Rick Holmes: Learning from the celebrity apprentice candidate
It’s graduation season, but there are no caps and gowns at Trump University — or classes, for that matter. Donald J. Trump says it will reopen once he moves into the White House and gets rid of these pesky lawsuits claiming it’s a fraud.
Not to worry, though. There are plenty of lessons would-be entrepreneurs can learn from Trump’s business career without paying Trump U.’s steep tuition, many of them playing out in his campaign.
One of the lessons taught at Trump University, for instance, is how to risk “Other People’s Money,” or “OPM,” its president, Michael Sexton, wrote. Trump uses OPM whenever he can. He brags about self-financing his presidential campaign, but the money he gave has been in the form of loans, not gifts, and a lot of it was paid to Trump businesses for things like office space and the use of his plane. Trump intends to get plenty of return on his investment.
But now that he’s wrapped up the Republican nomination, Trump plans to use OPM the rest of the way. The Washington Examiner reports Trump’s senior advisor told GOP officials the campaign is low on cash and can’t run commercials between now and the convention. After bashing and beating the GOP establishment for the last year, now he wants them to pay for a 50-state ground game.
Then there’s the Trump Shuttle, which Trump bought from Eastern Airlines in 1989 for $365 million in OPM. That was probably more than it was worth, Matt Visor reported in the Boston Globe, considering the age of the shuttle’s 21-plane fleet and its rundown terminals. Trump’s business plan for the airline was typical: He added glitz and the Trump brand, redecorating Shuttle planes with wood paneling and plush carpeting — too plush for the service carts, it turned out. He stamped his name on every surface. He designed new uniforms for the flight attendants, showing more cleavage. Trump handed out champagne at the grand opening and called his airline “a diamond in the sky.”
But Trump misread his market. Shuttle passengers were mostly business people taking a 45-minute flight to meetings in New York, Boston and Washington. They didn’t want glitz; they wanted reliability. The Trump Shuttle made enough to cover its costs, but not enough to pay the interest on the loans Trump had taken out to buy it. Less than three years after he got into the airline business, Trump had to pull out.
Or consider Television City, a cautionary tale for those buying into the myth of Trump the master deal-maker. In the mid-1980s, Trump acquired a 77-acre tract on the Hudson River and proposed what would have been Manhattan’s biggest development since Rockefeller Center. It would include a new headquarters for NBC and the world’s tallest building. All he needed were the city permits. But instead of making a deal with New York Mayor Ed Koch, Trump picked a fight. Their feud played out in the tabloids, with Trump calling Koch a “moron” who should be impeached, while Koch called Trump “piggy, piggy, piggy.”
The feud killed the deal, and Television City was never built.
Trump’s TV success came instead from a show that says much about his approach to politics. “The Apprentice” and its successor, “The Celebrity Apprentice,” invite people with no experience in a particular business to break into teams and, under Trump’s watchful eye, complete a business-oriented task. Competition between teams — and back-stabbing within teams — provide the entertainment. Trump would ask players which of their teammates should get the ax before announcing his trademark “You’re fired.”
The premise of the show is that anyone with brains, creativity and guts can succeed in any enterprise. You don’t need training, experience or study to achieve your goals. Anyone can be a star in business — or in politics, for that matter.
Trump’s campaign has reflected all these lessons: An emphasis on glitz and the Trump brand; a preference for picking fights over forging alliances; a tendency to do things on the cheap — Trump never bothered hiring speechwriters, pollsters, policy experts or other positions considered basic to a national campaign — and use Other People’s Money whenever possible.
Just as he put senior managers in his real estate business in competition with each other, Trump has encouraged rivalries among top campaign aides, several of whom have quit or been fired.
The result has been a campaign that is underfunded, uncoordinated and unprepared for the 50-state challenge ahead, dependent on a party whose leaders he insults at every turn. But Trump is supremely confident in his own superiority, a lesson he’s been teaching for decades.
“I play to people’s fantasies,” he wrote in “The Art of the Deal.” “I call it truthful hyperbole. It’s an innocent form of exaggeration — and a very effective form of promotion.”
Well, maybe not so innocent. We’ll find out in five months whether this celebrity apprentice can win the biggest political prize of all.
— Rick Holmes writes for GateHouse Media and the MetroWest Daily News. He can be reached at email@example.com. Like him on Facebook at Holmes & Co., and follow him @HolmesAndCo.