Assessing Donald Trump

Donald Trump has an uncanny way of intruding into my life. In my book Billionaires: Reflections on the Upper Crust, I tell the story of his response to a newspaper comment I made concerning him speaking at the 2012 GOP convention. Tongue in cheek, I had told the press that Republicans should send him on an all-expenses-paid trip around the world because if he spoke at the convention, he would bring the party nothing but trouble.

The morning that my quote appeared, I was surprised to get a phone call from Trump’s assistant. She asked for my email address, and after I gave it to her, she sent me a missive from the billionaire himself. He had pasted my comment about him into the body of the email and written in big, black, bold letters, “Darrell, You are a ‘fool’. Best wishes, Donald J. Trump.”

Two years later, I was sitting in my office when the phone rang with the caller ID of “Trump Org.” “Oh no,” I thought. “It can’t be.” As I recounted in an Atlantic piece, I had published a Political Power Index that ranked Trump No. 23 on the list of wealthy individuals who had influenced the 2014 elections.

One of his top executives called, complaining that his boss deserved a much better rating. How was the list devised, he asked? What criteria went into its compilation? As I explained that the rating was based on campaign contributions, issue advocacy, grassroots funding, and endorsements, among other things, this individual argued that my ranking of his CEO was way too low.  According to him, Trump was the key person in that year’s GOP triumph, much more so than nearly all of the other people on the list.

Trump and his staff clearly are not afraid to confront critics or commentators. That actually is one of the things people like about billionaire politicians. They speak their minds, are strong leaders, and tell voters they are too rich to be bought. For citizens used to duplicitous or corrupt politicians, those are strong selling points. Voters like “white knights” who can rescue them from deal-making politicians and mediocre candidates.

The tycoon promises to make the U.S. brand great again and tells reporters that he is “the most successful person ever to run” for president. In his opening speech, he said he would be the “jobs president” and that he would negotiate hard with China. For those upset with certain issues, he made disparaging comments about Mexicans and said climate change is “a hoax.” For people who want a strong American foreign policy, he proclaims that he will confront enemies and not get pushed around in the process.

With Trump’s candidacy, America joins more than a dozen other countries where billionaires have run for office. In many cases, they have been successful electorally. Silvio Berlusconi served for many years as the Italian prime minister. Petro Poroshenko currently serves as the president of Ukraine. Previously, Thaksin Shinawatra was prime minister in Thailand, Bidzine “Boris” Ivanishvili was prime minister of Georgia, and the late Rafiq Hariri was prime minister in Lebanon, before he was assassinated.

Trump certainly will command extensive media coverage. He is expert at generating press buzz and making himself the center of attention. On the NBC television show “The Apprentice”, he has immortalized the line “you’re fired!” This is a sentiment that many Americans would like to apply to many members of the political establishment.

His biggest challenge will be his own penchant for bluster. Americans like hard-charging leaders, yet they also fear them for their bellicosity. A  Quinnipiac University survey already has revealed that around 70 percent of Americans have a negative view of him. That clearly is a huge problem for Trump in the general election.

But it doesn’t mean he can’t gain some traction within the Republican field. With both Fox and CNN including only the top 10 candidates in the early television debates, Trump has a good shot at making the cut and dominating the discussion. He is expert at one-liners that may outrage many, but that also give him a definite niche within the GOP field. With his personal wealth, his candidacy may not be very dependent on outside contributors. It may take a while for people to vote him off the Republican island.