Topic: Business & Commercial

Donald Trump: Making Money Out of a Misconception

After years of just being an annoying presence on the national scene, real estate magnate Donald Trump decided to become a full-fledged celebrity, with a television reality show, a string of self-help books, regular radio spots, and various “get rich” products, including tapes, seminars, and “TrumpU,” an on-line delivery system for more of the same. Well, all power to him: marketing has always been Trump’s long suit, and in this era of celebrities who are admired for simply being famous, he correctly calculated that the timing was right.

Nonetheless, there is more than a little deceit and deception in Trump’s new line of success aids, which built on his exposure as the wise and stern management guru of “The Apprentice,” his recently-cancelled reality show that doubled as a commercial for his hotels, golf courses, branded events and family. “Donald J. Trump is the very definition of the American success story,” begins his bio on the NBC website. That is undoubtedly what most Americans believe, and also what Trump wants them to believe. Donald Trump can tell them how to become rich because he did it himself; he knows how to make money. It is the apparently self-evident fact that Trump made himself rich that makes his seminars and books sell, and allows him to deliver sermons on his blog and in his daily radio commentaries about how to become wealthy. But looking to Donald Trump to teach you the secret of becoming rich is exactly like paying Charlize Theron to tell you the secret of she being beautiful.

The truth is, their secrets are the exactly same: they were born that way—Charlize gorgeous, The Donald loaded. Donald Trump’s father, Fred Trump, was a bona fide self-made man and real estate tycoon who brought his son into the business. Many of Trump’s web biographies talk of him “sharing an office with his father” like theirs was a tiny struggling two-man shop up a couple flights of stairs in an old warehouse. Nothing could be farther from the case. The younger Trump showed an aptitude for real estate wheeling and dealing (and an even greater talent for self-promotion) that allowed him to parlay his share of his father’s already successful business into a fortune of several hundred million by the 1980s, but as detailed in a 2005 profile by Timothy O’Brien in the New York Times, Trump had blown through it all by the mid-nineties and was in serious debt. Only 20 million dollars in loans from his rich siblings (each had inherited 35 million from father Fred, who was by then deceased) kept Trump afloat and allowed him to stage a comeback.

There are thousands upon thousands of Americans who started with meager resources and made themselves rich through talent, hard work, creativity, inventiveness, and some luck. They include such diverse individuals as Paul Newman, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Oprah Winfrey, Mark Cuban, Steven Spielberg, Rich DeVos (who was the co-creator of Amway), Joe Jamail (the personal injury lawyer), H. Ross Perot, Ted Turner, Ollen Bruton Smith (who helped build NASCAR into an obsession) and even Trump’s detested nemesis, Rosie O’Donnell. In Trump’s own field, real estate, there are genuine rags-to-riches stories, like Donald L. Bren, the 27th richest man in America (Trump is listed by Forbes as #94), who built his first house with a $10,000 loan. He can legitimately tell a personal story about how someone who isn’t rich and doesn’t have family members with money to burn can become successful and wealthy.

Not Trump. The success of his pitch to the desperate wannabes and clueless is based on their erroneous assumption, nurtured by Trump but not explicitly supported by him, that he can teach them to do what they think he didÂ…make himself rich through hard work and a business savvy. But what Trump is best qualified to teach is how to make yourself richer when you inherit an established business and have millions of dollars plunked into your waiting hands after your Dad has sent you to Wharton.

The fact that Trump doesn’t lie outright about his background but simply allows his marks to jump to the wrong conclusions puts his “get rich like me” marketing efforts in the category of deceitÂ…but deceit is still dishonesty. Trump undoubtedly has useful wisdom to impart about building a successful career; it’s not as easy to stay rich as some people think. Ask most state lottery winners. Still, the most vivid lesson of Donald Trump’s successful campaign to sell himself as a self-made billionaire is the lesson that 19th Century con-man Joe Bessimer pronounced more than a century ago:

There’s a sucker born every minute.

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