Trump University is a microcosm of Trump's campaign: Why Clinton is right to call him a dangerous huckster

Trump's using his image and marketing savvy to sell a fantasy — the same strategy of the Trump University scam

By Sean Illing

Published June 3, 2016 5:32PM (EDT)

 Donald Trump and Hillary clinton
Donald Trump and Hillary clinton

Donald Trump's hucksterism is well-established by now. But the latest revelations about "Trump University" are unusually instructive; they sum up Trump's shtick about as well as anything could. And the story is gaining traction.

This week, New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman spoke publicly about the investigation into Trump's counterfeit college. Appearing first on ABC's “Good Morning America,” Schneiderman said “This never was a university. The fraud started with the name of the organization, and you can't just go around saying this is the George Stephanopolous Law Firm/Hospital/University without actually qualifying and registering, so it was really a fraud from beginning to end.”

Like his campaign, Trump University was a con job. It was an attempt to prey on the desperate and credulous, people who bought into Trump's brand and thought they could bring a slice of it home. But they were sold a bill of goods by an unaccredited for-profit institution on the basis of Trump's celebrity. Indeed, Trump himself, without any interest in the school or its curriculum, used his fame to peddle the product.

In a separate interview on MSNBC's “Morning Joe,” Schneiderman explained: “Donald Trump's sole role was in marketing. He was the pitchman. We have the videos of him making these false promises. He was not involved in the curriculum. He never met or trained the instructors. But he was clearly in charge of pitching this scam university to people, convincing them that it was his personal secrets and saying things like 'come to the weekend seminar.' Learn what it took me a whole lifetime to learn in real estate. 'You can get rick, too.' That was his role.”

This is what Trump does. He's a hustler and a schemer. He never intended to divulge his magic secrets to these students, just as he has no plan to make America great again. He's using his image and marketing savvy to sell a fantasy. This is who Trump is, and this is what Clinton and the Democrats have to tell the American people. At a rally in New Jersey on Wednesday, Hillary Clinton did just that: “Trump and his employees took advantage of vulnerable Americans, encouraging them to max out their credit cards, empty their retirement savings, destroy their financial futures – all while making promises they knew were false from the beginning. This is just more evidence that Donald Trump himself is a fraud. He is trying to scam America the way he scammed all those people.”

On Thursday, Clinton gave another blistering speech during which she denounced Trump as confidently and as aggressively as we've seen. Most encouraging was the line of attack. “He is not just unprepared,” she told the audience, “He is temperamentally unfit to hold an office that requires knowledge, stability, and immense responsibility.” It's precisely that fusion of instability and unpreparedness that makes Trump so worrisome.

Clinton has to draw a straight line between Trump's charlatanism and the danger he poses as a potential president. In addition to not knowing what he has to know in order to be president, Trump is crippled by a fragile ego, making him combustible and unsteady. “This is not someone who should ever have the nuclear codes, because it's not hard to imagine Donald Trump leading us into a war just because someone got under his skin,” Clinton said. “We cannot put the security of our children and grandchildren in Donald Trump's hands, we cannot let him roll the dice with America.”

No we cannot. And the more Americans are exposed to Trump's double-dealing past, the less credible he'll appear. What voters will see, one hopes, is that Trump University is a microcosm of Trump's presidential campaign; that they differ only in scale. If we're lucky, Trump University, as Brian Beutler so ably put it, “will dramatize the truth about Trump.”

Sean Illing

Sean Illing is a USAF veteran who previously taught philosophy and politics at Loyola and LSU. He is currently Salon's politics writer. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter. Read his blog here. Email at

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