"Trump"ing Politics (posted February 13, 2000)

In an era of celebrity politics with the presidential field dominated by politicians with famous last names, it is no surprise that wealthy real estate developer Donald Trump is considering a presidential run under the Reform party banner. Rich, famous, and skilled at manipulating the media to his own purposes, Trump is the perfect icon of the celebrity politics that has emerged in the United States.

In this report, I take a close look at candidate Trump. Who is he? Why does he want to run? What are his prospects? How will he affect the 2000 elections? What does his emergence tell us about our political system at the turn of a new millenium?

The Rise of Celebrity Politics

Although many are shocked that someone with little political experience and no background in elective office would consider a run for president, they should not be surprised. Trump typifies what now has become a fairly common pattern in American politics where someone who has become famous in one area seeks to transfer that fame and success to politics.

Ronald Reagan is the most prominent example of this career path. After achieving modest success as a "B" movie star, he ran for governor of California, became very popular, and went on to be elected president in 1980. Sonny Bono left a Hollywood career to become a mayor and House member before his death in a skiing accident. Former athletes such as Bill Bradley, Tom McMillan, and Jim Bunning used fame generated through sporting exploits to develop a platform successfully to run for public office. John Glenn and Harrison Schmidt shifted smoothly from astronaut to politician.

In an era where fame, money, and media coverage play disproportionate roles in running for office, it is little surprise that one-third of the U.S. Senate is populated by millionaires who use either their own money or that of wealthy friends to gain office. Rich Senators such as Herb Kohl of Wisconsin, John Edwards of North Carolina, and William Frist of Tennessee demonstrate that the Trump path from outside of conventional politics is not an isolated route to higher office.

Candidate Trump

While Trump's presidential bid is by no means atypical, it is consistent with the general tenor of his life. A brash man and ardent self-promoter, Trump is the author of four successful books (The Art of the Deal, The Art of the Comeback, Surviving at the Top, and The America We Deserve), developer of some of the most successful real estate projects in New York City (Trump Tower and Trump Plaza, among others), owner of an Atlantic City gambling casino, and possessor of one of the most colorful personalities in public life.

From his de facto bankruptcy in the early 1990s to a startling return to wealth 10 years later, Trump has demonstrated qualities that are key to the life of a successful politician: cunning, persistence, and an ability to surprise the experts. Given his flair for publicity and well-documented ability to cultivate reporters and attract media attention, Trump illustrates how American politics has changed over the past few decades. It used to be the politicians started in local offices, worked their way up, and then ran for national office. Today, as illustrated by Jesse Jackson, Elizabeth Dole, and Steve Forbes, it is possible to skip the apprenticeship stage and move directly to a presidential bid. As a sign of his adeptness at dealing with the media, in the last six months alone, there have been nearly 900 articles about him in major newspapers, many of them positive in tone.

Reasons for Running

Beyond his obvious desire for attention, Trump wants to run for president because he does not respect the abilities of the major party candidates and feels he has policy ideas that would make a positive difference. For example, in speaking of his presidential rivals in the major parties, Trump told a Minnesota audience that his opponents were "unimpressive" and "pathetic." He has publicly noted that many of the conventional politicians who have sought the presidency recently lacked vision and creativity.

In contrast, Trump sees himself as bright, energetic, and open to new ideas. Trump's political views are a careful blend of diverse ideologies, including a few left-of-center proposals. For example, he supports a one-time 14.25 percent tax on the super-rich worth more than $10 million, which he claims would raise $5.7 trillion (and cost Trump personally around $700 million!). In return, the government would drop all inheritance taxes.

On other issues, Trump describes himself as pro-choice, though he is not in favor of partial birth abortions. He supports capital punishment, universal health care, partial privatization of Social Security, and a ban on soft money contributions to the parties. Consistent with his gambling industry background, he has proposed a national lottery to finance anti-terrorism programs.

Electoral Prospects

With a candidate as unconventional as Trump, it is never easy to determine how well he would do if he ran. Early polls from Fall, 1999 suggest that if the general election were held today, 10 percent indicate they would vote for him. His supporters are drawn from political independents, those distressed at Washington gridlock, and voters who like blunt-speaking politicians who "tell it like it is."

His strengths as a candidate would be his brashness, independence, and willingness to say controversial things eschewed by more cautious, mainstream politicians. Similar to Governor Jesse Ventura of Minnesota, Trump's forthrightness would allow him to attract considerable press attention, although not all of it would be positive coverage. In a period when voters are cynical and feel there isn't a big difference between politicians who straddle the middle, Trump would stand out as a political novelty.

His weaknesses would be whether anyone would take him seriously as a possible candidate and his background as a real estate developer and gambling executive. Neither real estate nor gambling are well thought vocations by the American public. It would be easy to generate attack ads from business rivals complaining about cut-throat deals, insensitive behavior, and lack of concern for others. Every past business transaction would be dissected for egregious behavior on the part of Trump. Since Trump's personal philosophy is based on the idea that "if someone screws you, screw them back harder," there unquestionably would be many stories about his past business dealings.

The Reform party aspirant also displays a striking disregard for appropriate behavior in regard to women. Not to mention his series of relationships with different women is his boorish tendency after public speeches to call on questioners in terms such as "the woman with the incredible body in the short black dress."

It is for these reasons that in a recent ABC News/Washington Post national survey, 20 percent indicated they held a favorable view of him, 70 percent were unfavorable, and 10 percent were not sure. Rarely does someone with such negative favorability ratings run for president and when they do, they tend not to wear very well.

Impact on the 2000 Election

For the Republican and Democratic nominees, the most pressing question is how a Trump Reform party candidacy would affect each of them. Clearly, Trump's political profile is quite different from Pat Buchanan, the other Reform party candidate. With Buchanan emphasizing school prayer, a pro-life position on abortion, and the need for smaller government, a Buchanan nomination would hurt the GOP candidate far more than the Democrat. Owing to Buchanan's previous roots in the Republican party, there would be a far greater likelihood of him taking votes away from the GOP in the Fall.

A Trump nomination, on the other hand, hurts the Democrat more than the Republican. With his tax on the rich proposal, pro-choice position, and support for universal health care, Trump would draw on constituencies that otherwise would go to the Democratic nominee.

Of course, ultimately, the Trump impact on the 2000 election depends on how close it turns out to be. If there is a runaway election, the answer is clear. There would be no impact and the successful candidate would be able to win regardless of anything Trump or Buchanan did.

However, if the general election narrows, as many expect, than a Reform party candidate who draws 5 to 10 percent of the vote has the potential in key states to tip the balance one way of the general election. In the end, Trump would tip the election to the Republican, while Buchanan very well could push it in favor of the Democratic nominee. It is for this reason that the nominee of the Reform party could end up being the decisive player in the 2000 presidential election.