The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

A chronicle of Trump’s misdeeds and cronies, before the picture got darker

Donald Trump rides an escalator in Trump Tower in New York on his way to announcing his presidential bid in June 2015. The cheering crowd was made up of paid actors. David Cay Johnston calls this the “foundational lie . . . of a mass upwelling of popular support” for Trump’s candidacy. (Photo by Christopher Gregory/Getty Images)

On June 16, 2015, Donald Trump launched his presidential campaign in front of an audience of paid extras who cheered his remarks — incoherent, preposterous or racist — 43 times in exchange for “$50 CASH at the end of the event.” Trump’s campaign manager Corey Lewandowski lied about the payments. The campaign did not pay the company that recruited the actors (through a subcontractor) for four months and did not report the transaction until seven months after the event, in violation of federal campaign regulations.

Veteran journalist David Cay Johnston tells this story, which he calls “Lie One,” in the first chapter of his new book, “The Big Cheat: How Donald Trump Fleeced America and Enriched Himself and His Family.” “This foundational lie . . . of a mass upwelling of popular support,” Johnston writes, “was the corrupt seed that grew into mighty crowds at rallies.”

Few people are as well positioned to write an exposé of the former president as Johnston, who has reported on Trump since he began covering the Atlantic City casino industry in the 1980s. “The Big Cheat” is a guided tour of the Trump circus in 18 colorful vignettes. There are the ways the first family used the White House to enrich themselves, from the Old Post Office hotel in D.C. where foreign leaders made sure the president knew they were paying handsomely for their rooms, to the Trump Organization’s overseas projects that were greenlighted by favor-seeking governments, to the hundreds of millions of dollars that Ivanka Trump and Jared Kushner made while serving as administration officials. There are the motley hangers-on, like Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao, who spent her time in office promoting her family’s shipping business, and relatively minor players such as Brian Kolfage, who was indicted on charges that he pocketed money he had raised to “build the wall.” And there are the Trump administration policies that abandoned his campaign promises and sold out the working people he claimed to represent in favor of the wealthy and large corporations.

But we’ve all spent too much time gawking at this circus. “The Big Cheat” compiles as wide-ranging a catalogue as one is likely to find — in book form, at least — of the misdeeds and failings of Trump and his coterie of enablers and swindlers. It throws wheelbarrows full of red meat to people who love to hate the former president and his cronies. The inept business deals that have to be bailed out by corrupt foreign billionaires, the unthinking disregard for norms of behavior, the buffoonish lawbreaking that somehow never gets punished, the undisguised contempt for ordinary people — all are on display like performers in a tasteless freak show.

The real importance of Donald Trump, however, lies elsewhere. What was it that was truly transformational about the Trump phenomenon? It wasn’t the economic policies that helped the rich and hurt the poor, which have been a staple of Republican administrations for decades. It wasn’t the lies, which were so comically absurd that they weren’t even meant to deceive; the George W. Bush administration launched a devastating war with a fictional claim about weapons of mass destruction delivered so skillfully that people believed it. It wasn’t the corruption, which differed at most in its brazenness from historical tradition; if Trump had used his presidency only to make his family rich, America would be in much better shape than it is today.

Instead, Trumpism fundamentally changed our country in three ways. First, it legitimized and unleashed overt racist ideology. Dog whistles have been a core tactic in the Republican playbook since the days of Richard Nixon and the Southern strategy — note the crucial role that the critical race theory boogeyman played in Glenn Youngkin’s victory in Virginia — but no modern president before Trump appealed so openly to racial resentment.

Second, while many politicians have told lies, Trump’s falsehoods were taken up by legions of imitators and stirred together by the attention-maximizing algorithms of Facebook, Twitter and YouTube to create an alternate reality in which tens of millions of people now live — and which continues to kill thousands of people who hold fantastic beliefs about coronavirus vaccines. Trump’s gift for generating engagement is unparalleled among politicians, but his ability to distort reality depended heavily on the social media titans he likes to vilify.

Third, and most important, no president before had attempted to use executive power to overturn an election and hold office by force. Politicians routinely use their power to try to win the next election. But gerrymandering, voter-suppression bills and taxpayer-financed photo opportunities are one thing; pressuring the Justice Department and state officials to interfere in completed elections is another.

Trump’s racist appeals and social media prowess make frequent background appearances in “The Big Cheat,” and his refusal to leave office peacefully (which Johnston predicted) and the Jan. 6 insurrection are mentioned briefly, presumably because the book was being finalized at the time. “The Big Cheat” is a good book, full of old-fashioned reporting based on original sources and primary documents, colorfully written and convincingly argued. But it mainly focuses on the “old” Trump — by which I don’t mean to say that the man has changed, only that our appreciation of his significance has changed.

When the star of “The Apprentice” entered the presidential race in 2015 and climbed to the top of the Republican primary charts, he was seen by his critics as a narcissistic, incompetent, misogynistic, racist, dishonest clown. The idea that he had to pay underemployed actors to clap for him was comical.

Trump may be the same person he was then. But in hindsight, his personal failings and peccadillos pale in comparison with the tectonic impact he has had on American society. The applause in Trump Tower in June 2015 may have been fake, but the massive crowds at his rallies were real. Six years later, a majority of Republicans believe (and almost all elected Republicans profess to believe) that the 2020 election was stolen. Democracy is under assault. If only we could return to the old days of the Trump circus — when tax fraud, campaign finance violations, corruption and selling out the working class were the greatest of our worries.

The Big Cheat

How Donald Trump Fleeced America and Enriched Himself and His Family

By David Cay Johnston

Simon & Schuster.
285 pp. $28