I probably haven’t mentioned it, but I exchanged a number of email messages with David Cay Johnston. He was critical of something that I had written, but generally seemed to have a positive attitude toward me. He called me a “polymath” — which is just about the highest complement you can give me. I bring it up primarily to brag, because I love his work. One of the great things about having this blog is that actual smart people take me half seriously. But in addition to Johnston being brilliant, he is also playful. And that’s got to be why he went to the trouble to write a book review, Trump’s Sloppy, Illogical Crippled America Is a Jumble of Contradictions.
Before I get to it, I want to highlight the subtitle of the book, “How to Make America Great Again.” That reminds me so much of Stephen Colbert’s book, America Again: Re-becoming the Greatness We Never Weren’t. Is this really what passes for serious political debate in the United States? Something that Colbert satirized three years ago? Yet that does seem what the Republican base wants — and has wanted for a long time. It isn’t about policy or even ideology. It is about who is “strong” and will make America “great” — things that aren’t concrete — that are just gut-level feelings about some fantasy of what America is. As Colbert put it: the greatness we never weren’t.
What I was most struck with in Johnston’s review was where he starts, “Given how often Donald Trump reminds us of his incredible accomplishments as a businessman, you might reasonably expect that his new book on ‘how to make America great again’ would include a business plan.” But of course it wouldn’t. I noticed at the start of Tuesday’s Republican debate that FNC referred to Trump as a “builder.” He’s not a builder. He’s not even a businessman. He’s a guy with a lot of money who hired other builders and businessmen. As I’ve written about before, he hasn’t made any more money than if he had just put his inheritance in an indexed fund. So of course he has no business plan, because planning isn’t what he does. He’s just a privileged rich kid whose braggadocio conservatives mistake for genius.
As usual with Johnston, he really knows things on the granular level. So he rightly applauds Trump for calling for greater infrastructure spending. But then Trump goes on to call for getting rid of the Rural Utilities Service program — an infrastructure financing program. What’s more, Trump claims it will save us almost $10 billion, but it actually only costs the federal government $400 million. But I suspect Trump would just say that cutting that $400 million would create a 25× multiplier effect. Of course, the more fundamental issue is that this is what Republicans are always for: let’s build infrastructure and make America strong — but let’s not pay for it!
Johnston goes on quite a bit about Trump’s ideas for tax “reform” and just how illogical it is. You should read the whole article. But the main thing is that Trump is like most people in business: he knows what he knows. There is no reason to think that he would understand macroeconomics better than anyone else. The problem with Trump and the thousands of other rich people that the media run to for their thoughts, is that they live in a reality in which they think being rich makes them smart and knowledgeable. Thus, they don’t worry about learning economics. Their hubris makes them especially dangerous, and that’s the most important point about Donald Trump.