Donald Trump bowed out of the 2012 presidential race yesterday, explaining that “business is my greatest passion.” But the billionaire hasn’t been a businessman in the classic sense that he portrays himself on his reality show—the captain of industry who risks his own money to create businesses and jobs—for years. Rather, he’s become a brand.
Instead of borrowing money to build real estate (a strategy that led him into several bankruptcies), for the past five years he’s been slapping his name on other people’s buildings, from Honolulu to Dubai, and taking a cut. And he’s taken that concept to pretty much everything: Trump vodka, Trump suits, Trump water, Trump chocolates, Trump golf, Trump (online) University, etc. Forbes, capitalism’s scorekeeper, has even affixed a stand-alone value to the Trump brand: $200 million. The Donald claims it’s more like $3 billion.
All of which made his now-aborted presidential ambitions more than just a sideshow or a rich man’s whimsy. In branding, publicity is oxygen, and over the past few weeks Trump sucked up the entire atmosphere. The Daily Beast contracted with General Sentiment, a leading consumer-research company, which tracks every article, online mention, and tweet, and assigns each a media value depending on content and reach. The total was staggering. In the past six weeks Trump garnered himself $259.4 million worth of free publicity.
His month of April, in fact, rivals any media feeding frenzy of the Internet age: he was mentioned 893,424 separate times online, according to General Sentiment, generating a media value of $195 million. That figure actually shot Trump into the top five global brands the company tracks. (Apple, the consistent No. 1, averages a bit over $300 million each month.)
But that’s only half the story. Rather than just look at the volume of publicity, The Daily Beast examined what kind of publicity Trump generated. Besides the number of mentions, General Sentiment measures whether those comments were positive or negative, even taking sarcasm into account. In January and February, before the murmurings about a President Trump, online mentions were quite consistent: 61 percent positive, 39 percent negative.
One of the greatest publicity waves in American history heaped nine-figure numbers’ worth of negative publicity onto The Donald.
When he began dipping his toe into politics, and raising doubts about President Obama’s birth certificate, those numbers slipped to 54 percent positive, 46 percent negative. During April, however, when Trumped turned into the male version of birther queen Orly Taitz, complete with the laughable hair, those 893,424 mentions ran vastly negative—59 percent, versus just 41 percent positive. By the first two weeks of this month, Trump had come full circle from his starting point: 61 percent negative, 39 percent positive.
The social-media (mostly Twitter) stats were even more striking: a consistent 81 percent positive in January and February—and 58 percent negative by this month.
Basically, one of the greatest publicity waves in American history heaped nine-figure numbers’ worth of negative publicity onto The Donald.
And that’s bad news for Trump the brand. Sure, the maxim says all publicity is good publicity, but The Donald isn’t Lady Gaga. His $200 million brand connotes high-end, first-class luxury (albeit in a gaudy, cheesy, Eastern European way), backed by the ideals that Trump constantly bleats about: “the best,” “the greatest,” “the classiest.”
It’s hard to square any of those terms with Trump’s birther crusade—a nonissue even before Obama produced his “long-form” birth certificate, and one that screams “ignorant!,” “illogical!,” and “fact-challenged!,” rather than “first-class!”
And Trump spent his big April surge making things still worse for his brand. Once the president dispatched the birth-certificate issue, Trump cryptically began questioning how the president got into Columbia and Harvard, now smearing himself with a tinge of racism, with everyone from David Letterman to John Legend to Joy Behar saying as much. (Google “Trump” and “racist” and you’ll get 9.8 million matches.)
From there, Trump burdened his brand with a profanity-laden speech, a night of high-profile ridicule, and a constant stream of simpleton foreign-policy prescriptions—seize Libya’s oil; start a trade war with China—that anyone who can even afford a $30 bottle of Trump "luxury" vodka knows was just craven, cynical pandering.
Not even the ratings for Celebrity Apprentice, Trump’s reality show whose March 6 season debut timed conveniently with its host’s presidential ambitions, went unscathed. In March and April, the show averaged 8.2 million viewers; in May, it barely averaged 7 million.
“Through this, he’s become bigger and bigger and bigger as an entertainer,” says Marc E. Babej, founding partner of Reason, Inc., a marketing-strategy firm, “but less and less credible as a CEO and statesman.”
The shame of all this is that America really would be well served by a CEO-statesman candidacy. Instead, we got Trump the entertainer, who proved a lousy choice for the country—and his own wallet.
Randall Lane is editor-at-large at The Daily Beast. The former editor in chief of Trader Monthly, Dealmaker and P.O.V. magazines, and the former Washington bureau chief of Forbes, he is the author of The Zeroes: My Misadventures in the Decade Wall Street Went Insane.