Trump sells American Dream to voters

A supporter holding up The Trump Coloring Book at a campaign rally for US Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump. Mr Trump, 69, has never hesitated to offer himself as the incarnation of the American Dream.
A supporter holding up The Trump Coloring Book at a campaign rally for US Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump. Mr Trump, 69, has never hesitated to offer himself as the incarnation of the American Dream.PHOTO: REUTERS

US billionaire trumpets business success to drum up support for presidential bid

WASHINGTON • "Self-made man" or born into billions? Successful entrepreneur or serial bankrupt? US billionaire Donald Trump, before setting his sights on the White House, built an empire of real estate - with some colossal flops along the way.

With luxury properties around the world - Trump Towers in Manhattan and Mumbai, Trump hotels in Miami and Chicago, Trump golf courses from Los Angeles to Scotland - the front runner for the Republican presidential nomination made a name as a symbol of business success.

And now his campaign is turning that into a formidable pitch for voter support. In debates or in front of TV cameras, Mr Trump, 69, never hesitates to offer himself as the incarnation of the American Dream, the one candidate capable of "Making America great again", as his campaign slogan runs.

"Donald J. Trump is the very definition of the American success story," touts the website of The Trump Organisation, a closely held company where two of Mr Trump's sons and a daughter work.

But his is no rags-to-riches tale.

His father Fred Trump, a descendant of German immigrants, had amassed a fortune as a real estate developer in New York's Queens borough, specialising in apartment buildings for the middle class.

"He has made a much larger success than his father, but self-made, no," said Ms Gwenda Blair, author of The Trumps: Three Generations Of Builders And A Presidential Candidate. "He started out with quite a lot, and used his father's financial base and his political connections."

Mr Trump himself concedes he received what he called a "small" million-dollar loan from his father to launch his own projects.

But he targeted a different clientele, the cream of New York's wealthy in the flashy 1980s.

Mr Michael Lind, author of Land Of Promise: An Economic History Of The United States, said Mr Trump knew how to target the nouveau riche because he had "the same tastes". "He is what we call a booster, someone who can boost the economic development of a city or a state," said Mr Lind.

Still, Mr Trump's accumulation of a US$4.5 billion (S$6.5 billion) fortune did not come without bumps and bruises. Four times between 1991 and 2009, his casino and hotel projects on the East Coast fell into bankruptcy. For Mr Trump, that was normal business for an entrepreneur, and he fought hard with creditors to keep a stake in the properties, which all bore his name.

"I have used the laws of this country, just like the greatest people you read about every day," he said in his defence, adding that he personally has never gone bankrupt.

The business flops were not necessarily due to poor management.

"There were major upheavals, lots of additional competition, acts of God in terms of major storms that impacted the traffic," said Mr Edward Weisfelner, who worked for creditors fighting Mr Trump.

He said Mr Trump was a tough negotiator who bargained very effectively to protect his interests. "The creditors were upset, but they were still seeing a lot of commercial value in his name and his ability to draw customers to a casino."

Ultimately all of the companies survived, with Mr Trump retaining some interest. And now the property magnate is turning those experiences into a reason voters should support him. "This country right now has US$19 trillion (S$27.2 trillion) in debt and they need somebody like me to straighten out that mess," he declared last August, as his campaign for the White House hit full speed. AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 09, 2016, with the headline 'Trump sells American Dream to voters'. Print Edition | Subscribe