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Donald Trump the leader of the free world? Next, please

The idea of Donald Trump as the leader of the free world would seem like a bad Saturday Night Live skit to most sane people. Yet Mr Trump continues to stoke the fires of his candidacy, dropping hints and coyly refusing to quash the idea.

Ego is the one unavoidable prerequisite for any political candidate. It takes a healthy amount of self love to believe you are the chosen one and people will want to vote for you.

In this one area, at least, Donald Trump is well qualified for politics. Perhaps even overqualified.

His Hairness is overflowing with self-esteem, as evidenced by his unabashed sabre-rattling about the possibility of running for president of the United States.

The idea of The Donald as the leader of the free world would seem like a bad Saturday Night Live skit to most sane people. Yet Mr Trump continues to stoke the fires of his candidacy, dropping hints and coyly refusing to quash the idea.

"I'm incredibly tempted," he told one interviewer.

The presidential talk is simply him playing The Donald. Even his critics would have to agree he is an irrepressible salesman, a master of self-promotion.

That Mr Trump, the host of Celebrity Apprentice, is being taken seriously as a potential presidential candidate says far more about the state of US politics than it does him.

Voters who take a few minutes to examine his record in the property business may be in for a few surprises.

His primary talent is a genius for keeping his name in the press. Other business leaders have turned themselves into a personal brand - from Giorgio Armani to Sir Richard Branson - but few have managed to create a myth that is so out of pace with the reality of the business record.

Mr Trump's approach to the property business has always been remarkably simple. He launched his career by focusing on developing prime properties in New York City, hardly a novel approach.

His one twist was to build luxury projects at a time when most developers were aiming for a mass market. His projects featured gold-covered bathroom fixtures and marble floors. And he relentlessly portrayed each new development as if it was one of the new wonders of the world.

To anyone following his projects, the sizzle was always more important than the steak. Other brands could match the quality, but not the promotions.

Unfortunately for his investors, Mr Trump's grandiose schemes did not always make economic sense.

Even from the start he displayed an amazing knack for bad timing.

By the end of the 1990s he was reported to have chalked up hundreds of millions of dollars in personal debt and his companies owed more than US$3 billion (Dh11.01bn).

Mr Trump was able to weather the storm by displaying his world-class skill in convincing financiers to rework deals and to continue funding his projects.

But while the property market improved, his track record remained spotty. His move into the casino business in Atlantic City was a disaster, at least for many of his investors. Trump Entertainment Resorts was working on its third bankruptcy proceedings by the time Mr Trump left the company in 2009.

His most successful business model in recent years has been to sell his name to projects, earning big licensing fees and revenue without risking his own money. That was the likely arrangement in Dubai, where Mr Trump promoted the Trump International Hotel & Tower planned for Palm Jumeirah, which was recently cancelled.

But the licensing deals have proved embarrassing for Mr Trump, who could not control the developments. Angry investors in failed projects in Mexico and Florida are suing him and the developers, who sold the projects based on Mr Trump's good name.

The investors allege he and the developers misrepresented his role in the projects. Mr Trump vigorously denies the charges, arguing his only role was to license his name to the developers, even though he actively promoted the projects.

Meanwhile, his own projects have struggled in the economic crisis. He exchanged lawsuits in 2008 with Deutsche Bank when sales slumped during the ill-timed construction of the Trump International Hotel & Tower in Chicago.

Mr Trump tried to invoke force majeure, a clause exonerating a party from debt due to forces of nature, to avoid repaying $40 million of the construction loan he personally guaranteed. He and the bank eventually settled their differences out of court and, as always, Mr Trump sailed on.

Few political observers believe he is serious about running for office. A campaign would put him under the type of microscope that even he might not enjoy.

Even the notoriously shallow US voting populace may not embrace a borrow-and-spend businessman with a zest for lawsuits.

Mr Trump says he will make a decision on his candidacy by June, a coy way of keeping the coverage and debate crackling, even if he has no intention of throwing his hair products into the ring.

In an interview this week, he denied the campaign talk was simply a publicity stunt for his TV show.

 

kbrass@thenational.ae

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