Perhaps the most spectacular feat of the 2016 election was Donald Trump's successful self-casting as The Populist Champion of the Everyman. This was the same Donald Trump who lived in a golden tower in the sky above New York's Fifth Avenue, next to the Tiffany & Co. flagship store. The same Donald Trump who stiffed hundreds of contractors, from family-run glass and cabinet companies to plumbers and painters and waiters, who did work for his projects and properties. The same Donald Trump who ran a "University" about which one former employee testified that "while Trump University claimed it wanted to help consumers make money in real estate, in fact Trump University was only interested in selling every person the most expensive seminars they possibly could."
"Based upon my personal experience and employment," added Ronald Schnackenberg, a former salesman for the enterprise, "I believe that Trump University was a fraudulent scheme, and that it preyed upon the elderly and uneducated to separate them from their money."
A man of the people, indeed. At any rate, the scam worked: Trump billed himself as a rich guy who could fix the system because he knew how it was rigged—plus, he was already rich, so he didn't need anybody's money. (You might blame the Hillary Clinton campaign for failing to grasp the energy in the electorate, and to successfully frame Trump in anti-populist terms as Obama 2012 had with Rich Guy Mitt Romney. You might blame The Media, which has been buying Trump's bullshit for many decades now, although it was also The Media that told the public about all of the above.) It turns out that rich people always want more money, however, and also that Donald Trump—as a man almost militantly incurious about the world, completely uninterested in reading, and incapable of summoning the patience for any kind of strategic thinking—was not really that rich. In fact, as the New York Times made abundantly clear by getting hold of his tax returns and publishing them, he can hardly be described as a Businessman at all.
But the Times was not done there, and the story of Donald Trump's everyman populism continues apace. In a follow-up report on Monday, the Paper of Record traced the various seedy get-rich-quick schemes the now-president pursued once his profile had been sufficiently boosted by his time on The Apprentice.
In his zeal to squeeze ever more dollars out of Mr. Burnett’s golden goose, Mr. Trump signed on to an array of questionable products and services, including some that claimed to sell insights into his business expertise. The first year of “The Apprentice” was barely over when Mr. Trump pocketed $300,000 to speak at an event in Dayton, Ohio, where attendees paid $2,995 to learn the secrets of instant wealth from a company that was later accused in a lawsuit of running a Ponzi scheme.
In his monologues, he made a virtue of his first round of casino failures, portraying himself as a victim whose grit and intelligence saved the day. People ate it up.
“His presence gives me reassurance,” Lillie Moss, who raided her retirement fund to buy an investment kit at the Dayton event, said of Mr. Trump.
Christ almighty. There are echoes in Lillie Moss's story of poor Edward Friel, Jr., whose father made the mistake of agreeing to build the bases for slot machines and other features of the Harrah's at Trump Plaza in Atlantic City and got stiffed on payment for the work. The shortfall helped sink the Friel family business.
But that, the Times tells us, was just a warmup.
It was one thing to bray about his late mother — a multimillionaire with a maid and a Rolls-Royce — using All laundry detergent. Now, he was flogging things that could hurt people economically. In what would be his most lucrative side deal, he teamed up with a multilevel marketing company, ACN, whose clients were told they could make a living from home by selling video phones, satellite television and other services. Investigated in several countries, ACN has left a trail of complaints that people were suckered into spending far more than they earned trying to peddle the company’s products.
Regulators in France concluded that “only 1 percent of people recruited could claim a satisfactory income,” and that the rest lost money or, at most, made about $35 a month, according to court records. Montana officials came to a similar conclusion, finding that the average participant in that state paid ACN about $750 in various fees but got back only $53.
ACN, which has never admitted wrongdoing while settling legal actions by state regulators, claims its business model is misunderstood; on its website, it once posted a page helpfully titled “The Difference in ACN and a Pyramid Scheme.” A class-action lawsuit pending against Mr. Trump and his family asserts that the Trump brand became central to ACN’s business strategy, citing one plaintiff who signed up after she “watched clips of ACN appearing on ‘Celebrity Apprentice.’” ...
Examining Trump's tax returns, the Times found he was paid $8.8 million to promote ACN across 10 years, "including $1 million in 2009—the nadir of the Great Recession, when desperate people were drawn to promises of a fast payday." Elsewhere, he pushed a multilevel marketing scheme involving vitamins—the company was rebranded the Trump Network after his arrival on the scene—where people who "need a new dream" could spend $500 for a starter kit. This was to give them, in Trump's words, "an exciting plan to opt out of the recession." Trump's advocacy for this venture earned him $2.6 million.
You would think that making millions from selling false hope to desperate people robbed of their dreams by the worst economic meltdown since the Great Depression would put a dent in the president's reputation as a rich guy who looks out for the little guy. It certainly does not dent the impression that he is a pathologically self-interested reptile. But American politics are a hell of a thing, and it almost seems like too much to hope that moderator Chris Wallace will ask Trump a direct question about this at the debate Tuesday night. We for sure cannot possibly hope he will correct the president once the volcanic eruption of lies begins. The lead-in to tonight's festivities has been dominated by Trump's insane calls for drug tests and earpiece inspections.
The question is whether Trump's miserable record as president—no longer a theoretical proposition, but a very real one—has upended the dynamics here since 2016. Can Joe Biden add a little bite to the "Scranton vs. Park Avenue" framing that he rolled out recently? The left mocks this as empty rhetoric, and time will tell whether Biden's plan to spend $2 trillion on clean energy and infrastructure—creating, he says, union jobs that pay $15 an hour—and his pledge to sink billions more into childcare, healthcare, and boosting American manufacturing are real. Biden's record representing the interests of ordinary working Americans over powerful interests is not good, though as the Democratic Party has moved left, so has he. And while Biden has fudged the truth through his career, he is not the most successful conman in this nation's long line of snake-oil salesmen.
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