It’s one thing to push your family’s political interests behind the scenes – using Super PACs and K Street lobbyists. But to intentionally position yourself under the harsh spotlight of a political campaign is something altogether different.
Donald Trump is no stranger to the limelight; as an outspoken businessman and reality TV personality he’s benefited from a cult of personality for many years. He’s recently been in the headlines for a series of inflammatory public remarks, most notably when calling for a ban on all Muslim immigration to the US. And while he’d prefer to tell you he was a self-made man, in fact his fortune was partially inherited from his father’s real estate operations and the kernel of his enterprise is that original family business.
President Jimmy Carter famously came from a family of peanut farmers, but he wasn’t born into wealth; he’s the only president known to have lived in subsidised housing (that is, of course, if you don’t count the White House as subsidised housing).
But American politicians are no strangers to wealth. Very few congressmen don’t come from a position of privilege; research from the Center for Responsive Politics found that, as of January 2014, over 50% of Congressmen had an average net worth of $1 million-plus.
While the Koch brothers famously try to keep themselves in the shadows of the halls of power, other wealthy Americans march straight through the door for all to see. Hyatt second-gen Penny Pritzker is the incumbent US commerce secretary, while John Kerry is a progeny of the Forbes and Dudley–Winthrop families. Michael Bloomberg as mayor of New York City and Jay Rockefeller as a longtime senator of West Virginia are further examples. Industrialist and financier Andrew Mellon was Secretary of the Treasury under presidents Harding, Coolidge and Hoover. But most don’t come brandishing a megaphone.
The most obvious comparisons to Trump would be other billionaires who’ve run for the top job – Mitt Romney in 2008 and 2012 and Ross Perot in 1992.
Like Perot in 1992, Trump is still head of his operating business. Romney officially relinquished his leadership of Bain Capital in 2002, prior to his political career. All three candidates regularly – and in Trump’s case, perhaps unashamedly – asserted their business prowess as a reason for their fitness for office. Trump has placed both his wealth and his family business front and centre in his campaign (conveniently ignoring the bankruptcies he’s faced along the way).
The cynical among us might not completely buy Trump’s slogan that he’s running for president to “make America great again,” instead suspecting he has his own personal agenda. But if that agenda is to advance his own business interests, how well will he fare? Already we have seen Trump’s family business become victim to his political ambitions.
After controversial comments about Mexicans in his June presidential bid announcement, Spanish-language TV network Univision ended its contract to broadcast Trump’s Miss USA pageant. In July, Fortune magazine listed the following organisations as also cutting ties with Trump business interests: NBC Universal, Televisa, Farouk Systems, 5 Rabbit Cerveceria, Ora TV, Macy’s Department Stores, “Trump Home” mattress maker Serta. The City of New York is reviewing its own contracts with Trump businesses. Sports franchises PGA America, NASCAR and ESPN are moving their events away from Trump properties.
Perot made it through the 1992 election with minimal harm to his business. Trump has so far not been so lucky. But this wouldn’t be the first time he’s turned notoriety into business success.