Why she’s as qualified as Trump
On the cusp of a new Presidential era in what columnist Alan Fotheringham used to refer to as the “Excited States of America,” I’m going to start off my new blog by weighing in on the US presidential election. After all, there’s a dearth of commentary on the two main candidates – the internet is just crying out for another take on the election and the candidates. So, I’m prepared to enter the fray and then propose an alternative. There are only a few weeks to go , after all.
Trump supporters complain that their candidate is getting all the negative attention, and is subjected to unfair roasting by the media. They argue that Hillary Clinton is corrupt, incompetent and hell-bent on scrapping rights guaranteed in the US Constitution. In their candidate, however, they see a skilled, successful altruistic business leader who will “Make America Great Again.” The simplicity of his message resonates in a county that still hasn’t really come to grips with its position in a global economy, or its current role on the global stage. Trump supporters are willing to latch onto the rallying cry of patriotism, and ignore behaviour and attitudes that would normally limit a candidate’s support to small fringe groups and close family – sexism, thinly veiled racism, impulsiveness, constant lying, lack of focus, easily bruised ego, misplaced aggression, etc. Supporters seize upon Trump’s lack of political experience as an advantage; that he, as an outsider, is perfectly qualified to fix a broken Washington. No matter that Trump’s campaign has been long on insults and extremely short on policy; supporters have been asked to take a leap-of faith, and they are more than willing to take that leap – based on their view of the Trump brand.
Political campaigns always involve personal brands – this one is certainly no exception. Hillary Clinton is trying in vain to establish a brand of competence, political experience and leadership, coupled with a variation of social democracy. Donald Trump, not being a career politician, relies on his brand value that has been developed through his years in business and his years as a television personality. The Trump brand, as he and his supporters see it, represents expertise, growth, and financial success. It is this brand that Trump relies on in arguing that he is in a unique position to “fix” what ails the U.S., without having to offer details as to how.
Whatever is wrong with America, Donald Trump promises to fix. Completely. Immediately. Jobs will come back from abroad, wages will rise, inner cities will flourish, ISIS will be soundly defeated, deficits will vanish, and crime and violence will end. This is not an exaggeration of Trump’s promises – he is actually saying that. Obviously everyone in Washington is incompetent, and has been so for at least the past 40 years. It’s as if the US has been wallowing in incompetence, just waiting for someone with the background, temperament, and “smarts” of someone like Donald Trump to ride in to the White House on a white horse and make it all better. Completely. Immediately. There is no middle ground in Trump’s world – it’s a binary world of hell-on-earth if Hillary Clinton is elected, or a gold plated nirvana if Trump is elected. Under a Trump presidency, according to the man himself, Americans “will win so much, they’ll get tired of winning.”
Trump’s ability to deliver on these promises, absent details as to how that would be achieved, relies on the degree to which the brand matches the capabilities. Because, if you buy into the brand positioning whereby Trump is the American success story, you accept that Mr. Trump is a very smart man indeed. But, it goes further: one would also accept Mr. Trump’s story that he has become not only a masterful business leader, deal negotiator, and real estate developer; he has also gained a vast knowledge on matters concerning international trade, economics, defense and anti-terrorism strategies, immigration, and nuclear disarmament. He “knows more about ISIS than the generals do.” He once suggested that he should negotiate arms reduction treaties with Russia, given that “it would take an hour and a half to learn everything there is to learn about missiles.” He is even an expert on hazardous materials, claiming that asbestos is “100% safe” while the rest of the world accepts that asbestos is a proven carcinogen. He has “the world’s greatest memory.” He is “uniquely qualified” as an expert on taxation, and “nobody knows more about debt” than Donald J. Trump. All told, Mr. Trump’s knowledge and expertise in all matters of political, financial and public interest rival that of the late North Korean leader, Kim Jong-il. Mr. Kim, it was reported, was also universally (at least in North Korea) acclaimed for his genius in the areas of political economy, philosophy and military science (in addition to being an author of 1500 books and 6 operas, and director of “the best movies ever made”).
I always believed that the strongest leaders were those who could recognize their own shortcomings or knowledge gaps and assemble high-performing teams that would address those gaps. With Trump, he would have you believe that there are no such gaps – that no matter what the issue, he is not only the smartest guy in the room; he’s the only one in the room who can get things done. Is that so? Is that now part of the Trump branding?
Part of accepting that Trump is the “smartest guy in the room” and uniquely able to fix everything that needs to be fixed is accepting that Trump is a resounding business success. Let’s look at that.
Donald Trump’s career can possibly be divided into 4 phases:
- Real estate development/management
- Business leadership (airline, consumer goods, Trump University, beauty pageants, etc.)
- Celebrity television host
- Real estate promotion
As a real estate developer, Trump’s record is mixed at best. He had some notable successes (Grand Hyatt, Trump Tower) and some colossal failures (New Jersey casinos). He purchased the Plaza Hotel in 1988 for over $400 million, but after it was tied up in Trump bankruptcy negotiations with banks, it was sold for $325 million. The casinos were, in Trump’s language, a “disaster.” Trump’s casinos entered bankruptcy proceedings four separate times. Shareholders in Trump Hotels and Casinos lost 90 cents on the dollar between 1995 and 2005 – a period during which shareholders of other companies (MGM, Starwood) in the same business enjoyed a return of over 400%. Trump employees’ retirement savings were wiped out. Nevertheless, because the casinos continued to pay Donald Trump and his other businesses handsomely during the period of decline for shareholders, bondholders, suppliers and employees, Trump can boast of doing well with the casinos. Maybe he did, but everyone else surely did not.
As a leader of other businesses, Trump’s record is also mixed, assuming that the businesses he is still in generate some positive rate of return. He leaves a long list of failed enterprises, from the Trump Shuttle to Trump Steaks and Trump Vodka to Trump University. Trump the businessman veered very close to personal bankruptcy, surviving only because his creditors decided that they would let him restructure his debts. They did force him to sell many of his more extravagant assets, however, including his 280 foot yacht. Since that time, Trump has indeed rebounded, but over the course of his career, as various business publications have observed, one would have been better off passively investing in the S&P 500 than investing in Donald Trump Inc. In other words, for all Trump’s boasting of his business success, he hasn’t even beat the market.
So based on his business record, Donald Trump’s brand cannot reasonably claim to represent business acumen or even deal-making expertise. Whatever “success” is associated with him is almost entirely due to his positioning as a television celebrity, and his endless promotion of the Trump name, which appears on many buildings notwithstanding the fact that Donald Trump has no ownership stake in those buildings. Trump licenses his name, and people are expected to buy into a brand that represents success and excellence. He looks like he’s rich, and acts like he’s rich. And, according to his ghostwriter, he really, really wants people to believe he is very rich.
Does the trump brand really represent success and excellence? In a way, yes, but the brand is based more on lifestyle and public persona rather than any skill or expertise. The brand is based more on Donald Trump’s personal stardom, gained through television exposure, ostentatious lifestyle, and public bluster. It’s Donald being Donald. And, if you exclude the “business acumen” that he professes to bring to the presidency, he has nothing to offer but wealth and ego. That sometimes makes for good entertainment, but does not usually qualify one for the presidency of a superpower.
If presidential politics now comes down to brand promises rather than true content and qualifications, then let me make a suggestion. Americans can just as easily elect another celebrity who has made a fortune trading off her brand – a brand gained through reality television, publicity, and just being rich. That celebrity would be Kim Kardashian. Think about it – she likely has as much knowledge of foreign affairs and economics as DJT. She is obviously an astute businesswoman, having become quite wealthy by doing nothing but being Kim Kardashian. She has a very valuable brand, based on nothing but shameless self-promotion. And, as far as we know, she hasn’t slagged off women, Mexicans, Muslims, Hispanics, African-Americans, or any other identifiable group. She has not condoned sexual assault, and has not incited violence. So, how about it? A Kim Kardashian presidency makes about as much sense as a Donald Trump presidency.
For those who laugh this off and think that it could never happen, let me tell you that I’m not alone in thinking about the possibility. In August 2015 British bookmakers established the odds of Kim Kardashian becoming President of the US at 2000 to 1, the same odds as Elvis being discovered alive. Leicester City winning the Premier League was pegged at 5000 to 1. And, we all know how that turned out…….