By Annabelle Quince.
In June, real estate tycoon and television personality Donald Trump announced he was running in the Republican US presidential race. Many dismissed him, but within weeks he became the frontrunner in a field of 17 candidates. Annabelle Quince explores where Donald Trump came from, and why he is so popular with a large section of the American electorate.
‘The American dream is dead, but if I get elected president, I will bring it back, bigger and better and stronger than ever before, and we will make America great again. Thank you.’ Donald Trump
Donald Trump portrays himself as a self-made man, but his start in life was anything but humble. His grandfather came to America from Germany in 1885 and made his fortune supplying goods to the miners of the gold fields. His father, Fred Trump, followed suit, making his own fortune building low cost housing after WW1 and WW2 in Queens.
Don Guttenplan, editor-at-large forThe Nation magazine, has followed Trump’s career for decades. It all began, he says, in ‘the part of New York that the tourists never want to go’.
‘In deepest, darkest Queens in Brooklyn, not the chic parts of Brooklyn but the interior, you see these brick high-rise buildings or fairly charmless tract housing,’ says Guttenplan.
‘That’s Trump Village and Trump City; those were built by his father, Fred Trump, who was a quality builder who built homes for lower-middle-class people that they could afford. They were built on the cheap and they were built in large numbers, and that’s what made the fortune that made Trump possible.’
Gwenda Blair, who interviewed Donald Trump many times for her biography Donald Trump: Master Apprentice, explains that his childhood was both privileged and positive.
'There were five children. His father, by the time Donald was born in 1946, was quite successful. They lived in a 23-room house; they had a chauffeur and a maid. The kids were taken to their private schools in a limousine. So this was hardly a hard-luck story. They were already very well-to-do,' says Blair.
'They were also a very close family. On Saturdays and Sundays the dad would take the kids around to building projects, check on things, check on landlords and buildings, go up to the top floor by the back stairs and then come back down to see that the halls were swept. The kids went around picking up unused nails to be recycled. This was a guy who knew the value of a penny and didn't waste any.'
Trump began his career in his father's firm and moved into New York real estate with the backing of his father's money. 'His father's very considerable resources were at his disposal,' says Blair. 'Not that he could cash them in, but that spoke to his creditworthiness, and he had his father's financial connections with banks and with financial institutions. He also had his father's political connections, and both of those things were very important and worth a great deal at pushing him to the head of the line.'
According to Guttenplan, New York was (and still is) a one-industry town—and that industry is real estate.
'In those days the Democratic Party controlled all patronage and controlled City Hall, because New York was basically a one-party town. Fred was someone who was known as a benefactor to Democratic politicians. There was nothing corrupt or particularly egregious about the way Fred operated, but it meant that he was known to people and he knew people, and it meant that Donald knew people and was able to hire this lawyer who was the son of the leader of the Brooklyn Democratic Party and who had many, many more connections than Donald had in those days. So he was able to open doors for him, and he basically made Trump possible as a Manhattan player.'
Watch the video below where Trump says the Paris Terror Attack victims 'should have had guns'.
Trump was also able to tap into the fact that New York City wanted new building projects that weren't happening. His first deal was refurbishing a very dog-eared hotel right in the heart of downtown or midtown New York, next to Grand Central Station. As Blair explains, Trump landed a 40-year tax abatement, and 'a very, very favourable term' for doing the refurbishing.
'He turned what had been a very classy but very old-fashioned place with a kind of limestone, traditional, laid-back look and demeanour, into a very glitzy, fancy, shiny, marble, reflective surfaces, chandeliers all over the place thing that was very different to what had happened before. [It] really made his name,' says Blair.
Guttenplan says Trump also displayed an incredible flair for marketing early in his career; particularly for marketing himself as a brand.However, he points out that the tycoon was never terribly successful as a real estate developer.
'He would go way out on a limb, he would overextend himself in terms of leverage, and then the company would have to declare bankruptcy. Or later, when he had the casinos in Atlantic City, he would be bailed out because he had this huge ocean of cash coming through the casinos and he could use some of that to cross-subsidise or to bail out his real estate operations,' says Guttenplan.
'Trump likes to portray himself as an incredibly successful businessman. He has been a successful casino operator. He hasn't been terribly successful as a real estate developer. There are very few of the buildings that have his name on them that he owns any piece of, and there's a reason for that.'
In 1987, on the back of his early success, Trump published The Art of the Deal, which reached number one on the New York Times bestseller list and held a position in the list for 51 weeks. More a celebrity memoir than a business manual, the media loved it. Guttenplan says Trump gained a reputation for being 'crack cocaine to the press'.
'You call him up, you feel bad about it, you know you shouldn't, but you do it, and then you get this incredible nugget of outrage or outrageousness that you can put on and then you get response, and particularly in the kind of instant 24-hour news cycle age, there's no stopping him.'
Just three years after The Art of the Deal was published, Trump found himself in financial trouble for the first time. He had overextended himself by as much as $1 billion, says Blair, although she admits that the numbers 'are awfully squishy with him'. That personal brand he had built up, however, had made Trump too big to fail.
'The financial institutions that he owed money to couldn't really afford to let him go under because the things that they had invested in, that they had lined up to lend him money for, were not going to be worth as much if his name wasn't on them,' Blair says.
'So they took a haircut. They lowered the rates of interest, they wrote some stuff off, and he emerged from near corporate bankruptcy... he is quick to say he never filed for personal bankruptcy, but during his four corporate bankruptcies (the last one was 2009) he has been too big to fail. So he manages to get through these things, pre-packaged bankruptcies, and emerges unscathed.'
When Trump announced he was going to run in the Republican presidential race in June, many people didn't take him seriously. When he quickly became the Republican frontrunner, many were shocked. Steffen Schmidt, a professor of political science at Iowa State University, says it came as a total surprise.
'Donald Trump has played with the idea of running for president before, but seemed to basically get bored and forget about it and walk away from it very quickly,' says Schmidt. 'How he managed this time around to plunge into this and then suddenly find himself rising in the polls, attracting larger and larger numbers of very enthusiastic people cheering him on, is something that will be studied very carefully by social scientists, especially political scientists in the future, because it is a very surprising rise of an outsider.'
While there have been celebrity candidates in US politics before, Schmidt says Trump is a unique phenomenon. He points out that Ronald Reagan may have been a movie star, but he was hardly a political novice before his presidential win.
'Ronald Reagan had already been governor of one of the largest and most prosperous states [California]. So he had political experience. It's quite unusual, especially running for president, for someone who literally has not run for office or held any public office and has not been a major political figure in any other way to suddenly erupt onto the scene.'
What does Donald Trump's popularity tell us about the current state of American politics and about the 16 other candidates? According to Guttenplan, it exposes the death of America's core myth: that if you work hard and play by the rules you will succeed.
'You may not become Donald Trump but you will at least be able to live in a home that you own and send your kids to school and your kids will have a better life than you. There was a lot of truth in that myth for a very long time, but I think people don't believe it anymore. They can see that Wall Street executives bankrupt the country and then the rest of us have to bail them out, and then they are back to it again. Their salaries are the same; their bonus pool is the same size. Meanwhile people are still looking for jobs.
'So I think there's a lot of anger, but I think what's interesting is that when you have people very angry at the way they are governed, that creates potential for populist politics, in other words for mobilising that anger. You have in Trump what I would call a kind of right-wing populism, and then you have in the Bernie Sanders campaign a left-wing populism. Sanders targets Wall Street and the financiers, Trump targets immigrants and people who are different, but in a sense that is a difference between left and right in America.'
Trump's campaign has not been strong on policy. Instead, the presidential hopeful has taken a hardline approach to issues that already appeal to many Republicans, like immigration and border control. After branding Mexican immigrants as criminals, drug dealers and rapists, he pledged 'build a great, great wall on our southern border' (Trump expects Mexico to foot the bill for this wall).
These provocative statements, combined with Trump's innate showmanship, have led to a flood of free media attention. As Schmidt points out, Trump has attracted more publicity than any of the other 16 candidates, without purchasing any broadcast or print advertising.
The first Republican presidential debate aired recently, attracting 24 million viewers. It was the highest rating primary debate in history; just to put that into perspective, the first GOP primary debate four years ago attracted 3.2 million viewers.
'Americans were so fascinated with what would happen at that debate because Donald Trump was there, and Fox News made a fortune because it had such huge viewership, therefore driving up their advertising costs,' says Schmidt. 'The next debate is expected to have the same or even greater viewership because Donald Trump is there and everyone is just hanging with baited breath to see what he will do next.'
Blair spent many hours interviewing Donald Trump for her biography, and says that while he was very generous with his time and courteous, she always walked away feeling disappointed.
'I would have spent hours preparing lists of questions and he was just not responsive. He didn't answer them; he didn't seem to have any interest in talking about the past, in talking about what had shaped him. He had no rear-view mirror, he was only going ahead,' she says.
'It took me a long time to grasp that the content really didn't matter, that he just kept talking, he just talks, talks about himself. And at the end he hasn't really answered anything, but you get this ongoing incredible rush of energy, of ego, of the ability to make everything be about him, that everything has been a success, that the world is lined up at his door, that he can do it. It's such a tsunami of Trumpness that you don't quite know what to make of it, and I finally grasped that that's who he is and what he represents.'