Since Donald Trump announced his candidacy and through becoming the 45th president of the United States I have had one overriding question. Is this a man “with a lot to lose” or one “with nothing to lose?” What follows is pure supposition, perhaps my intuition kicking in from being around characters like President Trump over my many years in real estate, and the automobile dealership business. Many of these folks were very much like Trump: loud, aggressive, sure of themselves, vain, narcissistic, misogynistic and tribal. And let us not forget egotistical!
To further explain I need to regress a bit, so bear with me. Financial wealth is defined as your net worth; your assets (what you have) minus your liabilities (what you owe). In life, we see only a person’s assets (what they have); liabilities are usually pretty invisible. By way of example, two persons might each have a net worth of $10 million. “Person One” might have a $10 million home with no mortgage; “Person Two” might have a $100 million home with a $90 million mortgage. “Person Two” will look much, much wealthier to the outside world than “Person One.”
My hunch is that President Trump is more like “Person Two.” If I’m right, it could explain lots of behavior – especially because President Trump’s outsized ego makes the average captain of industry’s ego look puny. I’m guessing that the Trump family is in the top one-tenth of one percent; but not close to inclusion in the top one-thousandth of one percent (in the US, roughly 1,600 households).
Trump has spent his life trying to be a member of this club, and has done a magnificent job of pretending he has succeeded. I’m sure his biggest fear is being found out. He probably has taken many outsized, dangerous gambles (with some failing disastrously) to secure a seat in this oh so exclusive cohort. And with each failure, his liabilities have increased. If this is true, it explains a lot:
· Not releasing tax returns was not because he didn’t want people to see how rich he was; rather the opposite. It would expose his lessened status so he fought this to the bitter end.
· His business interests are non-public and tribal; with governance and accounting managed by seemingly unqualified people and outside firms (think Madoff).
· A string of bankruptcies ruining thousands of lives.
· Aggressively litigious behavior with hyper reactions to threats on privacy or reputation; heavy use of non-disclosure and confidentiality agreements.
· Associations with Russian and other opaque characters. He could not use traditional banking or public credit markets – these institutions would not lend to him. These shadowy types were willing to provide financing to Trump and his enterprises in return for laundering funds, industry access and since Trump’s political ascension, governmental contact and influence.
· Naked use of government associations to further Trump family interests. This is truly a low point in peddling influence for personal enrichment in the highest office.
· Support of controversial single-interest policies. These policy lobbies were a source of campaign funding and political cover during the election and then bled into the administration’s cabinet picks and policies. If Bloomberg, Buffet, Gates or one of the Koch brothers ran for the highest office, would they be going hat in hand this way?
Over the years, some Trump-like people turned out to be very, very wealthy – truly rich and truly lucky. Others seemed so for some period, but ultimately their penury came to light. Robert Maxwell’s story in the 1990’s is a good example.
Maxwell, a media magnate and British member of parliament, led a flamboyant lifestyle, buzzing around in his helicopter and sailing in his luxury yacht, the Lady Ghislaine. He was notably litigious and often embroiled in controversy. In 1989, he had to sell successful businesses, including Pergamon Press, to cover some debts; and in 1991 his body was discovered floating in the Atlantic Ocean, he supposedly had fallen overboard from his yacht. After his mysterious death, huge financial discrepancies were uncovered, including his fraudulent misappropriation of hundreds of millions of Pounds from the Mirror Group’s Pension Fund. All of Maxwell’s companies were later declared insolvent.
So, back to the answer to my query. I think President Trump, like Maxwell, is a person “with nothing to lose.” He has and still is betting it all to show the world he is a member in good standing in the club he so covets. Combine this overriding passion with his lack of moral compass and the rest of us “with a lot to lose” have much to worry about. I think this passion, this fear of losing, drives this man more than anything else. This makes him perhaps the most dangerous man on earth.
Our emperor may have no clothes, or more aptly, no cash.