Well, that didn’t take long. On Monday, the Trump Organization announced plans to launch a chain of three-star hotels to target the millions of Americans who voted for Donald Trump but could never afford his gilded hotels, condos, or clubs.
Until now, Trump’s middle-class base had to settle for purchasing little chips off the Trump brand: a bottle of water, a steak, a made-in-China tie or, of course, a hat. But there is more gold in them thar voters, and it is positively un-Trumpian to leave it unmined.
Enter American Idea, “a new midscale brand” hotel chain whose first properties will be in Mississippi, a red state where Trump won 18 percentage points more of the popular vote than Hillary Clinton. This is not just an attempt at crashing the Comfort Inn niche by wrapping it in stars and stripes. It’s also the most vivid window yet into the myriad ways the Trump family is transforming the presidency into a for-profit family business, annihilating the line between government and their web of brands.
It turns out that while the Trump kids were on the campaign trail last year, they weren’t just stumping for their father — they were conducting market research on ways to profit from Trump voters. The sons would return to Trump Tower and report on the quaint and old-timey tastes enjoyed in “real America,” as Eric Trump described it on “Good Morning America” earlier this week.
As Donald Jr. put it, he realized “there’s something here, there’s a market here that we’ve been missing our entire lives by focusing only on the high end.” And there were more perks to tagging along on the campaign trail. They also met people who donated to the Trump campaign, and some of those very people are now the first partners for this new venture.
So let’s unpack that a bit. In Trump’s world, voters are future customers, campaign donors are future investors, and election results are a rich vein of consumer data. But of course there is a firewall separating the presidency from the Trump Organization, or so we are told. Never mind the endless presidential trips to Trump-branded properties. Never mind Keyllanne Conway and “Go buy Ivanka’s stuff!” Never mind Trump’s plug for Mar-a-Lago’s chocolate cake inserted into a description of a Syrian missile strike. Never mind Ivanka using her White House platform to hawk a book that is itself about hawking her brand. Never mind the millions Melania reportedly collected in a British libel settlement, in part due to damage caused to her would-be line of lifestyle products.
Never mind the hundreds of thousands the Saudis spent at Trump’s Washington hotel as part of a lobbying campaign against antiterror legislation. Never mind the Chinese government approving trademarks for Ivanka’s brand on the same day China’s president sat next to Ivanka at Mar-a-Lago. Never mind, well, absolutely everything.
For the past five months, I’ve been writing a book that tries to put this presidency in the context of some of the economic and social trends that paved the way for Trump’s rise. And there are many such threads to follow, but a major one is the relatively new business model that the Trump family harnesses for vast wealth. That model is based on the idea that successful corporations aren’t actually selling products but brands — desirable “lifestyles.” And consumers aren’t really buying products, they’re buying ideas — markers of aspirational identity and membership in a circle of belonging. This is what the Trumps have always sold: a dream of themselves, projected back to their consumers. And having merged the Trump brand with the White House, they are now marketing “real” America back to itself.
Ethics experts keep urging Trump to separate himself completely from his business holdings by selling them or setting up a blind trust. But it’s clear the Trumps can’t even entertain the concept. They are their brands. Trump and his family have no idea where their commercial identities end and their personal (let alone public sector) identities begin. Even as the president and his adviser-daughter insist they are no longer involved in their businesses (though they still profit from them), their commercial avatars are busy replicating around the world, refracting through a commercial house of mirrors as the brand version of Donald and Ivanka continues to sell condos and golf club memberships — and offers Memorial Day tips on making champagne popsicles.
Why does this matter? Because just as Trump sees his voters as consumers, his supporters see their president less as a representative from whom they have a right to demand accountability and more as a brand. That’s why the self-dealing scandals don’t stick: Trump is just playing by the same lucrative rules that have reshaped the global economy. He’s fully embodying his boss brand, making money wherever he can, getting the best possible deal out of being president.
There are ways to undercut this: by making Trump look less like a boss (think #PresidentBannon), and by hurting his bottom line by boycotting and otherwise bruising his brand. And I’m all for trying. In refusing to divest from his business holdings, Trump has left himself wide open to this kind of consumer pressure.
But what about the next brand-name billionaire candidate out to leverage consumer relationships into votes? Ultimately, little will change until we stop buying what lifestyle brands are selling. And that means we’ll have to form our identity based on what we do and what we believe, not on what we buy. It may sound like an un-American Idea, but perhaps its time has come.