Before he was the nominee of the Republican Party, Donald Trump took the stage in March of 2016 flanked by pallets of bottled water, rows of wine bottles and, most peculiarly, a pile of raw steaks. This bizarre stunt came in response to a critical speech made days earlier by Mitt Romney in which the 2012 Republican nominee listed Trump’s failed ventures and declared, “A business genius he is not.”
Trump’s remarks seemed less concerned with Romney’s criticism of his demeanor and unfitness for office and more about defending his entrepreneurial acumen. Instead of touting his victories that night in Michigan and Mississippi, Trump went item by item, saying his bottled water company was “very successful” and his wine was “the finest wine.” As for the steaks, Trump claimed they cost “50 bucks,” but a reporter who looked closely at the wrapping noted that they weren't actually Trump’s brand, but rather Bush Brothers.
Counterfeit steak aside, the stunt was another example of Trump’s usual concoction of truth, lies and exaggerations. The water had actually been bottled by a company that licensed its product to other companies. The wine was actually produced by a winery registered to Trump’s son that offered a disclaimer that it was not “owned, managed, or affiliated with Donald J. Trump,” and Trump's steak currently isn’t available for purchase. He also mentioned his magazine, which folded, and Trump Airlines, which defaulted before it was sold.
Romney’s attack obviously hit home because it was true. In his decades in business, Donald Trump has failed at nearly everything he’s tried. Though his real estate ventures have been profitable, on and off, his investments have mostly flopped, including his turn as a casino magnate that led to “crushing debt,” his airline business which lasted less than three years and his cavalcade of failed ventures that led to four separate bankruptcies. In fact, analysis has shown that if Trump had simply invested his money in the stock market instead of all his harebrained businesses, he’d now be worth $10 billion more than he is at this moment.
But for all of his catastrophes, Trump has continued to fail upward. Even though he’s displayed a distinct lack of business expertise, he’s been allowed to present himself as the pinnacle of the American dream in popular culture for decades. His opulent lifestyle and savvy in manipulating the media has resulted in several rebirths for himself, including his sting as host of NBC’s "The Apprentice," in which the failed businessman was dressed up for TV as a high-rolling executive who hired and fired at will. That role paved the way for voters to take his candidacy seriously and eventually vote him into the Oval Office -- a flukish result, it bears mentioning, that involved losing the popular vote by a historic margin.
Trump's rollercoaster life has been paved with one failure and disappointment after another, but he has displayed an otherworldly ability to land on his feet and walk away from calamity with little to no damage. Now that he’s the holder of the most powerful job in the world, however, it’s unclear whether that streak will continue.
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Last Thursday morning, the bombshell dropped: U.S. intelligence agencies now suspect that North Korea has gone back on its word and has expedited nuclear production. Citing the latest security briefings, officials say there is "unequivocal evidence" that North Korea is now "trying to deceive the U.S.” with its nuclear program, an immediate reversal of all the assurances made at the Singapore summit between North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and President Trump.
“We both want to do something,” Trump stated after the meeting. “We both are going to do something. And we have a very special bond.”
Following the talks, Trump seemed certain he had managed a breakthrough with Kim, who had threatened to destroy the United States with nuclear strikes on several occasions. In comments afterward, he called the despot “very honorable.” He also admitted that North Korea had made “a lot of promises” in previous years, an acknowledgment that now feels prescient as much of the air has been let out of the balloon.
It looks very much as if Trump was rolled in Singapore. By flattering the president, Kim was able to have his status and the status of his country raised to the same level as the elected leader of the United States, including several photo opportunities with the two countries' flags side by side. Subsequently, Trump made several curious remarks to the press, including the already-infamous head-scratcher in which he claimed that Kim loved his people and they loved him back.
As with so many of his endeavors as a entrepreneur, Trump followed his gut and came up short. The gamble was a long shot, an iconoclastic shot in the dark, and the results have been similarly lackluster. Just as Trump Airlines crashed, so did this gamble as an international dealmaker. In the process, Trump displayed his ever-present penchant for flattery and his willingness to cozy up to dictators. He elevated a madman who threatens nations with nuclear Armageddon and murders his own people into a statesman capable of holding his own with the world’s foremost superpower.
Similarly, Trump’s wagers have backfired time and time again on the world stage. His provocations and immature behavior toward our allies have dramatically diminished America's international standing in less than two years. He has singlehandedly alienated our friends, starting a ludicrous feud with Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and offending staunch allies like Britain, South Korea, Germany, Australia and even Sweden.
Those relations, though strained, are still better than those with the major U.S. trade partners that Trump has provoked into starting trade wars. Both China and the European Union seem more than ready to tangle with Trump as he blusters and snorts about how America is being taken advantage of and he's the only one who can stop it.
Back home, those conflicts are taking a toll. Tariffs have already cost U.S. workers their jobs and predictions say they could cost upwards of 50,000 more. Developing battles could cause real hardship: Harley Davidson, which Trump has touted as one of America’s success stories, has already said it plans to move portions of its production outside the country. True to form, Trump attacked the company on Twitter, threatening punitive taxes and warning Harley not to “play cute.”
Even as Trump spreads international chaos, his signature achievement has continued to unravel with every new day. The tax cuts he passed with the Republican Congress in late 2017 were meant to be a public relations boon but have fallen short of their target: Most Americans say they haven’t seen a pay increase, and only 27 percent consider the cuts a good idea. Originally, many observers considered the tax bill as a likely boon for Republicans in the 2018 Midterms, but support for the law has plummeted.
Similarly, Trump’s managing of the border has yielded miserable results. The recent humanitarian crisis, in which thousands of immigrant children were being separated from their families, has been a PR nightmare for the administration. Trump, who ordered a "zero-tolerance" approach at the border, spent days claiming it was Congress’ responsibility to end the family separations, pointing his finger specifically at Democrats. Eventually he capitulated, ending the policy by signing an (unnecessary) executive order. Polls show that two-thirds of Americans opposed the policy, which looks like another giant misstep in this administration's immigration policy.
By all accounts and measures, this presidency has been an abject failure. Even when Trump’s administration wins, it can’t help but lose as its policies and actions are deeply unpopular with the American public. Trump’s approval rating has remained below 50 percent during his tenure and shows no signs of breaking that barrier.
So why does it still seem as if Donald Trump could well win re-election and walk away from his presidency having achieved a majority of his goals?
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Last week's announcement that Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy would retire shook the political world. The previous day, Kennedy had issued a concurring opinion in the court’s Trump v. Hawaii decision that -- as I wrote here last week -- felt like an acknowledgment that the president had discovered a strategy to enact a biased law while openly admitting it was intended to be biased. That response, coupled with Kennedy’s retirement the next day, is more evidence of the uncanny good luck Trump has enjoyed throughout his career.
Just as Trump was spared from ruin by his numerous second chances and unearned opportunities, his chance to name a second Supreme Court justice in two years -- when most presidents only get one or two in their entire tenure -- has little to do with his own efforts and more with being in the right place at the right time. This has fueled much of Trump’s life and has repeatedly saved him from facing the consequences of his abject failures.
Trump's nomination of Gorsuch was only made possible in the first place because of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s refusal to consider Merrick Garland, Barack Obama's nominee to replace the late Antonin Scalia. It was a daring move that only worked because of McConnell’s audacity and Democrats’ sincere faith that Hillary Clinton would easily defeat Trump in the November election. Again, circumstance handed Donald Trump a huge victory.
By the same token, Trump’s victory in 2016 had little to do with his own expertise. Over and over again, he proved unable to understand even the most basic political concepts and displayed little deference or respect for the office he was seeking. It was his ability to parrot the cable-news outrage of his base, not to mention the incompetence of his rivals and the intra-party squabbles on both sides of the aisle, that made his presidency even remotely possible.
Several times over, Trump nearly destroyed his candidacy, including multiple scandals that range from economic impropriety to his abundant personal failings, and unnecessary missteps like criticizing a vaunted war hero and picking fights with the families of fallen soldiers. In each case, the media moved from one story to another with frightening speed -- before returning to Hillary Clinton’s supposedly newsworthy email scandal. Again, through no effort on his own, Trump emerged from the fire unscathed.
Tipping the Supreme Court toward hard-right conservative values will surely win Trump points with tried-and-true Republicans. No challenge from within his own party is likely to materialize in 2020. That means an incompetent president with little to show besides circumstantial and questionable achievements will waltz into the re-election fight untouched. Who can say what kind of bruised and battered opposition will be waiting for him?
There’s a real chance Donald Trump will make it to a second term out of pure, sheer and apparently inexhaustible luck. He’ll have a chance to stand at a podium hawking somebody else's bottled water and failed magazines and bankrupt airlines, botched undertakings that pale next to his most underwhelming and underperforming product of all: the Trump presidency.