Trump: The building of a political brand

Melissa Nann Burke
Detroit News Washington Bureau

The Trump name is as familiar to Americans today as Disney and Ford, thanks to Donald J. Trump’s 40 years in the public eye — fueled by his own relentless self-promotion, brand marketing and provocative persona.

The 69-year-old New York billionaire believes his boardroom skills will transfer to the halls of power in Washington, although his marital history and corporate bankruptcy reorganizations make for an unconventional and unlikely Republican presidential front-runner.

Over the years, the tabloids have reported extensively on Trump’s three marriages, as well as his glory days operating casinos in Atlantic City, New Jersey, that would later end in four bankruptcies.

His GOP opponents point to that trail of business failures as evidence of his recklessness. Supporters note how the real estate developer and star of “The Apprentice” and “Celebrity Apprentice” reality television shows always bounced back.

A Trump biographer said the businessman’s upbringing has taught him effort and the sheer force of personality should always prevail.

“It was this story of family culture of real hard workers, very tenacious: Never give up, never back down, and this emphasis on success and the power of positive thinking,” said Gwenda Blair, author of “The Trumps: Three Generations That Built an Empire.”

As a teenager, Trump worked on a maintenance crew at construction sites for his father Fred Trump’s real estate company, running errands, chauffeuring the boss and learning the business from him, according to “The Trumps.”

“I wore a T-shirt and worked in the machine shop,” Trump said later. “I loved it, working with my hands, and I saw a different world — the world of the guys who clean and fix things.”

As they were growing up in the Queens neighborhood of Jamaica Estates, Trump’s four siblings also worked for their father’s real estate business. But Trump took special interest in the family trade, observing his father’s sharp-elbowed negotiating skills and business practices.

Trump Village architect Morris Lapidus remembered Trump as a “go-getter,” even back then, he told Blair. “Whenever his father gave him something to do, he would be off and running. You could tell that he was going to get somewhere,” he said.

Business beginnings

While receiving four deferments from serving in the Vietnam War, Trump attended Fordham University in the Bronx for two years before transferring to the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School of Business, graduating in 1968.

“Two of the people I admired most and who I kind of studied for the way they did things were the great Flo Ziegfeld, the Broadway producer, and Bill Zeckendorf, the builder,’’ he told the New York Times in 1984 of his youth.

“They created glamour, and the pageantry, the elegance, the joy they brought to what they did was magnificent.”

Trump was an apt pupil but also felt he had to outdo his father. He left Brooklyn and Queens and entered the hyper-competitive real estate race in Manhattan, with a boost from his father’s financial resources and political network, Blair said.

He focused on building the Trump brand and by the mid-1980s had become a major figure in New York. His national profile began to expand after he bought the New Jersey Generals, a professional football team in the upstart United States Football League, and started appearing in the sports pages of newspapers nationwide, Blair said.

He picked up an airline, bought one of the world’s largest yachts and launched casino and entertainment venues in Atlantic City. He married three times — two of his wives were models.

Blair said she became interested in how Trump leveraged his ego and excessive behavior — not necessarily positive traits — into a successful brand.

Norman Vincent Peale’s 1952 book, “The Power of Positive Thinking,” had a significant influence on Donald’s father, Fred. He joined Peale’s church, where Donald and his two sisters were later married, Blair said.

In Peale’s book, one of his guidelines is to “formulate and stamp indelibly on your mind a mental picture of yourself as succeeding. Hold this picture tenaciously. Never permit it to fade. Never think of yourself as failing.”

“Donald really exemplifies that,” Blair said. “He never says, ‘I’m going to try.’ He says, ‘I’m going to do it.’ If anybody presses for details, he’s completely dismissive. ‘I can do it. I’m not going to tell you because then the other side will know what I’m going to do. I’m a negotiator.’ ... A lot of people find that very appealing.”

The Trump brand

Trump’s “views and bully persona made him exceedingly popular with people who believed he represented important ideals, especially the American promise of success represented by great wealth,” writes biographer Michael D’Antonio.

Trump’s 14-season run hosting the “The Apprentice” series solidified his image as a successful businessman and further extended his name recognition.

Jeffrey Hayzlett, a brand and marketing expert in New York, says Trump’s campaign slogan, Make America Great Again, resonates with those weary of the partisan gridlock and noise from the ideological fringes.

“He’s struck a really big cord in saying, let’s get back to the core things of inspiration and motivation, rather than the negative. That’s what people want to feel like,” said Hayzlett, who was a judge for three seasons on “Celebrity Apprentice” and considers Trump a friend.

“People like a little bravado. They love cowboys.”

Trump has described his brand as one of luxury. The billionaire’s marker is his bold, opulent presentation, said Hayzlett, who’s been to Trump’s home.

“When you walk into his buildings or into his home, there’s lots of brass and gold and glitter,” he said.

“It’s either loud in terms of its volume, or it’s bright in terms of its luxury and richness. It garners attention. Whatever it is, it’s distinctive and, quite frankly, that’s what you’re seeing in the campaign, as well.”

Political history

The first time Trump publicly mentioned running for president was in 1987 when he published “The Art of the Deal.” He had bumper stickers printed, gave a few speeches and even went to New Hampshire, but it “really boiled down to promotion for the book,” Blair said.

He expressed similar interest in 2004, 2008 and 2012. In 2000, Trump ran for the presidential nomination of the Reform Party, founded by Texas billionaire Ross Perot. Trump quit in mid-February of that year but still later won Michigan’s Reform Party primary with 2,120 votes.

He favored a one-time, 14.25 percent tax on wealth to reduce the national debt, as well as legalizing now-illegal drugs while taxing them to fund drug education.

In the past, Trump has supported abortion rights and immigration reform, which he now opposes. In his book “The America We Deserve,” published in January 2000, Trump said he favored universal health care.

The goal of health care reform, he wrote, should be a system that looks similar to Canada’s. Trump has since joined other Republican candidates in bashing the federal Affordable Care Act.

Over the years, Trump donated hundreds of thousands of dollars to both the Republican and Democratic parties and candidates. He gave to Hillary Clinton’s 2008 presidential campaign and to other Democrats including Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid. He has largely self-funded his 2016 campaign.

NBC ended its business relationship with Trump in June after he announced his presidential bid and made controversial comments about Mexican immigrants.

“They’re bringing drugs, they’re bringing crime, they’re rapists and some, I assume, are good people,” Trump said.

NBC has since hired former California governor and movie star Arnold Schwarzenegger to serve as CEO of the reality franchise, “Celebrity Apprentice,” for the 2016-17 television season.

But the “Apprentice” series gave Trump a platform to showcase himself as the king of the boardroom. Hayzlett said Trump’s personality on and off camera are “very similar.”

What television viewers don’t see is the number of people to whom he writes notes and calls to check to see how they’re doing.

“The people who work around him have been with him for decades. You can’t be an a------, and have people work for you for that long,” Hayzlett said. “That says something.”

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Donald J. Trump

Age: 69

Born: Queens, New York

Education: Bachelor’s degree, University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School of Business, 1968

Occupation: Real estate developer, Republican presidential hopeful

Family: Wife Melania; five children from three marriages: Donald Jr., 37; Ivanka, 34; Eric, 31; Tiffany, 22; and Barron, 9