I have the dubious distinction of being one of the first journalists to take Donald Trump seriously when he said he was thinking of running for office. This was nearly 25 years ago when Trump had completed renovation of Central Park’s Wollman skating rink in six months, after city government had botched the job over the course of six years. The Donald began making noises about running for mayor, and at Crain’s New York Business, where I was the managing editor, we actually spent good money on a poll to discover what New Yorkers thought. More than seven in 10 said they wouldn’t vote for Trump. But he wasn’t really about to run anyway.
Much has happened since then. Trump has acquired, built and then lost more businesses than I can keep track of on my fingers and toes. He’s had a series of high-profile spats with critics, creditors and other business leaders which has exposed his famously thin skin. He’s had a few run-ins with the truth police over some of his more inventive claims. He’s professed to be a member of each of our major political parties, as well as an independent. He’s become a TV star, revealing perhaps his true talent. And he’s still threatening to run for office.
This time, Trump is suggesting he might run for President as a Republican, which is where the opportunity lies right now. For some reason, a host of conservative and Republican groups and media types seem to be taking him seriously. Maybe they’re attracted by his celebrity status. Maybe they’re just using him to juice attendance at their own events, or to boost their own ratings. If you consider politics just another branch of the entertainment business these days, it makes sense. But don’t discount the fact that taking seriously a media manipulator and self-aggrandizer like Trump is a strategy that could explode right in the face of the GOP.
Trump is hardly an unknown quantity, which is what makes fascination with him all the more mysterious. Working in his father Fred’s real estate company, Donald began his ascent in New York’s real estate industry when he made a $500,000 bet on the city’s future in the mid-1970s by buying the bankrupt Commodore Hotel next to Grand Central Terminal. With hefty tax abatements from the city, he and his partners renovated and reopened the facility as the Grand Hyatt, which was credited with helping spark the revival of East 42nd Street during the 1980s.
Although Trump quickly began putting together a raft of other high profile deals in Gotham, he had even bigger ambitions in the hyper-liquid 1980s, when junk bonds fueled many an unwise transaction. He began assembling a broader empire composed of everything from Eastern Airline’s shuttle routes to the Plaza Hotel to a stake in the Alexander’s department store chain to a host of hotels in Atlantic City. It all came unglued rather quickly, as Trump lost the airline, the Hyatt and his yacht, the Trump Princess, in 1991, and then the Plaza the following year. It took a while longer, until 2004, for Trump’s casino empire to fall in bankruptcy, a victim of the massive debt Trump assumed to create that business.
Through it all, Trump has mastered the essential political art of spin. When creditors forced him to give up key holdings in 1991, Trump made it all sound to Time magazine like it was practically his choice: “The 1990s are the decade of deleveraging. I’m doing it too,” he said, sounding almost happy to be squeezed by creditors. In 2004, as Trump was firing others for incompetence on his TV show while his casinos went bust, he put a practically giddy spin on Chapter 11: “I don’t think it’s a failure, it’s a success,” he said without a hint of irony. “In this case, it was just something that worked better than other alternatives.”
Over the years, Trump has shown a tendency to engage in what Mark Twain called ‘stretchers,’ that is to say, to show a flexible regard for the truth (which probably doesn’t disqualify him for the presidency, I admit). Trump boasted to the press that he had seen the stock market plunge of 19 October 1987 coming and gotten out of the market with big profits, although SEC filings later showed Trump still owned substantial stakes in some companies that had taken a beating, including an estimated $19 million loss on his Resorts International holdings, Forbes calculated. Later, when Trump published a 1997 account of his comeback appropriately titled Trump: The Art of the Comeback, one of his former creditors, Ben Berzin Jr., wrote to dispute Donald’s account of things, observing that, “During the time that I dealt with Mr. Trump, I was continually surprised by his mastery of situational ethics. He does not seem to be able to differentiate between fact and fiction.”
But my old boss at Crain’s, former publisher Alair Townsend, probably said it best when she observed that she wouldn’t believe Trump ‘if his tongue were notarized.’ Leona Helmsley later stole the line and used it as her own when she and The Donald got into a fury at one another.
For those uninterested in Trump’s deep back story, there’s his colorful recent political history. He threatened to run for President as an independent in 1999 after leaving the Republican Party, and then registered as a Democrat before sensing opportunity was flowing back to the GOP and re-registering as a Republican in 2009. While that probably qualifies you to run for mayor of New York City, I doubt it goes over well in Peoria.
Then there are Trump’s positions on the issues. Back in 1999, according to the American Enterprise Institute’s Kevin Hassett, Trump advocated universal health care for some and a big tax surcharge on the rich, and called himself pro-choice. Later he claimed on CNN that he really identified more with Democratic policy than with Republican ideas. And you thought Mitt Romney might have trouble explaining away his positions to GOP voters.
Where does the current Trump mania come from? Well, when times get tough and government seems to be growing by leaps and bounds, some voters start yearning for a chief-executive style leader to whip us into shape and run government like a business.
But Trump is not that guy. He is a master marketer of himself who has successfully persuaded many people to buy into his brand. He probably sees the current GOP presidential race as another opportunity to enhance that brand. But he’s far better as the host of The Apprentice acting like a CEO than as the actual, can-do CEO of a sprawling empire.
I suppose if we’re seriously considering just throwing the good old USA into bankruptcy, then Trump’s our guy, considering his experience. Otherwise, it’s time for Republicans to get onto more serious matters.
This piece originally appeared in RealClearMarkets