After bankrupting five casino companies in the ‘90s and 2000s (which is roughly the business equivalent of driving the wrong way down the interstate at 3 a.m. with your lights off), Donald Trump largely turned to branding to amass his fortune.
He did it over and over. It was an easy way to build his empire while risking little of his own capital. Anyone with a bestselling book someone else wrote and a conspicuous lack of shame could have done the same: You just slap your name on some marginal product you probably don’t know much about, talk it up like a carnival shill, and walk away with a share of the winnings.
Perhaps the best-known example of this approach was Trump Steaks, which were sold through the Sharper Image catalog for about two months in 2007.
In a now-notorious video, Trump enjoined the glitterati to purchase decadent, world-class cuisine in bulk from a mail-order catalog that also sold space-age nose-hair trimmers:
“Trump Steaks are the world’s greatest steaks, and I mean that in every sense of the word. … Trump Steaks are by far the best-tasting, most flavorful beef you’ve ever had. Truly in a league of their own. Trump Steaks are five-star gourmet, quality that belong in a very, very select category of restaurant and are certified Angus beef prime. There’s nothing better than that. Of all of the beef produced in America, less than 1 percent qualifies for that category. It’s the best of the best.”
Which is why, according to Sharper Image’s then-CEO, Jerry Levin, the company “literally sold almost no steaks.”
Trump was also unequivocal about his steak-eating bona fides.
“I understand steaks, it’s my favorite food, and these are the best,” he said, without mentioning that he regularly puts ketchup on his steak like a deranged 6-year-old.
If all this seems frighteningly familiar, there’s a reason. It’s also how he’s governing.
After promising not to touch Medicaid, to cover everyone in the country, and to immediately replace Obamacare with “something terrific,” Trump slapped his name onto Paul Ryan’s and Mitch McConnell’s health care plans, which do none of those things. Then he talked up those bills in public while privately conceding that the House bill was “mean.” The end result of his branding efforts is an unpopular and foundering Senate bill that, astonishingly, may fail faster than Trump Steaks.
During the presidential campaign, he also claimed he had a secret plan to quickly defeat ISIS. He clearly had no such plan, though he has apparently rebranded Obama’s plan as his own.
Now we’re on the cusp of a real crisis in East Asia, and Trump has no clue what to do about it. His initial instinct was to — you guessed it — have someone else do the heavy lifting and then sit back and reap the rewards.
In a revealing piece today in The Washington Post, Paul Waldman gives a short history of Trump’s rhetoric on North Korea — a history marked by ignorance, magical thinking, pubescent cocksureness, and a misguided and totally unsupported instinct that he, and he alone, had arrived at the one brilliant strategy that was sure to work: let China deal with it.
In an interview from last March, Trump told The New York Times, “So China should be talking to North Korea. But China’s tweaking us. China’s toying with us. They are when they’re building in the South China Sea. They should not be doing that but they have no respect for our country and they have no respect for our president.”
So Trump appeared to be saying that all we needed to do was elect a president whom China would respect, and suddenly the North Korea problem would be solved.
Guess that didn’t work out.
Another Washington Post story, from February 2016, is perhaps even more revealing. It’s about Trump’s business empire, and it should have served as a chilling warning about Trump’s potential governing style.
Given what’s happened over the past five-plus months, none of us should be shocked by it — but considering what’s happening in North Korea, we should all be frightened out of our minds:
"In the 1980s, Donald Trump was short on cash but eager to get Holiday Inn involved in a new casino project in Atlantic City. The construction wasn’t far along, but the Holiday Inn executives were coming to town, and Trump wanted to impress them. So he ordered a construction crew to dig up piles of dirt and drive them around on the site as energetically as possible. When the Holiday Inn executives arrived, they were impressed and agreed to invest, Trump recalls in 'The Art of the Deal.'"
In case you hadn’t noticed, by Trump’s way of thinking, the White House is a construction crew, Trump’s supporters are Holiday Inn executives, and everything else in the world is a pile of dirt.
Why anyone would think a businessman would automatically make a better president than a public servant with decades of government experience is a mystery. After all, the most prominent examples of the businessman-turned-president were Herbert Hoover and George W. Bush. Why anyone would think Trump in particular would make a great, good, or even serviceable president is a mystery for the ages.
Most of the country already knew that. The rest will discover it soon.