Henry Ford and Lee Iacocca thought about it. William Randolph Hearst flirted with it. And Herbert Hoover, Wendell Willkie, and Donald J. Trump did it — businessmen who entered politics and won a presidential nomination.
Hoover was an engineer entrepreneur, Willkie a utility executive, and Trump — well, there is no description broad and deep enough to describe him besides this: Trump is Trump. Nothing need be added.
And yet David Cay Johnston, a storied investigative reporter with a Pulitzer Prize and the self-confidence of — the customary vocabulary of the book-reviewing fraternity fails us, again — a Trump, attempts in “The Making of Donald Trump’’ to add to our understanding of the newly minted Republican presidential nominee.
His book, completed less than a month ago and rushed into print — the first of two Trump biographies to be released this summer — paints his subject as an avaricious businessman who is the consort of beautiful women and sordid scoundrels, a man quick to identify the world’s losers even as he paints himself as one of its winners, someone as adept at getting even as getting wealthy, an expert practitioner of revisionism.
This is not an unfamiliar portrait. You can pay $24.99 to read this between hard covers or, if you tuned in to watch the Democratic National Convention, you heard it for free.
Johnston’s book, presented in a series of 24 short, themed chapters (with titles like “Family Values,’’ “Myth Maintainance,’’ “Trump Beaches a Whale’’), is a chronicle of mobsters and mistresses, shady construction deals and financial shenanigans, monumental projects and miserable (and possibly illegal) business practices. Everywhere Roy Cohn, the perpetually tanned superlawyer who emerged onto the American scene in the Army-McCarthy hearings and persisted for decades afterward, lurks menacingly in the background.
In these pages Johnson sets out Trump’s lack of judgment and character, raises questions about financial claims — many years ago, Johnston reports, rather than being a billionaire, Trump was nearly drowning in debt — and argues that Trump makes his own rules or bends them to his advantage.
Whether declaring bankruptcy (which he did six times) or declaring for the presidency (which he did twice), Trump is perhaps the most fascinating figure on the American scene. He has used the force of his personality to crash through barriers of business, just as he did with the Republican Party. Indeed, Trump defeated 16 rivals on the way to the GOP nomination, two of them avatars of conservatism’s new look (senators Ted Cruz of Texas and Marco Rubio of Florida) and one of them perhaps the most gifted policy theorist of the first family of the Republican establishment (former governor Jeb Bush of Florida).
There is nothing about this in Johnston’s book, which, to be fair, is focused on Trump’s business and personal life. Much of this slender volume’s contents are already part of the public record; some of it is new. But none of it represents a substantial or even a minor departure from our overall view of Trump, who has bragged about many of the personality traits that Johnston deplores and that the Clinton team emphasized day after day at its Philadelphia convention. Some of it even mildly embarrasses Trump — you can see that in the sheepish, almost boyish way he brushes aside the criticism, arguing that he used the business tools, bankruptcy laws, and tax provisions that were available to him. Then he adds, as any fair-minded critic should, that the Clinton business and ethical record is not squeaky clean.
That said, there are intriguing elements. Trump’s grandfather emerges as a colorful figure who, eerily, shares many of the characteristics, all the way down to mining the miners in faraway Canadian reaches (with “hard liquor and ‘sporting ladies’ ’’), of the protagonist in Mordecai Richler’s 1989 masterpiece, “Solomon Gursky Was Here.’’
Johnston also shares a tale of Trump vindictively cutting off the health insurance of a critically ill young grandnephew during a family dispute and the unforgettable image of a young Trump driving a Cadillac during his undergraduate years and wearing a three-piece burgundy suit on a date with fellow Penn student Candice Bergen.
Plus there are innumerable fabulous tidbits: Some years Trump paid no federal taxes. Ivana Trump designed the “cleavage-maximizing’’ outfits Trump’s pro-football cheerleaders wore. Trump, along with Henry Kissinger and Mary Tyler Moore — this surely is the first time those three ever appeared in the same sentence — bought jewelry in New York City and avoided the sales tax by having Bulgari mail empty boxes out of state.
More than a dozen Republican candidates and the entire Democratic Party have made the very same argument Johnston puts forward here. It is an important critique, yet an ignored one. Trump may, and probably does, have all these flaws. He also possesses perhaps the most important, and in some quarters surely the most appealing, message in this year of fear and discontent. The book that explains that is the one worth writing, and waiting for.
THE MAKING OF DONALD TRUMP
By David Cay Johnston
Melville House, 288 pp., $24.99David M. Shribman, a former Globe Washington bureau chief, is the executive editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.