Hard business lessons that fuel Trump's campaign

New York // I have been in the United States all week, utterly absorbed by what is already being hailed as the most unconventional and unpredictable presidential campaign in the country’s history. On Friday Donald Trump, a 70-year-old New York real estate developer, casino owner, (almost) bankrupt and reality television star, drew exuberant cheers from Republican convention delegates as he strode onto the stage of the Quicken Loans Arena in Cleveland, Ohio, and delivered a speech as fiery as his candidacy.

This week it is Hillary Clinton’s turn to accept her party’s nomination at the Wells Fargo Centre in Philadelphia, after which there are just over 100 days to the election. As of now, the polls are running pretty much neck-and-neck, including in the all-important swing states of Florida, North Caro­lina, Ohio and Pennsylvania, all of them battleground states in the past two elections. (It is almost impossible for Mr Trump to win if he loses Florida).

An analysis published by The New York Times, based on a highly sophisticated elections model, suggests that Ms Clinton has a 76 per cent chance of becoming the next president. But watching Mr Trump all week, one begins to wonder. More than 20 years ago I interviewed him for a profile for The Sunday Times, starting in his 58th-floor office in Trump Tower in New York and, accompanied by his (then) new wife Marla, continuing on his jet-powered helicopter to Atlantic City, New Jersey, where he was visiting his three giant casinos. On the way down, he pointed to some of his prime properties on the Manhattan skyline, and related what was obviously one of his favourite stories.

Several years before, he said, his real estate empire was crumbling and the banks were pressing him for immediate repayment of US$3.4 billion. His assets were $1bn short of that and one day, as he was walking down Fifth Avenue, he spotted a blind man selling matches. “You see that man,” he said to Marla. “He’s worth $999,999,999 more than me.”

“But he’s only worth a dollar,” she replied, puzzled. “Right,” he replied triumphantly.

A version of that same story appeared in a Wall Street Journal interview he gave on Friday (sans Marla, who has been replaced by the even more ex­otic – and trouble-prone – Melania). Mr Trump’s account of his fightback from the edge of bankruptcy has not altered much over the years either. That “searing experience”, he said (a phrase he also used with me), helped forge the characteristics that, he asserted confidently, have taken him to the candidacy and will propel him all the way to the White House.

“I had some very terrible banks that I was dealing with,” he told the Journal, “and had I not been more terrible with them I might not be sitting here talking to you right now.”

The secret to rebuilding his fortune, he asserts, in the early 1990s, and his biggest asset today, is the Trump brand. The turning point came when he decided that instead of overleveraging property, he would leverage his brand, mining the value of stamping “Trump” on everything he owned, from airlines to casinos, and bullying the banks into restructuring his debts at substantial write-offs. By the time I saw him, he was back in the plus-billionaire stakes, and his public loved him for it. As we arrived in the Taj Mahal casino, adoring punters rushed to greet their hero with high-fives and cries of “Donald, Donald”.

This man, I concluded at that moment, might not have been popular on Wall Street, but if ever he decided to run for president (and it never seriously occurred to me that he would), he would be unstoppable. No businessman I ever met in a long career of interviewing them has ever had such personal appeal.

And that’s where it gets scary, because his vision for “making America great again” does not, as the current US president Barack Obama pointed out, “tally with reality”. Along with “order”, Trump now promises “profound relief” on taxes for the middle classes and his personal guarantee to make things better for them. “I have made billions of dollars … doing deals; now I am going to make our country rich again.”

How? “Americanism, not globalism, will be our credo,” he promises. There will be a “great border wall” with Mexico, an end to “horrible trade agreements” including Nafta, duties on imported Chinese goods and a repatriation of long-lost jobs to America, all of them pie-in-the sky, as serious economists have been pointing out for months. There will also be a suspension of immigration “from any country compromised by terrorism” (which, in Trump’s slightly twisted head, means Muslim).

The really scary thing is that he could actually win.

Ivan Fallon is a former business editor of The Sunday Times


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