Donald Trump needed a new act.
By 2015, more than a decade removed from the smashing success of “The Apprentice,” Trump’s brand – always his most marketable and valuable commodity – was foundering, his golf courses were losing loads of money and he had nine-figure loans coming due. (We know all of that thanks to blockbuster reporting from The New York Times that reveals Trump paid $750 in taxes in 2016 – and no taxes at all in 10 of the previous 15 years.)
So he ran for president. Which, in retrospect, makes all the sense in the world.
Trump had flirted with running for national office in the past – he made overtures in 1988, 2000, 2004 and 2012 – but had demurred, having achieved his goal of getting a bunch of free press for himself.
But his situation was different in 2015. He was no longer riding high financially or otherwise. He was seen less as a business titan and A-list celebrity – and much more as a a cultural curiosity, a sort of has-been throwback to the 1980s. Flirting with a run for president wasn’t enough; he needed to go further this time as a way to restart a flagging brand.
Everything from the early days of Trump’s presidential candidacy suggest that this was much more about boosting a brand than any serious campaign to actually wind up as the Republican presidential nominee.
“Mr. Trump announced a campaign that seemed a long shot to win, but was almost certain to bring him newfound attention, at the same time that his businesses were in need of a new approach,” wrote the Times’ David Leonhardt about Trump’s taxes – and his 2016 bid.
The announcement of his candidacy at Trump Tower – after the descent down his gold escalator – was essentially a free TV ad for the Trump brand.
The announcement speech itself featured Trump touting his building and its air conditioning (not kidding) as well as his golf courses. (“I have the best courses in the world, so I’d say, you what, if [Obama] wants to— I have one right next to the White House, right on the Potomac. If he’d like to play, that’s fine.”) He also mentioned he “just sold an apartment for $15 million to somebody from China” and that he owned a “big chunk of the Bank of America Building at 1290 Avenue of the Americas … very valuable.” And that he was “really rich.” And that he was “proud of (his) net worth” because he had “done an amazing job.”
As the campaign wore on, Trump actually leaned into the campaign-as-personal-branding exercise even more heavily. In early March 2016, he held a press conference with displays of steaks, water and wine – all bearing his name – set up around the room. “We sell water and we have water, and it’s a very successful water company,” Trump said of Trump Ice natural spring water. “It’s a private little water company, and I supply the water for all my places and it’s very good.” (Uh, not so much.)
He also held every event he could at Trump properties – and played golf at Trump courses. And every time he talked, it was about how successful, how rich and how powerful he was. It was a dramatic reinvention – fueled by his willingness to say and do just about anything in the political arena and a block of voters who latched on to his radical outsider image and catapulted him into relevance again.
Throughout his 2016 campaign and his time in the White House, I kept coming back to a quote Trump gave about himself (and his life philosophy) to Playboy magazine back in 1990: “The show is Trump, and it is sold-out performances everywhere.”
The problem for Trump was that at the start of 2015, the performances weren’t sold out anymore. There were only a few stragglers in the audience. He was transformed in the public mind from titan of industry and reality TV star to over-the-hill carnival barker. He was bordering on irrelevancy. And worse, he was in dire financial straits, with no obvious prospects to turn things around.
Running for president was one of the last cards Trump had to play. His candidacy was borne of desperation, not of a desire to serve. Which we kind of always knew.
But with the Times’ tax revelations, we can now say so definitively.