Like a lot of people on the fringe, I’ve been enjoying the Donald Trump show. Watching the panda-men of Conservative Inc. gasp and faint over the latest Trump statement is great theater. As Nate Silver from 538 puts it, The Donald is the world’s greatest troll. I get the sense Nate must read my blog as I made similar points two weeks ago. Maybe the shadow of this blog is longer than I think.
Anyway, I was thinking about Trump the other day when he lit up Caitlyn Graham and Rick Perry. That stunt with the phone number was pure gold. It both amused the crowd and shamed Graham for being a hypocrite. The line about Perry now wearing glasses was close to genius. When you can shift the focus from yourself to your critics in an amusing way, the critics get scared and usually pipe down.
Trump is our first leverage candidate. For two decades now we have seen loads of leverage companies and leverage financial institutions. The crash of 2008 was brought about by a leverage industry toppling over and taking the economy with it. The entertainment businesses, especially sports, are all levitating on warm gusts of leverage carrying them into the heavens.
The real estate business has always been about leverage. In normal times, someone with equity in a rental property could borrow against it to buy another rental property. The rule of thumb was that 80% of rental income had to cover 100% of the debt service. In simple terms, if the property generated $10,000 a month in rents at its peak, the mortgage could not be greater than $8,000 a month.
Clever real estate men like Trump would figure out how to push up rents to increase cash flow, which in turn drove up their asset base, allowing for more borrowing which they used to buy more properties. As principle was paid and the asset value increased, the difference in asset value and leverage could be turned into a tax free windfall. In Trump’s case, he would often liquidate properties he had made famous thus cashing out at their peak.
The way to think of it for the purpose of understanding Trump’s campaign is this. The savvy real estate man is always looking for a way to leverage his assets so he can jump on the next opportunity before the next guy. If you look at Trump’s career, you see he has moved from one project to the next, very often leaving suckers holding the bag as he walked away with a profit. Trump’s not a builder. He’s an opportunist.
That’s what’s happening in his campaign. He took stock of his assets. He’s famous and he is rich. He’s also nearing the end so he can afford to piss off other famous rich people, unlike regular candidates that have to suck up to the rich. Trump also has a way of connecting with the common people. He’s been doing improvisational television for a long time and he is good at it.
Those are the assets he has to leverage. The opportunities he is exploiting are immigration, the media culture, discontent with the Republican establishment and widespread angst about the culture and economy. My guess is he never had strong views on any of these things. He may not even have had opinions about them until now. He’s just a guy who is good at seeing and exploiting opportunities.
I think this is why the GOP is looking so silly trying to swat away Trump. They are used to dealing with people who fear nothing more than separation from the heard. Trump is not knocking on their door asking to join the club. He’s out on the lawn throwing rocks through the window because that’s where the opportunity lies. John McCain leaning out the window in his nightshirt and cap, yelling at Trump to get off his lawn is what Trump wants. It plays to his advantage.
Similarly, Trump is not builder. He does a deal and moves on. His whole life up to this point has been geared to winning the moment. That makes him uncommonly good at moving past a problem, a gaff or a misstep. He takes the loss and moves onto the next item. To be successful in his line of work, you have to have the conscience of a burglar. You can be sure Trump remembers every win and not a single loss.
That makes the conventional political attack ineffective because he is so good as brushing it off and re-focusing on his next opportunity. When he gets grief for being mean to McCain, he brushes it off and takes a shot at Caitlyn Graham. When the press howls about that, he points out that Rick Perry has a two-digit IQ.
As with everything, there is a limit to leverage and you eventually have to settle up and show a profit. Trump has made a lot of people a lot of money which is why people do business with him. But, he ruined more than a few too. It remains to be see how his presidential run will end, but the insiders are betting/hoping he is unable to deliver more than pithy lines criticizing his opponents.
That said, he is a smart guy and he likes winning. What started out as a vanity candidacy is looking more like a real campaign. Beppe Grillo started out as a gag too. Most people, especially the smart people, thought it was ridiculous to think a divorced actor could be president. Similarly, no one picked a degenerate from the Ozarks as a s serious candidate at this stage of the 1992 election.
For now, it is a good show.