The genius of Donald Trump

Perhaps ‘Dodgy Donald’ will enter America’s lexicon, just as ‘Tricky Dicky’ did for President Richard Nixon after all the lies about the Watergate scandal in 1972.


Donald Trump will go down as one of the worst Presidents in US history. Not my words, but the view of 42% of US registered voters, according to a Fox News poll conducted last week. Only 22% said he will go down as one of the “greats”. Remember that Fox News has been a staunch supporter of Donald Trump throughout his presidency, so the published result is particularly striking. In the same poll, 55% believe that the country is worse off now than it was four years ago. The news came as Trump continued to blast the presidential results, claiming on Twitter last Sunday that it was the “MOST CORRUPT ELECTION IN US HISTORY”, without of course any evidence to support this claim. On the other hand, 52% said they approve of Trump’s handling of the economy during his four years when, before the pandemic hit, there were record low unemployment numbers. While welcome, these numbers mask the long list of failures of the Trump presidency, which the political commentator, George Packer, has analysed in the latest edition of the Atlantic Magazine. The list makes eye-watering reading.

Over four years in office, the Trump administration has dismantled 84 major climate policies and rolled back 104 rules governing clean air, water, wildlife and toxic chemicals, all endangering American lives, just for the sake of enriching his friends. The US legal system has become even more politicised by Trump’s appointment of 220 judges to the federal bench, more rated “not qualified” by the US Bar Association than under any other President in the past 50 years. Few will forget the politics around the appointment of the three Supreme Court judges, Neil Gorsuch in 2017, Brett Cavanaugh in 2018, and Amy Coney Barrett a month ago, much to the delight of the Christian hard-right. There are now fears that the future of abortion rights and health care provision for the poor are at risk. Note that 52 (24%) of the judges were female and only nine (4%) were black, creating a further gender/race imbalance in the US judicial system.

President Trump signed just one major piece of legislation, the 2017 tax law. Analysts have revealed that the new law brought the total tax rate of the wealthiest 400 Americans, mostly Trump’s friends, to below that of every other income group. The small amount of federal income taxes paid by Donald Trump in both 2016 and 2017, just $750 each year, became the focus of much attention when it was revealed in a New York Times investigation earlier this year. Uncovering how he achieved this, Trump’s 2017 tax return showed a total income of minus $13 million, largely due to $45 million in losses carried over from prior years. On the other hand, during his four years of office, taxpayers and campaign donors handed over at least $8 million to Trump’s family business.

All this while 2.3 million Americans lost their health insurance, believed to account for at least 10,000 excess deaths in addition to the 310,000 deaths due to the pandemic. Many of those bereaved put the blame for the loss of their loved ones at the door of the White House because of Trump’s lack of leadership in fighting the pandemic. But then, when did Donald ever consider other people? It did not go unnoticed that when Trump and his attorney Giuliani contracted Covid-19, due to self-neglect, they recovered after only a few days in hospital, having received treatment not available to ordinary citizens. America under Trump has become less equal and more divided. During his term of office, Donald Trump withdrew the US from 13 international organisations, making America more alone. It’s also less free. Take a look at Freedom House’s annual index on human rights and you will see that under Trump, the US has dropped to below that of Greece and Mauritius. So much for the much vaunted “Land of the Free”.

When historians look back at the Trump presidency, and there will definitely be only one term, perhaps the greatest feature will be his propensity to lie. All leaders lie to some extent. Britain’s Boris Johnson’s frequent flirtation with dishonesty has cost him at least three jobs; he was once sacked by the Times newspaper for lying. But Donald Trump is in a league of his own. In Central London’s famous Soho district, a massive 100-foot long mural of his 20,000 false and misleading statements was erected days before the US Presidential Election. All had been fact-checked by the Washington Post in case of any doubt. Trump lies intentionally, partly because he can’t control his impulses but mainly because he wants to destroy the norms that otherwise would constrain his power. He lies about settled fact; the more brazen, frequent and shameless the better—something that has become a badge of honour among his supporters. They grasp the message that they too could say whatever they wanted without any apology. The problem is that when lies are consequential enough in detail and quantity they have a corrosive effect on democracy. Perhaps “Dodgy Donald” will enter America’s lexicon, just as “Tricky Dicky” did for President Richard Nixon after all the lies about the Watergate scandal in 1972.

So, with this hugely damaging record of Trump’s presidential term, why do I defer to the “genius” of Donald Trump? There are two reasons. The first is because of his firm hold on the Republican Party while getting away with his grotesque performance—and that’s genius. Donald Trump has remained remarkably popular among Republican Party supporters, averaging 87% over his term of office. You have to go as far back as President Eisenhower in the 1950s to find a higher average approval rating of 88%. Even the immensely popular President Ronald Reagan only achieved 83%, while President G.W. Bush reached 81%, the same as Democratic President Barack Obama. Many believe that without the chaos and economic damage of Covid-19, 20 January 2021 would have seen the start of a second Trump presidential term.

The second reason is Trump’s “genius” for persuading people to part with their money to swell his bank account.

It was J. Paul Getty who said that if you owe the bank $100, that’s your problem; but if you owe the bank $100 million, that’s their problem. Donald Trump has lived by this dictum throughout his business life. He still does. Based on the Internal Revenue Service transcripts of his tax returns from 1985 to 1994, Trump’s core businesses racked up losses of more than a billion dollars. In 1991 alone, Trump’s losses were so large that they were more than double those of any other businessman. Some of the dozens of banks that had lent money to Trump threatened to foreclose on their loans, which could have caused a cascading chain of bankruptcies, including one for Trump personally. Rather than allowing this, which would have forced them to realise huge losses that might have threatened the very existence of their banks, they concluded it was better to keep Trump alive by offering him even more money. Getty was vindicated. Reflecting on his business life, Trump and his apologists argue that his businesses were operated successfully and the huge losses they sustained were simply tax dodges. They weren’t. Trump survived by simply cashing in on the mirage of his personal brand and continued the game of chicken with the banks.

Even in the aftermath of the lost election, Donald Trump continues to rake in vast amounts of money. His rants and raves about “fraud” and the “stolen election” have nothing to do with reality. He probably doesn’t even believe his own ridiculous claims. They are cunningly designed to achieve two things: to salvage some pride having lost the election; and to make money. In fact, he couldn’t make it any clearer. For example, under the guise of the necessity for the Republican Party to win the all-important Georgia Senate runoff elections next month, Trump’s successfully persuading his supporters to fork out cash, most of which will go into the pocket of his Political Action Committee (PAC). When donors for the Georgia Senate battle click on Trump’s emails and texts, they are directed to a site that urges donations of anything from $5 to $2,800. Lower down on the page is the (very) small print saying that 75% of each donation goes to Trump’s PAC, which currently stands at more than $200 million. This money can be used by Trump and his family for any purpose, even keeping out of jail.

It was Abraham Lincoln, a fellow Republican and America’s 16th President, who in 1858 said “you can fool some of the people all of the time, and all of the people some of the time; but you cannot fool all of the people all of the time”. He clearly hadn’t met anyone quite like Donald Trump, the 45th President, and his hold on the Republican Party. That’s genius.

John Dobson is a former British diplomat, who also worked in UK Prime Minister John Major’s office between 1995 and 1998.