(CNN)He lost the White House (big time), and (on his watch) his party lost the Senate and the House in the midterms. He lost Twitter and Facebook. Revenues are down across his business empire. What’s a losing businessman-turned-politician to do?
If he’s former president Donald Trump, the answer is: use his principal assets — fame and attitude — to revive his brand through a “hostile takeover.” He demonstrated this, for example, in his address to the Conservative Political Action Conference on Sunday. With the help of his son, Donald Jr., he claimed both the conference and the GOP as his own.
After reports that he was privately considering starting a new political party, he ended weeks of speculation and declared that there was no need. “We have the Republican Party,” he said, marking his territory. He also teased the crowd with musings about running for president again in 2024. The standing ovation that followed, and the red “Make America Great Again” caps in the crowd, proved that the Trump marketing magic still works on some.
He will certainly need all the magic he can get, as his circumstances find him, and members of his family, pursued by the law (though his lawyers deny he or his family have committed any wrongdoing) and confronted by realities of a business marketplace that has largely had it with him. The deadly January 6 assault on the Capitol, which then-president Trump inspired, caused many companies in corporate America to sever ties with him.
Faced with hundreds of millions of dollars in loans coming due — loans Trump personally guaranteed — many of the family properties have posted significant losses. The Trump hotel in Washington is for sale, but no one seems interested.
But a clan once enriched by their real estate business and empowered by the presidency, can now offer as its stock in trade a combination of politics and entertainment. And both contribute to a certain type of fame, which Trump discovered could be quite valuable when he was the star of the TV show, “The Apprentice.” According to The New York Times, Trump’s ancillary fame-related revenues back then—the licensing of the Trump name, the lucrative pitchman gigs, and more– exceeded the $197 million he made from the show itself.
Monetizing fame in the post-presidency world of Trump requires a good story with high stakes and compelling characters. Check and check: The Trumps as “characters” are riveting to both those who love them and those who hate them. And the stakes? They include control over the GOP, the future of the family fortune and the prospect of serious legal peril.
The latter was heightened days ago by a Supreme Court decision that gave New York prosecutors access to business records, including Trump’s tax forms, which will aid them in investigations that potentially could lead to civil and criminal charges against those in his orbit. Meanwhile, Donald Trump Jr. was deposed by District of Columbia prosecutors investigation possible fraud allegations as part of a lawsuit related to 2016 inauguration spending. (His sister Ivanka sat for her deposition in December.) The organization has said it complied with all laws, and the former president has called the investigation a “witch hunt.”
While anyone else might feel paralyzed by this kind of pressure, Trump has long shown he is quite comfortable turning it to his advantage. He likely sees an opportunity to once again play his familiar role: the powerful victim. The two parts of this construct may seem contradictory. Who would believe Wonder Woman as a damsel in distress? But Trump seems to know that a hero’s journey must include encounters with evil opponents who almost defeat him.
To hear Trump tell it, he’s always being attacked by people with villainous motives. The investigation of his finances, which the Supreme Court permitted, is part of “the Continuing Political Persecution of President Donald J. Trump,” Trump said in a statement last week. “This is something which has never happened to a President before, it is all Democrat-inspired in a totally Democrat location, New York City and State.”
For drama’s sake, President Victim omitted the fact that New York was the scene of the activities that have drawn the scrutiny of investigators. He was a citizen and resident of New York State and his businesses were headquartered there.
New York, New York is where Trump began a long career of avoiding true accountability. In 1973, after he became part of management at his father’s company, investigators alleged racial bias in the family real estate business and prosecutors sued. The result was a slap-on-the-wrist settlement that allowed the Trumps to avoid admitting wrongdoing. Forty-six years later, the abuse of state laws governing charitable foundations — among other things Trump used the foundation to promote his political campaign — was settled for a mere $2 million.
For him, the song lyric should be “If you can get away with it there, you can get away with it anywhere.”
Escapes have been essential to the Trump storyline ever since the early 1990s, when his businesses were forced into bankruptcy, but he avoided personal liability. Having retained the trappings of wealth, he was able to swan about town until he could tell a story of amazing resilience as his hotels, apartment buildings and Atlantic City casinos, after losing a ton of money, returned to profitability.
By 1997, he would publish “The Art of the Comeback,” in which he framed his corporate bankruptcy as a smart business move. (Connoisseurs of Trump the dramatist will detect the odor of victimhood in its pages as he blames his trouble in part on federal lawmakers.)
He appears ready to work that storyline for a new chapter in the Trump drama.
Speaking at CPAC days prior to his father last week, Donald Trump Jr. imitated the former president by lobbing insulting jokes at media figures and Republicans like Rep. Liz Cheney (R-Utah) who resist the family’s claim to control of the GOP.
With his hands forming the letter “T,” Junior referred to the gathering as “T-Pac,” (as in “Trump Pac”) and declared the conference would “solidify” Donald Trump as the future of the Republican party.” True to family form, he also slipped in a plug for a book he published last summer.
The plug signaled that while the Trumps lay claim to the GOP, they also see it as a financial opportunity. With prosecutors circling and their businesses in trouble, there’s money to be made in their brand of political entertainment. A Trump political action committee raised $250 million since Trump lost the election and there’s more to be earned from paid speeches and merchandise sold — on the premise that these embattled heroes need support.
After offering up lots of complaints and grievance Trump the elder finished his CPAC speech with a direct appeal for funds, telling the crowd, “There’s only one way to contribute to our efforts, to elect America first Republican conservatives, and in turn to make America great again, and that’s through Save America, PAC, and DonaldJTrump.com.”
The Trumps are back, as victimized as ever, and eager to make a buck.