What Makes Trump Run

It is an understatement to say that many Americans, particularly mass-media pundits, are baffled by President Trump’s “polarizing” behavior. There has never been any public figure quite like him: a president who speaks his mind so forcefully, often impolitely, while acting impetuously.

Let me suggest that Trump’s behavior is perfectly understandable if viewed in the context of his business background. As the Obama administration reflected governance by an egalitarian community activist, the current administration is rule by a hotel magnate.

This observation reflects my first-hand experience. Beginning in the late 1950s until the mid-1970s my father owned multiple large hotels (most with bars and restaurants) in New York City, Chicago, Baltimore, Washington, D.C., Palm Beach, Fl, Puerto Rico, New Orleans, and elsewhere. Unlike Trump, he had stockholders but, very much like Trump, he exercised power as an unchallenged boss, able to fire anybody in an instant for whatever reason no matter how flimsy.

Overseeing a hotel empire is comparable to managing a fire or police department in a Detroit-like city. Hotels operate 24/7, 365 days a year and exist in near perpetual crisis. I grew up hearing about electricity or hot water suddenly going kaput, reservation systems gone awry, unions threating picket lines, or health inspectors warning about closing restaurants while an awaiting mass transit strike meant that hotel workers could not show up for their jobs. Meanwhile, banks might threaten receivership unless a half-million mortgage payment was made by next Monday, but the money did not yet exist.

Then there are endless lawsuits, real and fake, along with employees filing grievance claims on everything from wrongful termination to racial discrimination. There were periodic missives from government taxing agencies and multiple other regulators concerning such things as reporting employee tips and overtime. No doubt, my father’s hotel empire helped dozens of lawyers pay their children’s college tuition and finance nice suburban homes. And to top it off, big-city hotels are incredibly multicultural with polyglot staffs whose cultures can conflict.   

The upshot is that turning a profit requires a hard-headed “unpresidential” sometimes frantic management approach quite different from the style embraced by our political elites. Key decisions often had to be made on the spot, not shoved off for “further study.” Can you imagine President Obama personally overseeing a large downtown Chicago hotel with 250 poorly educated employees all the while trying to put 500 heads in beds 365 days a year against competitors fighting for the same clientele? He wouldn’t last a week.

Hotels are not a business for delicate egos and soft rhetoric.  Indeed, the willingness to take huge financial risks and successfully browbeat tough opponents is a recipe for creating an industry dominated by super-sized egos or, to use Spanish slang, people with cojones. Nice guys harboring self-doubts or who are unwilling to stage temper-tantrums fall by the wayside. It's all Darwinian.

Leadership by necessity is highly personal. You cannot appoint a committee to investigate when a desperate 9 P.M. call from the front desk tells you that there’s no hot water and hundreds of guests are threatening to check out and are refusing to pay. You telephone the chief engineer and you command him, no ifs, ands, or buts, to haul his ass down to the boiler room and fix the problem. If he explains that he’s on vacation, or that the problem is not fixable, you fire him and contract his assistant and make him an offer he cannot refuse -- "fix the f…king water problem or join the unemployment line.”  If that doesn’t work, find somebody who can solve the mess and don’t worry about being offensive.

This is a harsh decision-making style that requires zero justification and thus outwardly looks flippant or chaotic. One commands, not persuades. There are no benefits for a boss able to carefully articulate policy to enlighten curious outsiders. These explanations add nothing to the solution, waste time and only confuse employees accustomed to just taking orders. “Do it, since I said so, and I’m the boss” is enough. The metric for success is the outcome, not some long-winded public reasoning that assures the press corps that the boss knows what he is doing.

This brutal style requires cutting corners, perhaps edging toward illegality. If the hotel’s bar is being excessively singled out for serving underage patrons, call a city official who has benefited from past campaign contributions and don’t mince words. Why else would you donate to everyone? As a youngster I recall my father having politically connected “friends” and lawyers on retainer who specialized in dicey situations. A cash bribe would often suffice and was judged a normal business practice. Local cops were always treated well since their cooperation was often required for awkward jobs; for example, clearing the hotel lobby of aggressive hookers. 

Few private businesses can afford to drink the PC Kool-Aid of identity politics. There are rarely any Assistant Managers for Diversity and Inclusion to tell the boss to hire a more heterogeneous accounting staff. Businesses, unlike universities and government, operate with real money, so employees are hired for their ability, not according to race, gender, sexual identity etc., and stereotypes -- largely based on past experience -- are commonplace. My father, for example, relying on decades of experience, loved Hispanics -- hard workers who always showed up!! Nobody in the industry was embarrassed by awkward realities -- they knew from experience that job applicants of a certain stripe were disproportionately prone to sloth and often would happily admit it.

A larger political issue resides here beyond explaining President Trump’s “unpresidential” behavior. Fewer and fewer business people now enter politics either as candidates for office or as top administrators, a huge loss of talent. What company CEO wants to be grilled by senators, all of whom lack private sector experience, about the multiple lawsuits, accusations of discrimination, fights with the IRS, rumors of bribery and why, to be hypothetical, 10 years ago he evicted an impoverished disabled elderly lady of color with a dozen cats from her hotel room? Recall how Mitt Romney was excoriated for his association with Bain Capital for destroying jobs and widening the wealth gap? Being a white male is bad enough; being a white male businessman is truly toxic.

We’ve come a long way from the 1950s when the Eisenhower cabinet was described as “Nine Millionaires and a Plumber.”  Indeed, it was once commonplace, especially during war years, for successful businessmen to enter government and get paid a symbolic “dollar a year.”

We are now governed by likes of Chuck Schumer and Nancy Pelosi, who have spent their entire lives on the government payroll with zero firsthand private sector experience. Congress might pass detailed anti-discrimination laws, but how many legislators have personally tried to fire dishonest workers willing to file endless bogus claims of discrimination? Do they know what it's like to complete all the mind-numbing paperwork necessary to get a small bank loan? Trump knows all about this wealth-killing nitty-gritty and much more but, alas, he may well be the last business person ever to be elected to high office. Experience at making money in business has become far less important than skin color or sex.          

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