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Tomgram: Nomi Prins, How Trump Became Trump and What That Means for the Rest of Us

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From flickr.com/photos/47422005@N04/19830600925/: Donald Trump - Portrait
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This article originally appeared at TomDispatch.com. To receive TomDispatch in your inbox three times a week, click here.

Sometimes when I look at the increasingly bizarre, never-ending campaign for the White House and the staggering fundraising that goes with it, I think to myself: if we were in Kabul, Afghanistan, we would know what this was. We would recognize warlord politics. We would understand that (Bernie Sanders aside) politicians running for the presidency now need patrons -- modern-day Medicis who can fund the super PACs that are increasingly the heart and soul of a process leading to the first $10 billion election. Those billionaire funders are, of course, America's warlords. In his book No Good Men Among the Living: America, the Taliban, and the War Through Afghan Eyes, reporter Anand Gopal offers a riveting up close and personal look at how the process works far from home. One of the Afghans he follows is a remarkable woman who, under the patronage of just such a warlord, finds herself a senator in the Afghan Parliament.

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In our system, the candidates now first test their "electability" not with voters in primaries, but with a tiny coterie of the super-rich. In the case of the Koch brothers, for instance, they literally audition for support. In twenty-first-century America, these should undoubtedly be considered the real primaries and what happens starting in Iowa and New Hampshire early next year should be thought of as the secondaries. The increasingly fierce contests for money are America's new electoral reality, the one the Supreme Court let loose on the land with its 2010 Citizens United decision that freed the voice of money to overwhelm the many voices of this country. The process of fundraising has only gained momentum since then and yet this new form of electoral politics is a system still in formation, like molten lava only now beginning to cool and settle into its future shape.

To give credit where it's due, Donald Trump has kept that lava hot in ways that, under other circumstances, would be amusing indeed. After all, he's the definition of an American warlord -- and he's also running for the presidency. It's an unexpected wrinkle in the coalescence of a genuinely plutocratic electoral system. In other words, The Donald would like to send himself and, as TomDispatch regular Nomi Prins points out today, his money directly to the Oval Office in January 2017, while mocking those helpless peons of the political class who need to turn to people like him to be in the big time. Despite some public discussion of Trump's many bankruptcies, Mr. Art of the Deal has had remarkably free sailing when it comes to what it might mean to put a billionaire in the White House. Conflicts of interest? Don't even think about it! Prins, author of All the Presidents' Bankers: The Hidden Alliances That Drive American Power, shifts the focus to where it should be -- on The Donald's finances and the conflicts that make the man and would be part and parcel of any Trump presidency. Tom

Trumpocrisy
The Donald's Finances and the Art of Ignoring Conflicts and Contradictions
By Nomi Prins

The 2016 election campaign is certainly a billionaire's playground when it comes to "establishment candidates" like Hillary Clinton and Jeb Bush who cater to mega-donors and use their money to try to rally party bases. The only genuine exception to the rule this time around has been Bernie Sanders, who has built a solid grassroots following and funding machine, while shunning what he calls "the billionaire class" that fuels the super PACs.

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Donald Trump, like Ross Perot back in the 1992 and 1996 elections, has played quite a different trick on the money-saturated American political system. He has removed the billionaire as middleman between citizen plebeians and political elites, and created a true .00001% candidate, because he's... well, a financial elite unto himself, however conveniently posed as the country's straight-talking "everyman."

Despite his I-can-buy-but-can't-be-bought swagger, Trump's persona has been carefully constructed to deflect even the most obvious questions of conflict of interest that his wealth and deal-making history should bring up. He claims that he would govern (or dictate) as he is, no apologies or bullshit. But would he?

The billionaire-as-president is a new prospect for America. The only faintly comparable situation in our history came before the Crash of 1929, when President Calvin Coolidge, who famously declared that "the business of America is business," reappointed mogul Andrew Mellon as his treasury secretary, just as President Warren Harding had done before him. A walking conflict of interest, Mellon left Washington during Herbert Hoover's administration to avoid Congressional scrutiny of his personal business endeavors. He was later investigated by the Department of Justice for falsifying tax information in his own business empire.

Trump is, by his own admission, a dealmaker who has, since the 1970s, utilized self-promotion and his own growing celebrity to make money. Nonetheless, he denies the importance of money itself. His quasi-autobiography, The Art of the Deal, opens with this now-familiar tall tale: "I don't do it for the money. I've got enough, much more than I'll ever need. I do it to do it. Deals are my art form."

Today, he asserts that he is worth a cool $10 billion, having long been cagey about just how much he has. That figure, too, may be more scam than reality. Forbes pegs Trump's fortune at $4 billion in its 2015 top billionaires list, where he places 405th in the world and 133rd in the U.S. In his 92-page Federal Election Committee financial filing, which doesn't require the disclosure of his total wealth, the value of his global enterprises, assets, debts, and income sources are listed in ranges, rather than exact figures. More than 20 items are characterized as worth "over $50 million."

He has at least $1.4 billion in assets and $285 million in debt, if we use just $50 million as a guesstimate on those items; $2.8 billion in assets and $570 million in debt, if we pick the figure of $100 million instead. In other words, we still don't know what he's worth. As with so much else, we just have to take his word for it.

Consider the presidency as Donald Trump's ultimate deal. And don't think for a second that if he entered the Oval Office his money and deal-making lust and every conflict of interest that went with them wouldn't follow him there.

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He claims to be an open book -- "the definition of the American success story," as his campaign website puts it. He wants people to believe (as his acolytes do) that he's just like us -- except for the hair -- only richer, more successful, and (not to mince words) better. That narrative has, of course, been carefully constructed for our consumption, which means, if he succeeds, we are part of his chosen art form, his deal.

Though you might not know it from the incessant media coverage of his candidacy or his P.T. Barnum-ish self-glorification, there are plenty of pieces missing from his financial story that call into question both his skill as a dealmaker and his business acumen. Though there's been much discussion of how money from the Koch Brothers and other billionaire donors might influence 2016's candidates, there's been little discussion of how Trump might be influenced by the billionaire backing him: himself.

Celebrity Apprentice

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Tom Engelhardt, who runs the Nation Institute's Tomdispatch.com ("a regular antidote to the mainstream media"), is the co-founder of the American Empire Project and, most recently, the author of Mission Unaccomplished: Tomdispatch (more...)
 

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