited to a “night high school diploma” but have taken upper-division and graduate classes at seven schools. What motivated you to undertake such a wide range of academic study? Do you consider yourself an autodidact?
Johnston: Yes, I’m an autodidact. We all should be after completing our formal education. College is for learning how to learn and to show one can undertake and complete a multi-faceted four-year project. I found most 100 and 200 level courses a waste of my time, so I finagled my way into 300 and up courses, including Masters & Doctoral level studies. Relevant here is that when I was in fourth grade Stanford University had me tested and wanted me in a program there, but unfortunately, my parents declined.
In Spring 1975, my War Orphans Act benefits expiring, a full professor declared to our class on the state constitution and government that I knew her subject better than she did. True enough. Why, she asked, was I in her class. Good question, I said, leaving for the academic office to ask for my diploma. There, a young man said I had to take a course to demonstrate that I can write.
From my knapsack, I pulled a book and asked if it would suffice.
“A required text at MSU.”
“You read it?”
“No, look at the cover, I wrote it – made a deal to write it a four-unit A .”
MSU waived the writing requirement, but not two science courses. I proposed to test out. The young man told me that wouldn’t work because the annual tests started in a few 30 minutes. I ran across campus. Later told he told me that higherups didn’t believe I could ace the tests (biology and geology through really more vulcanology) without prep, suggesting that they wouldn’t accept the results. They offered a degree if I took 35 more units, including Journalism 101 and 102 and magazine writing, this some nine years after I started making my living as a journalist and had won my first national investigative reporting award and had written a dozen or so magazine stories.
Talker: Your journalistic career is somewhat unusual in that for many decades you have written for national and international publications but live here in Rochester. In Rochester, you also maintain a high profile: writing Guest Columns for the Democrat and Chronicle, appearing on WXXI radio programs, giving talks, etc. How do you describe Rochester to someone unfamiliar with the city and county? What do you like about Rochester and the Town of Brighton where you live?
Johnston: I’ve lived here since July 1993, soon after my wife Jennifer Leonard was named head of the Rochester Area Community Foundation. I commuted to work weekly by plane for 15 years. From 1976, when I became the youngest LATimes national correspondent and was based in San Francisco, until I left The New York Times in April 2008, I pretty much lived in jetliners.
As for Rochester, I tell people it’s a marvelous and unexpected gem of a place to live. We have great schools and inexpensive housing (our tiny 224-sq ft Manhattan apartment is worth more than our Brighton home). Our region enjoys extensive cultural resources, a highly educated populace from around the world, and an abundance of trees. We have “rush minutes,” not hours. It’s a great place to live, as are some other third-tier cities and their suburbs.
Talker: You have written three books on Donald Trump and covered his career for 33 years. In 2016, you said, “Nobody knows Donald Trump as well as I do.” Is that even truer today? Have you ever interviewed him?
Johnston: Donald and I have spoken many times, though the last was in April 2016 when he called me at home to threaten me, yet again, with a lawsuit. As always, I told him if he had a case, he should bring it. He never has because he knows I bolt my facts down solidly. But I know his mind very well. My batting average on predictions I made in 2015 and 2016 continues steady at 1.000.
Early on, I figured out that he was a con artist, one of many I’ve covered. His casino executives detested him. His competitors regarded him as a sick joke. Public records showed he was a crook who performed extensive and extraordinary favors for a major drug lord.
Once I tried to give Donald some relatively simple tax advice. He couldn’t understand it – this from a man who claims to be the greatest tax expert in world history. Never mind that Donald testified he knows nothing of accounting, which is intimately intertwined with tax.
Donald blew up when he realized I understood his Taj Mahal casino deal better than he did. He demanded to know how I knew about the deal. I calmly said that I had studied the documents he had put into the public record.
Also, more like three and a half books, Donald’s incompetence, ignorance, and dishonesty appear throughout my 1992 book Temples of Chance about the casino industry.
Talker: The Big Cheat catalogs a litany of political and personal lies Trump has told over his business and political career. Yet many of his supporters are unfazed. One of your theses seems to be that despite all his lies, Trump’s supporters feel he speaks the key truth: they are forgotten and the American dream is quickly dying. Is that a fair characterization?
Johnston: Basically, yes. Both political parties have worked against most Americans for the last half-century. That’s because the post-Watergate campaign finance laws heavily favor corporations and the super-rich.
In 2018 the bottom 90% of Americans reported less income, adjusted for inflation, than in 1973. Donald spoke to people’s fears in memorable slogans; Hillary Clinton to their minds in wonky presentations.
The bottom 90% got only 50 weeks’ income in 2018 based on reported 1973 earnings. They also carry far more debt, including auto, mortgage, and student debt. A shrinking number have pensions. And the costs of health care have steadily shifted from employers to employees, all putting enormous strain on about 300 million of us. Half of the households whose head is age 35 or younger have a net worth under $14,000, which is less than way back in 1986.
A little-known fact that I calculated from official data: if we had the French or German universal healthcare systems, the savings would be larger than all the federal income taxes paid by the bottom 99% of Americans.
Put another way, we could eliminate income taxes for everyone making less than $500,000 if we had universal care system.
Donald, by the way, used to be for universal healthcare with no out-of-pocket expense, something we discussed at length. Few people seem to know that.
People whose economics are worse after 45 years are furious and desperate to hear promises like “I alone can save you.”
But few people understand why their family economics are so awful, how Trump has made them much worse off, or how beneficial Biden’s policies are. Pre-pandemic, the economy added 187,000 jobs a month under Trump. We’ve gained more than 600,000 jobs a month under Biden during the pandemic. That figure would be much higher but for ongoing cuts in state and local government employment.
People didn’t understand the remaking of our economy since the Carter administration. to favor the top one in a thousand households making more than $1.1 million a year. That’s why I wrote my trilogy on the stealth aspects of the American economy. These bestsellers were Perfectly Legal (how taxes enrich corporations and many individuals), Free Lunch (subsidies to corporations and the rich), and The Fine Print (monopolies and oligopolies). No one showed any error in those bestsellers. All are still in print and hold up.
In addition, the awful truth is that we have made far less progress than it seemed on racial and gender inequality. Animus is central to Donald. Many Americans hate our country now that white supremacy is not so dominant. They want minorities and women to know their place — their inferior place. Many openly say Donald gave them permission to spout racist slurs and even physically attack minorities, including Jews.
This retreat into fear and hatred goes along with our not teaching civics and critical thinking in schools. One result: 53% of households never buy books.
The “American Dream,” when I was growing up, was about becoming prosperous enough through steady work to own your home free and clear, have a car or cars that reliably started, and have a cushion of savings and investments or perhaps your own business. It’s been perverted into the pursuit of vast fortunes beyond any possible capacity to consume. Actor Christoper Reeve, invoking Donald, called it “the American Dream gone berserk.”
Talker: Overall, how much of Trump’s behavior is clearly illegal, and how much is it based on his ability to exploit loopholes, skirt the law perhaps deftly, and his willingness to undertake and overlook unethical behavior?
Johnston: Donald is the third-generation head of a four-generation white-collar crime family. Instead of breaking legs, the Trump-Kushner families break people’s finances with contracts.
And it’s a lie that Donald had to go along with the Mafia in New York City to build. When other developers went to the FBI to quash the mob, Donald ran in the opposite direction, as detailed in The Making of Donald Trump.
His Trump Tower is a viper’s next of international criminals because he doesn’t vet buyers and renters. For years Russian mobsters ran a full-blown and illegal 24-a-day casino on the floor immediately below Trump’s residence, yet he claimed to be unaware. His swindling of investors, partners, workers, and even novice roulette players at his Trump’s Castle casino in Atlantic City are all robustly documented in court and other public records.
In The Big Cheat, I show how Donald tried to turn our government into a kleptocracy. Some of his family and cronies did fabulously well, but others revealed their utter incompetence.
Even if you follow news about Donald closely, The Big Cheat will reveal things you didn’t know or understand because there was little or no reporting. And hardly ever did journalists give context about these schemes.
Talker: When reading the book, one question kept reappearing in my mind. Trump was blatantly corrupt and made many political mistakes that cost him reelection. What if someone more competent came to power? In the last chapter, “After Trump,” you answered the question:
We will live under the boot of someone who possesses all of Trump’s self-aggrandizing instincts but also knows how to manage power. A zealous competent manager with the work ethic Trump lacks could end our democracy.
Do you see any such figures on the horizon? Perhaps Missouri Senator Josh Hawley or Florida Governor Ron DeSantis? Or, while it is early, are we still primed for Trump running in 2024 and even winning?
Johnston: Donald’s misconduct revealed weaknesses in our constitutional system, which assumes one behaves with at least a modicum of honor. Now a host of wannabe dictators are eagerly trying to subvert our democracy. Senator Josh Hawley of Missouri, Governor Ron DeSantis of Florida, and Tucker Carlson of Fox are among this ilk. So is senator Tom Cotton of Arkansas. These men and many others in public life have endorsed the attempted coup on January 6. They’ve made clear they want to “Make America White Again” regarding who wields government power. All show a belief that stoking fear is the way to become our ruler. Hopefully, a solid majority of us are smarter than that – and will vote no matter how hard it is to register and cast ballots.
Talker: The Big Cheat does not closely chronicle The Big Lie, the fatuous claim that Trump rightfully won the election. Is the Big Lie merely an extension of Trump’s other Big Cheats or is it of a different degree in its nefarious?
Johnston: A large majority of registered Republicans say they believe that Joe Biden lost the election even in states where Republicans controlled the voting. Keeping up this lie is critical to those who would subvert our democracy.
The Big Lie gives aid and comfort to our enemies, especially in the Kremlin. That’s an astonishing development for the Republican Party, which launched the Great Fear after World War II about Russian infiltration of our government, Hollywood, and society.
Vladimir Putin didn’t so much want Donald Trump elected in 2016 as he wanted to make sure that Hillary Clinton did not become president because she promised to punish Putin for taking over Crimea. Putin also wanted to further his broad goal of destroying democracies everywhere by making people distrust election results and turn to dictatorial leaders. His own words show this, but few Americans have read them.
Russian state television called Donald Trump “a puppet of Putin.” Since the on-air talent and producers still hold their positions in that brutal dictatorial country, that tells you all you need to know about the Kremlin’s attitude toward Donald. From their point of view, he is what the Soviets called a “useful idiot.”
Johnston: Thousands of communities like Brighton no longer have a local news service. The Creative Destruction of the Internet ruined the four-century-old model of news financed with advertising. The Talker of the Town Is an innovative effort to address at least part of this loss of local news, which is where I started as a teenager in Santa Cruz, California, 56 years ago. I hope you will eventually raise enough money to hire staff or find dedicated and capable volunteers to expand your news. Regular coverage of the Town Council and school board meetings and in-depth reporting of the very substantial tax dollars we pay in Brighton is needed.
¹ In 2019, David published an essay in the Rochester Democrat and Chronicle on Dr. John H. Van Evrie, a virulent 19th century racist buried in Mt. Hope Cemetery. As seen in In search of America’s “first professional racist” in Rochester, David’s essay inspired me to further research the life of this vile white supremacist.
In 2020, As seen On the defacing of Reflecting in Nathaniel Square and restoring the grave of “America’s first professional racist” in Mt. Hope Cemetery, I was disappointed to learn the Daughters of the American Revolution and the Friends of Mt. Hope Cemetery chose to restore Van Evrie’s dilapidated grave.
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