This is my third and final article in my series investigating the family and life history of Donald Trump in an attempt to evaluate who this man is, what he believes and what the past might be able to tell us about his current ambitions to be President of the United States. Part I was mostly about the Trump family, specifically Donald’s father Fred and his grandfather Friedrich Trump; Part II chronicled Donald’s rise to prominence as a wealthy New York real estate developer. This final part is going to be less detailed in the way of a blow-by-blow account of Trump’s career since the 1980s, because I think the nuances of the deals he was involved in are less important than an evaluation of his personality and what drives him. Most of the information in this article comes from the book The Trumps: Three Generations That Built an Empire by Gwenda Blair (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2000).
Having created the Grand Hyatt New York hotel and Trump Tower in the early 1980s, Trump set his sights on a new target: Atlantic City. This was not part of any sort of grand business plan. Trump did not sit in a boardroom with financial analysts and plot out a long-term investment or business strategy. In the late 1970s casino gambling was legalized in Atlantic City, and Trump saw an opportunity to build what he liked best: something huge, glitzy, shimmering and awe-inspiring, and that he could put his name on. After a lot of twists and turns he eventually owned or controlled the Taj Mahal and Trump Palace, two of the swankiest casinos on the Boardwalk. Trump also tried to expand into the airline business, buying a commuter airline called–you guessed it–the Trump Shuttle. All of these deals were essentially ad hoc. Trump saw an opportunity in front of him, grabbed for it and tried to make it work on the fly.
Trump is not ideological, but he has toyed with politics before. Here he is in a 1988 interview with Oprah Winfrey speaking about possible Presidential ambitions.
By the late 1980s, however, Trump’s fortunes both financial and political began to decline. The way Blair tells it, he simply reached too far, tried to control too much, moved too fast and tended to minimize his own limitations. This seemed especially clear in a section where she talks about the breakup of Trump’s marriage to his first wife, Ivana. During the 1980s deals Ivana was a partner to her husband, very evenly matched in personality, temperament and ambition. But Trump is too fixated on being the “alpha,” the boss to whom everyone pays attention, to want to share a spotlight with someone who also wanted those things. They were simply incompatible. Donald and Ivana Trump divorced in 1991, long after Trump’s well-publicized affair with sometime actress Marla Maples had become the go-to story for legions of supermarket tabloids. Trump married Maples in 1993 but that didn’t last so long either; they divorced in 1999. He is currently on this third wife, Melania Knauss.
Trump’s bankruptcies, which are often mentioned when he’s criticized, form an interesting point of his story. Various cash flow problems and difficulty in making good on promises to investors and banks caused a general collapse of his real estate empire in 1990-91. However, two things temper the effect of the bankruptcy (which turned out not to be his last). First, most of the money that has gone into Trump projects isn’t his. The hotels, casinos and other properties in his deals have usually been financed by bank loans or other complicated financial wizardry. Secondly, a major asset of all these projects is Trump’s own name, image and “brand.” He made sure of that. What this means is that a casino or hotel branded “Trump” is going to make more money with that name than without it. Even if it’s unprofitable, those who hold the chits tend to still want Trump involved in the projects because their chances of eventually recouping losses are better with him than without him. Over the long term this has usually proven to be correct. In the end Trump isn’t really selling hotel rooms or casino chips. He’s selling himself, and America seldom does not want to buy Donald Trump.
Trump Shuttle was a short-lived airline venture in the 1980s and 1990s. It turned out The Donald didn’t have what it took to be a long-term player in the airline business.
Another conclusion emerges, especially since 2000–after the point at which Blair’s book leaves off. Trump’s appearances on wrestling shows and reality TV, and especially his recent dabbling in politics, indicate that his real talent–and his life’s passion–is for media publicity. He wants to be as famous as possible, all the time, for as long as possible. I don’t even think Trump cares that much about making money for its own sake. Being rich is a prerequisite to being famous. Rich is fine, but what he really wants is to be famous. This, I think, is also the key to understanding his political ambitions.
In my readings, I found no solid indication that Trump is very interested in political ideology. I’m sure he’s conservative and believes at least some of the things he’s said while on the campaign trail, but Donald Trump does not want to be President in order to advance a certain ideological program. I believe he wants to be President because it’s the next logical step in his quest for fame, attention and admiration. Almost everyone in America knew his name long before he entered politics. How much more famous can you get than that? He’s risen so high in business, finance and popular culture that there are no more worlds to conquer there. The Presidency is one of the last unconquered worlds Trump can see, and he figures he might as well go for it. There is nothing–literally nothing–that Trump values that he stands to lose by trying to become President and failing. Thus, why not run for President?
Contrast this 2015 interview of Trump by the show 60 Minutes with the Oprah clip above. Some things about what he says are eerily similar.
This may sound like Trump’s campaign is frivolous or non-serious, which is what everyone thought when he entered the race. It would be a grave mistake to come to that conclusion. Trump does not want to be President for the usual reasons that people run for President. I don’t even think Trump wants the power of the Presidency for his own sake; he’s been perfectly happy all his life without it. But that doesn’t mean that he doesn’t really want to be President. He does. He will compete seriously, tenaciously and ferociously for the Republican nomination. Any of his rivals who underestimate him on this point will do so to their cost–and possibly their doom, politically speaking. He sees this as his moment in history, the ultimate fame which he will never again have a chance to grasp. Sitting around waiting for him to say or do something outrageous to cause his poll numbers to tank is simply not going to work. He says something outrageous every day. It’s never hurt him before. Why should it now?
So now the big question: does Trump’s past or family history give us any clue what kind of President he would be? All I can say is this: given his track record I don’t think he’s spent a minute thinking about what he would actually do if he was elected. He doesn’t have to. Like everything else in his career, Donald Trump is making it up as he goes along.