Presidential Branding: Trump and the Cult of Celebrity

Attempting to come up with the most dreadful aspect of the Trump campaign and presidency can put quite a strain on the mind. Is it the foul mouth racist rhetoric, the unabashed narcissism, the endless blatant lying that perhaps has forever decimated truth as an objective concept? After Trump could a politician ever be seriously accused of lying again? And just what is worse: the permanent destruction of factual discourse or the possibility that facts were only suspended as a gift to this cretin?

Any of that certainly passes muster in terms of dreadfulness. On its boisterous merits the Trump campaign message boiled down to the outsider businessman and shrewd dealmaker taking over a stale, corrupt status quo- a businessman wealthy enough to be above the influence of lobbyists or campaign funds. One wonders where the surreal idea that those with wealth are beyond corruption and greed. History’s litter seems to prove the contrary. Yet most grating of all probably is that it is on the alleged merits that the Trump campaign should have cratered.  It is obvious it all could and should have been avoided.

It was actually the fanatically pro-Trump New York Post that last November provided a summa to Trump’s business career. In a brutal irony the main characters in the Post’s story are Trump’s Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross and Carl Ichan who Trump named as an advisor on financial regulation (Ichan is said to be an inspiration for Gordon Gekko in Oliver Stone’s Wall Street). The opening line of the story reads: ‘Wilbur Ross and Carl Ichan could have sunk Donald Trump’.

Long before Trump could bring Ichan or Ross to his administration it was 1990 and they were bondholders in Trump’s failing Taj Mahal casino in Atlantic City when the casino had just missed a payment. Trump himself was leveraged to the hilt having bitten off way more Atlantic City than he could chew. According to Ross, then chief restructuring advisor for Rothschild & Co which was representing bondholders, ‘We could have foreclosed and he would have been gone.’ It was Ross’ initial recommendation; however negotiations were able to hold him off the first few days, over the objections of some bondholders. Then Ross was in a limo on his way to restructuring talks when the Post says ‘As it approached the casino, people pressed to get close to the car, thinking it was Trump inside’. Ross: ‘When we saw Trump people swarming all over him’ we realized his star power. Ichan, the Taj’s largest bondholder, told the Post ‘Even then they were cheering him. They loved him. I was impressed’.  In the end there wasn’t exactly the deal making that Trump’s mythology would imply- bondholders got 50 percent of the Taj. The main thing is there was a deal. Trump grasped to 25 percent but as the Post succinctly put it ‘To outsiders it seemed Trump was still running the casino.’ He emerged with his brand intact.

A strict definition of the word brand, in a business context, simply reads ‘a type of product manufactured by a particular company under a particular name.’ It may sound obvious but the key word here is ‘manufactured’ one definition of which reads ‘to invent or fabricate.’ In other words a personal brand often could recall the words of Mark Twain: Give a man a reputation as an early riser and he could sleep ‘til noon.

It would be difficult to find a greater example of this than Trump. How else to account for the fact that in the spring of 1990 the self-proclaimed billionaire could not pay his bills? Contractors for the Trump Taj Mahal were not being paid for months after their work was completed. A $73 million mortgage on another casino, Trump’s Castle Resort Casino Resort, went unpaid. A report issued by the accounting firm Kenneth Leventhal & Company at the time was able to draw a worst case scenario whereby a forced liquidation of Trump’s assets in April 1990 would bring in $295 million less than Trump owed.  Another report from the same period, this one by the New Jersey’s Division of Gaming Entertainment, found that Trump owed $3.2 billion of which he personally guaranteed $833.5 million (described by journalist David Cay Johnson in his book The Making of Donald Trump).

Absent a deal with his creditors Trump faced spiraling bankruptcies. Here’s how the New York Times, referring to the Leventhal report, put it on August 16, 1990:

Those figures shed light on why the banks agreed to reschedule Mr. Trump’s debts in marathon negotiations’ this summer. Had they refused, a forced liquidation might have left them with hundreds of millions in losses, based on estimates, which were made available to the banks during the negotiations’.

The deal advanced Trump $60 million, allowed him to pay less than he owed, and put him on an absurd $450,000 a month allowance. It was approved by the Casino Control Commission that has power over issuing gaming licenses (the New Jersey Casino Control Act requires casino owners to pay their bills to keep the license) and whose members are political appointees who wanted no part of bankruptcy. Trump was bailed out by a state government and creditors who saw him as too big to fail. And by no means was it the end of Trump’s bankruptcies in Atlantic City.

This was around the same Trump bungled his biggest New York deal. Contrary to Trump’s outright lies about being the biggest developer in New York, there was never a time he would have cracked the Top 10 developer’s list. However in 1985 he purchased the West Side Yards, at the time the 77 acre tract along the Hudson River was the largest privately owned undeveloped land in New York (Trump previously had an option for the site that he let lapse in 1979 unable to reach a deal with the city). Trump had grand plans which he dubbed Television City. It was a $4.5 billion project including a new headquarters for NBC and the world’s tallest building in the form of a rocket-ship-shaped skyscraper. Getting it built would have boosted Trump’s profile in a huge way. The only thing was Trump sought a $700 million property tax abatement from the city as an incentive to build it.

Given the labyrinth that is New York real estate, what Trump’s vision needed was delicate balance of interest, and given the city’s mayor at the time, Ed Koch, was a man who shared a Trumpian ego, a deliberate approach- essentially it needed a dealmaker. Koch, probably still seething after Trump’s loud boasting about having saved the city on the Wollman Rink, rejected the abatement and Trump went to war, writing to Koch accusing him of ‘playing ‘Russian Roulette with perhaps the most important corporation in New York over the relatively small amounts of money involved because you and your staff are afraid that Donald Trump may actually make more than a dollar of profit’. Shortly after that Trump said Koch had ‘no talent and only moderate intelligence’, Koch accused Trump of ‘squealing like a stuffed pig’. The tabloid fireworks overlooked the fact that the city was desperate to keep NBC, which was threatening a move to New Jersey; desperate enough to eventually give a very generous package of tax cuts to keep NBC in Rockefeller Center.  A softer approach by Trump might have gotten it done.

Instead he doubled down, so much that Trump turned down a $550 million offer for the property from developer William Zeckendorf Jr. in 1989. By 1994 the still empty Yards were bleeding $23.5 million a year. The banks forced Trump to give up the property in 1994. It went to a group of Hong Kong investors for $82 million and the assumption of around $250 million in debt Trump amassed. When the Hong Kong group sold the property in 2005, by then filled with luxury condos known as Riverside South, it went for $1.8 billion, at that point the largest real estate sale in New York’s history.  Yet even though, like his Atlantic City bankruptcies, Trump blew the deal he was able to avoid the full knockout- he kept a small stake in two valuable office buildings and three of the buildings in Riverside bore his name (the Trump Organization received fees for maintenance). His name was taken down by the current owners, Equity Residential, after a petition to that effect was signed by hundreds of tenants after the election.

In truth it has been decades since Trump has seen any legitimate success as a developer and builder. Trump Tower was completed in 1983, and, while fairly called a success, wasn’t without its share of shadiness. There were the hundreds of Polish workers who worked on the demolition of the Bonwit Teller building that preceded Trump Tower who were stonewalled when pay day came, not to mention the destruction of the Art Deco friezes that lined the Bonwit Teller that were desired by the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The apparent two week delay in destruction was deemed too much to make the preservation worthwhile. The reopening of the Wollman Rink in Central Park, a long botched project Trump took over for the city and delivered on time and under budget, took place in November 1986. As always there was some embellishment. The city hired consultant recommended most the changes the Trump team adopted. Trump’s two actual building projects this century, Trump International Hotels & Towers in Chicago and Las Vegas ran smack into the 2008 recession. The venture that first brought Trump to the public eye, his ownership of the New Jersey Giants of the United States Football League (USFL), ended poorly with Trump’s push to compete directly with the NFL season, including the requisite lawsuit, being instrumental to the USFL folding.

So how did a businessman with such a shabby record, countless lawsuits, hundreds of millions in losses, and a scandal like Trump U (or even for there to be such a thing as Trump U) prosper to become president?  It boils down to a single word: celebrity. The arrival in 2004 of the ultra-corny ‘reality’ show The Apprentice gave Trump a weekly platform to play businessman for an audience of millions. Does it say anything about our society that such an asinine platform may well have been the main springboard to the presidency? Still in a way it is fitting since in actual reality Trump’s main equity for decades has been his persona.  The vast majority of hotels that hoist the Trump name were not built by the Trump Organization. Developers simply paid for use of the Trump name and whatever imagery the name is supposed conjure up (some pay the Trump Organization ‘management’ fees as well). This easy business ‘strategy’ can and has been applied to anything. Even that hasn’t stopped the duds: Trump Magazine, Trump vodka, and Trump steaks are hard to find today.

For all the marketing of Trump as a modern day Andrew Jackson, perhaps the better comparison is a contemporary from the present day: Kim Kardashian. After all Kardashian become world famous through the right connections and a starring role in a leaked sex tape; it was only a short step to fame in reality TV, what are divorces for anyway (Trump himself was always one who saw his philandering in the ‘there’s no such thing as bad publicity’ light), and soon after the chance to get her name on cheesy products the same way Trump does. Kardashian now plays the part of role model for the kids showing they too could be rich and famous with minimal accomplishment just by selling ‘themselves’.

Jared Kushner, the son-in-law to who Trump has seemingly handed every major initiative of his administration, was recently put in charge of what is being dubbed ‘The White House Office of American Innovation’, the main purpose of which is supposedly to streamline the federal bureaucracy.  The sinister idea of running the government like it is a corporation certainly didn’t originate with the Trump administration but it seems the Trump family doesn’t even have it in them to see the irony. On April 12th the Washington Post reported the Trump children, and Trump Organization overseers, haven’t been pleased with the White House senior staff’s service to their father at a time when the organization wants to expand its hotel portfolio. According to one Republican operative:

“The fundamental assessment is that if they want to win the White House  in 2020, they’re not going to do it the way they did in 2016, because the family brand would not sustain the collateral damage,” said one well-connected Republican operative… “It would be so protectionist, nationalist and backward-looking that they’d only be able to build in Oklahoma City or the Ozarks.”

As membership dues doubling at Mar-a-logo, Trump’s sons traveling the world at taxpayer expense flogging the family name, Ivanka’s surging clothing sales, indeed their father’s entire puffed up career demonstrate, there’s no urgent need for a special office to bring the corporate approach to government. In the ways that count it’s long been there. The brand marches on.

Joseph Grosso is a librarian and writer in New York City. He is the author of Emerald City: How Capital Transformed New York (Zer0 Books).