Donald Trump has completed one of the most astonishing political feats in history. After running (with no previous political experience) a campaign that defied all norms, threw the American public into a frenzy, and featured pundits making weekly claims that he had no chance, he has been elected the next President of the United States. While his victory has unleashed countless theories attempting to understand and explain how it happened, there is one particular driving force behind his candidacy that demands attention. What I seek to examine is the marketing genius of Donald Trump and how his astute salesmanship and branding skills proved to be one of the most successful components of his campaign.
Building The Trump Brand
The business dealings of Donald Trump have come under intense scrutiny over the past two years. We know that he received a significant loan from his father to begin real estate development in New York City in the 1970s, and that he had a thirst for luxury. His early successes, such as the Grand Hyatt hotel which opened in 1980, caught the public’s attention for their lavish architectural design, and were the first steps in cementing the Trump luxury brand. He continued to build his real estate empire in the 1980s, with the opening of Trump Tower in Manhattan on Fifth Avenue in 1982.
After solidifying his presence and his name in the Big Apple, he moved his attention to Atlantic City casinos in New Jersey, where he purchased a slew of casinos and hotels. The most notable of these purchases was the massive Taj Mahal, which opened in 1990 and was referred to by its now-owner Trump as the “eighth wonder of the world.” This one billion-dollar project was a massive undertaking. Trump hailed it as an immense success, but it lost money from the day it opened, and barely a year later found itself in bankruptcy court, followed by his other two casinos in Atlantic City a year after that. Trump had to give up about 50% of the equities in all of the businesses to remain afloat, and the lenders worked out a deal to prevent him from incurring any personal debt. The Taj Mahal is closed now, and it left a trail of debts that fell on investors, not to mention the many small businesses that were crushed because Trump chose not to pay them for their work.
In spite of this, Trump still claims that his casinos were a huge success in Atlantic City, and that he was able to get out at the right time. While the string of bankruptcies and incurrence of debt do not back up this claim, his implacable pride in them reveal something remarkable about him: he has an uncanny ability to sell success, even in the presence of failure. This is indicative of the power of the Trump brand, and Trump’s ability to remain a symbol of wealth and success even through turbulent financial times.
After building successful and luxurious properties in New York and expanding his brand to Atlantic City casinos, the Trump name had acquired significant value as a status symbol of wealth and luxury. However, with the immense losses that he faced from the casinos, Trump found himself in serious financial trouble. He decided to utilize the weight of his name and license the use of it to real estate projects.
This meant that Trump had no personal involvement in the development or management of the properties, but received millions of dollars in licensing fees just for the use of his name. There are currently 17 properties in New York City that bear Trump’s name. According to sources provided by WNYC News, nine of those properties are not owned by Trump at all, and a few more are not clear on whether or not Trump is the majority owner. As a real estate mogul and an entrepreneur, this is a brilliant move because he receives millions of dollars in revenue, immense brand recognition, and no liability for the expenses of the buildings.
Reality TV and Trump: A Glorious Marriage
The Apprentice, the now-infamous reality television show, gave Trump the opportunity to grow his brand to seismic heights. Featured as the loud, brash, and bold boardroom boss, Trump became a symbol of power and authority. “You’re fired,” referring to his favorite line used to dismiss participants from the show, became his trademark slogan. The show made him one of the most recognizable and notorious billionaires, at a time when reality television was booming. I recall watching the show with my mom when I was younger, and developing the image of a wildly successful businessman that demanded control in all of his boardroom scenes. I did not understand it at the time, but I was just another consumer of the Trump brand, where his very name elicited thoughts of a flawless figure of success, even though I knew nothing about him.
The Real World: Presidential Election Edition
As the son of a wealthy New York realtor, and as a man who has a documented history of showing little regard for small businesses, it would appear to be that Trump is a typical out-of-touch billionaire who represents the private sector’s “establishment” class. His sturdiest and most resounding campaign pitch, however, was framing himself as the “anti-establishment” candidate who understood the struggles of working class America, and wanted to defy the political elites to bring their voice back. At almost every rally during the last few weeks of his campaign, Trump reiterated the phrase “drain the swamp,” which meant that he would rid Washington of the political “establishment” and focus on the needs of the forgotten working class.
He was incredibly successful with this rhetoric. He attacked the “dishonest media” as actively fighting against his campaign, continuously claimed the election was “rigged” against him, and at many points claimed that there was some sort of “global conspiracy” in the works to get Hillary Clinton elected. While these claims were not supported by any factual evidence, they were supported by something else that proved to be more important: the anti-establishment narrative. It did not matter that his peddling of conspiracy theories or numerous accusations were largely unfounded, because they fit perfectly with the narrative and the new brand that Trump was selling.
Anti-Establishment Candidate. Anti-Establishment President?
Trump’s campaign message worked. Once the electors officially cast their votes on December 19th, he will be the next President of the United States. What remains to be seen, though, is whether or not the product he sold will be the product the American people receive. While he may have struck fear into many people for some of his remarks, he gave immense hope to his loyal supporters that see him as the man that will stand up to corporate lobbyists that have perverted Washington.
Time is on his side, as he has yet to even begin his term as President, but there have already been conflicting signs as to what type of president he will be. Two positive signs that Trump will make good on his promise to “drain the swamp” are his proposal of term limits for members of Congress and a five-year ban on lobbying for members of his administration once they leave government. Vice President-elect Mike Pence recently said that all lobbyists would be removed from the Trump transition team. These all appear to be steps in the right direction of affirming the pledge to “drain the swamp.”
The early administration moves that have already been made, however, reveal that these potential changes may just be smoke and mirrors. Despite what Pence has said, much of Trump’s transition team, and many of the people at the top of his list for cabinet positions, are corporate lobbyists, such as recently appointed National Security Adviser Michael Flynn, who manages a consulting firm that lobbies on defense matters, according to The Washington Post. A leading candidate for Treasury secretary is Steve Mnuchin, a former Goldman Sachs banker.
Trump also appointed Myron Ebell, a skeptic of man made climate change who has received significant contributions from major oil and gas corporations, as head of the transition of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) transition team. He has proposed repealing the Dodd-Frank Act, which is a bill passed in 2010 that regulates bank activity in order to prevent the recurrence of actions that led to the recession in 2008. His tax proposal will slash taxes for the upper class, and could leave many middle class Americans paying more due to the distribution of the tax bracket.
It remains to be seen what Trump will actually do as President, and how his decisions will affect the working class demographic that propelled him to the White House. If he takes on the establishment figures of the public and private sectors, he will be revered by his electorate. If he deregulates banks and allows corporate lobbyists to have an influence on his administration, he will have failed on his campaign promises.
Regardless of the actions he takes and the effects that they have, Trump is likely to advertise them as a resounding success, and that is what has become most important. Irrespective of his impending presidency, the fact will remain that the billionaire real estate developer and reality television star from New York became the voice for working class America. That is an incredible feat, and a testament to Trump’s remarkable sales skills. Only time will tell, however, whether that is for better or for worse.