Why you should care
Because — surprise! — there’s a lot to learn from Trump, even if you’re not running for president.
It can be tempting to dismiss Donald Trump, the self-aggrandizing, wild-haired political neophyte, as a buffoon. Or as President Barack Obama once did, as a “carnival barker.” But thinking of Trump’s presidential campaign as a mere sideshow is like calling Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey just a circus, rather than recognizing it — and Trump — for what they really are: well-oiled, billion-dollar corporate machines that happen to deal in overhyped, grandiose feats of audacity and skill. Which is one reason the Donald has been the Greatest Show on Earth the past few weeks. The billionaire’s current reality show is really the latest spin on a tried-and-true business formula he’s been perfecting for decades in television, real estate and elsewhere.
Anyone who’s instantly recognizable by their first name — and whose last name conjures up an image of ostentatious luxury — knows something about forging a personal brand. In building up his portfolio of resorts, casinos, television shows, colognes, clothing lines and beauty pageants, Trump has long since morphed from a real estate developer to a mega-brand manager who essentially traffics in his own name. For a political outsider trying to suck away the oxygen from more than a dozen other GOP candidates, there’s no better asset, says Brian Balogh, a political historian at the University of Virginia and co-host of the radio show BackStory with the American History Guys.
Part of being a presidential candidate is looking the part and never letting them see you sweat — skills Trump has perfected through decades of both backroom deals and public bluster, starting with the 40-year property tax reduction he jawed out of New York City for a 1970s project. Primary voters might be similarly susceptible to Trump’s absence of humility; many don’t spend a lot of time deconstructing a candidate’s views, and they often gravitate toward those who are the most confident and outspoken. “Being successful in business is often about being brash and appearing confident,” says James C. Moore, a communications strategist and best-selling author of Bush’s Brain. “If Trump does well in any part of the primaries, it will be simply because of his businessman’s hustle.”
Maybe Trump actually will take the risk and put his name on one of the few places he has never put it before: the ballot.
That hustle, which according to Trump’s own carefully tended legend includes no vacations and four hours of sleep per night, also means exploiting every opportunity for self-promotion, from wearing your own ties to talking up your latest resort. “Politicians are all talk,” Trump says, but he’s shown that he can out-talk the best of them. Like every other candidate, Trump is on a perpetual publicity tour — it’s just that he’s been doing this for a living for decades, and he enjoys it. Marketing yourself 24/7 has the added benefit of drawing loads of free media coverage while also drowning out your opponents.
Power is also like real estate, as the Machiavellian politico Frank Underwood puts it in House of Cards: “It’s all about location, location, location. The closer you are to the source, the higher your property value.” By running for president, Trump is hoping to stake out a prime location in the Washington power game. Of course, he’d better have a longer-range goal in mind, because the emerging Trump political brand is also starting to ding the paint on his carefully crafted business brand.
Which is where you have to stop and ask: Is Trump crazy, or just crazy like a fox? Referring to illegal immigrants as “rapists,” drug dealers and criminals may have shot him to the top of the polls, but it’s also unraveled some of the deals he’s so proud of cutting — specifically with NBC, Univision, Macy’s and others. At the moment, Trump’s presidential run could be the worst thing that’s ever happened to his bottom line — and that’s counting several real estate crashes and four bankruptcy filings at Trump-related companies. (Assuming, of course, he doesn’t actually end up as the 45th president of the United States.)
When it comes to deals, the devil is also in the details, and it’s far from clear whether the man who has built resorts and high-rises everywhere from Jersey City to Scotland can build an effective ground organization in places like Iowa and New Hampshire. Or if he even wants to. People like Moore wonder whether “Trump’s massive ego can handle rejection” at the hands of voters. “Billionaires like to win,” Trump observes in one of his books, and as recently revealed legal depositions indicate, the Donald bristles at even the suggestion of failure. A cratered presidential campaign could expose the wily executive to his own brand of Kryptonite: the word “loser.”
If Trump knows anything, though, it’s how to exit on his own terms; and when the time is right, he’ll most likely jettison his campaign like an underperforming subsidiary. Too soon, however, and he risks running afoul of another Frank Underwood no-no — choosing money over power. “Money is the McMansion in Sarasota that starts falling apart after 10 years,” a scathing Underwood intones. “Power is the old stone building that stands for centuries.” On the other hand, maybe Trump actually will take the risk and put his name on one of the few places he has never put it before: on the ballot.