by Mark Tucker
Perfectly good gatherings across America will sour this holiday season when small talk turns to politics. There you are, minding your own business, when a relative or conservative associate publicly pledges allegiance to Donald Trump. Your stomach turns. You may feel morally obligated to push back. This installment of Meet Your Local Billionaire shifts focus to Trump, the only billionaire running for president in 2016, to provide progressives a few handy talking points and strategies to help you survive Trump talk this holiday season.
How rich is Trump? “I’m really rich,” Trump boasted at his presidential campaign announcement speech in June. At that time his publicized financial statement listed net worth at $8.7 billion. Shortly later in a CNN interview his political team brazenly upped the estimate to over $10 billion. Forbes gave those inflated numbers a haircut, estimating the real estate tycoon’s net worth at a still impressive $4 billion, ranking Trump’s wealth at #133 in America and #405 worldwide. Trump is far and away the richest of all the 2016 presidential candidates, and his campaign is self-funded. Carly Fiorina comes in a distant second place with $58 Million.
Making money at all costs is a family tradition. In the late 1800‘s Trump’s grandfather, Frederick Trump, made a fortune operating boom-town hotels, restaurants and brothels during the gold rush in the Northwestern United States. A few years later, sensing the gold rush was over and upon hearing rumors of a crackdown on prostitution, Frederick sold his investments and returned to Germany to marry an old neighbor. Then Germany expelled him and his pregnant wife for tax evasion and avoiding military service obligations. They settled in Queens where he started investing in real estate development. When he died, his son Fred – Trump’s dad – continued the Queens real estate projects, building thousands of low rent housing units along the East coast for vets returning from World War II. From WWII until the 1980s Fred Trump lied about his German ancestry – both of his parents were born in Germany – telling friends and acquaintances he was of Swedish origin. He had a lot of Jewish tenants. Hiding his German past was a shrewd business tactic to avoid postwar conflict. Trump’s dad died in 1999, one of this country’s wealthiest individuals with a net worth more than a quarter billion dollars.
Donald Trump perpetuates the self made billionaire myth, continuously downplaying family assistance received at pivotal points during his rise to becoming one of the richest people on the planet. When postwar master builder Fred Trump died in ’99 the New York Times ran an article also downplaying the assistance given to his son, writing “In the mid-70’s, Mr. Trump lent support — and a small amount of money — to his son Donald’s aspirations of becoming a developer” (emphasis added), completely omitting the generous amount of the personal loan. What in their estimation is “a small amount of money?” One million dollars. Trump says he had to pay it back with interest, contending “a million dollars isn’t very much compared to what I’ve built.” Using an inflation calculator, $1 million dollars in 1975 is equivalent to $4.4 million today. Nice. Little. Loan.
Like other ‘great’ businessmen, Trump legally leverages bankruptcy protection to shake off millions in business debt from poor decisions. Four of Trump’s businesses declared Chapter 11 bankruptcy, the first in 1991. The most recent was just six years ago in 2009. A $30 million loan from siblings kept him afloat during one bankruptcy when he was $900 million in the red. Then he got a windfall when Fred died; one quarter of daddy’s $250 million estate. In addition to the inheritance, Trump received a wealth of business contacts, contracts, expertise, tax abatements and other political capital leveraged to his advantage. Donald Trump is not a self made man. He stands on the shoulders of relatives, further propped up by numerous governmental giveaways to the already wealthy.
‘So what?’ some will respond. These points carry more or less weight depending on your audience. The main point is that personal wealth alone is not the measure of a worthy presidential candidate. Quite to the contrary. The 2008 financial crises, the ever increasing inequality between the haves and the have nots, and the corrupting influence of dark money in politics are constant reminders of the dangers of concentrated wealth.
Being armed with facts alone will not convince those who admire business success at face value. To win conservative swing voters, progressives must speak to conservative values when framing political discussions. On this issue of framing, Don Hazen – chief editor of AlterNet.org – writes that “progressives have been under the illusion that if only people understood the facts, we’d be fine. Wrong. The facts alone will not set us free. People make decisions about politics and candidates based on their value system, and the language and frames that invoke those values. Their values – strict authoritarian values in the conservatives’ case – are what motivate them to enter the voting booth.”
Applying this lesson of framing to the Trump family, ask conservatives at your holiday gathering who favor ‘family values’ if they approve of businessmen profiting off of loose morals. Trump’s grandfather built his fortune off of brothels, after all. Follow-up by asking if they approve of businessmen actively deceiving their customers for convenience. Trump’s father deceived his Jewish clientele about his German ancestry for thirty years following World War II, after all. The lie was so pervasive even the young Trump wrote he was of Swedish descent in his first book, which was later corrected when he finally learned the truth. You might also ask how Donald, a man on his third marriage, suddenly became a champion of family values. Incidentally, Donald’s mom Mary Anne MacLeod is from Scotland, and his current and one former wife are both immigrants. How does the son, grandson and spouse of immigrants justify his hypocritical hardline stance against immigration?
Conservatives idolize the rugged individual concept, fetishizing the notion that one can and should pull themselves up by their bootstraps. Ask them if getting a four million dollar career kickstarter with lucrative connections can really be considered starting from the bottom. And, can one still be considered a rugged individual when bankruptcy law is habitually manipulated? Shady family business ethics don’t necessarily reflect poorly on the children. But when those children display similar behavior in business, it may be evidence that the fruit has not fallen far from the tree. Presidential candidates should exhibit character above what one expects from a slumlord.
Trump has arrived and is determined to keep others down. He proved his disconnected contempt for the financially struggling working class at the Fox News Business GOP debate in early November when asked for his position on the minimum wage. Not only does he reject raising the minimum wage, but he further argued “our wages are too high.” It takes a special type of arrogantly bombastic “self made” billionaire to assert such classist sentiments on a nationally televised stage to 46.7 million Americans who are living in soul crushing poverty (2014 U.S. Census Bureau statistic).
Lastly, you should just be straight up with your family. Donald Trump is a dangerous bigot. His Islamophobic call for banning all Muslims from entering the U.S. is an appeal to the worst element in American politics. Compassionately but directly engaging racism and bigotry in our own families is essential to counteracting the downward spiral into fascism Trump represents. As neighbors of Dearborn, the largest Arab community in the United States, those of us in Southeast Michigan have an extra responsibility to practice tolerance, pushing back against blanket discrimination as a response to terror attacks from extremists.
When engaging people who are potentially open to sane government but who are truly ignorant it’s strategic to highlight positive alternatives instead of harping on all the negatives. Instead of isolating ourselves from the international community to recreate an ideal that never existed, we can acknowledge the historically damaging role of race and class to evolve towards becoming a beautifully diverse people who care more for human beings, freedom and democracy. We advance when we stop appealing to billionaires or government for all our solutions (since they’re the ones who often created these problems in the first place), embracing our own power individually and collectively to find solutions from the bottom up.
Trump is not special. This hypocritical man child is not presidential material. He merely represents the lowest common denominator in the GOP’s misguided base. It falls to the feet of compassionate progressives to actively reject any candidate promoting the reprehensible politics of fear and hate. What this country needs is a progressive populist president who stands for inclusive democratic principles, not a wealthy bigot boasting “I’m really rich” at the expense of disadvantaged immigrants and the poor.