יום חמישי, 21 ביולי 2016

Trump and the Dark Art of Bad Publicity

In one lurid, scandalous month in 1990 he learned a lesson that helped forge his whole candidacy.

On the epic spectrum of bad publicity that has defined Donald Trump’s volatile, attention-snatching campaign, Melania Trump’s plagiarism of parts of a Michelle Obama speech on the first night of this week’s Republican National Convention was relatively tame. The advice from seasoned professionals was pretty simple: Find someone to fire, let the scandal die down, move on. Instead, clumsy and contradictory excuses from staffers and surrogates helped keep the story alive all day Tuesday. By Wednesday morning, with the gaffe still dominating the news cycles, the boss had had enough—enough apologizing, enough flailing attempts at standard crisis management.

It was time for Trump to declare victory.

He took to Twitter.

“Good news is Melania’s speech got more publicity than any in the history of politics,” he said, “especially if you believe that all press is good press!”

This seemed like a preposterous claim—that borrowing lines was basically a good thing if it got enough attention, that all the fumbles that kept the topic in the news were just part of a story of success. But the idea, unprecedented at this level of politics, is at the heart of one of the most remarkable mechanisms of Trump’s rise—the conviction that mistakes, flagrant provocations and the attendant bad publicity genuinely don’t matter, so long as they serve the goal of owning the spotlight. On the short list of Trump’s most guiding, abiding beliefs, this is one that ranks near the top: that bad publicity doesn’t have to be avoided, and doesn’t have to be endured—that it should be embraced, and even stoked.

It’s possible to see Trump’s whole campaign as a structure built on colossal missteps, statements that would have torpedoed all other candidacies but have buoyed Trump’s simply by keeping his name in the news. Trump launched his presidential candidacy last summer by descending the escalator at the tower that bears his name and uttering his infamous words about how Mexico is sending to America its criminals and rapists. Those remarks alienated an ally, trashed a major portion of an ethnic group Republicans had vowed to court and set the tenor for a bid that has willfully, almost gleefully defied every poll-tested tenet of modern politics.

Calling Senator John McCain “not a war hero” last July was another early signal that he would go out of his way to make trouble, and benefit from it: The disrespectful comment earned Trump widespread condemnation—and a surge in polls. Since then, from his mocking of a disabled reporter to his declaration that he could shoot somebody on Fifth Avenue and “wouldn’t lose voters” to his grinning, thumbs-up Cinco de Mayo social media taco bowl blast—“I love Hispanics!”—to his suggestion that the judge in a Trump University class-action lawsuit couldn’t be impartial due to his Mexican ancestry to his pigheadedness in the Star of David controversy, bad publicity hasn’t torn him down. It consistently has kept him in the public eye, and kept his opponents scrambling for attention.

If that belief has seen its most high-stakes demonstration over the past 13 months, it has for Trump a much deeper, more personal history. And if it’s possible to identify the moment when the tactic was first on full display, it was February of 1990—a month in which Trump’s scandalous affair with the buxom actress Marla Maples destroyed his marriage with the former Ivana Trump, the mother of his first three children. In the mind of nearly every business and public relations expert in America, such an event was a damaging crisis to be buried posthaste; the frenzied coverage of his congenital intemperance and incorrigible megalomania, they thought, obviously would tarnish Trump’s brand. In the mind of Trump, on the other hand—as he watched his name and photograph jump from the New York tabloids to the national news, day after day, week after week—the nonstop exposure was a tool to enhance his celebrity on a vast new scale. Trump was right. The experts were wrong. And the approach that came into focus more than a quarter-century ago hasn’t changed.

“He is of the mindset that the more his name is dropped, the more a kind of hypnosis, for lack of a better word, there is to the American public,” Jim Dowd, the CEO of Dowd Ink, who did public relations for Trump from 2004 to 2010, told me in a recent interview. “He thinks even a negative piece is a positive for him.”

More than any Oval Office aspirant ever, Trump the candidate hasn’t managed bad publicity so much as he has turned it into a weapon. But this philosophy, and his skill deploying it, now faces its stiffest test. What really knocked the plagiarism episode from the headlines this week was an even bigger piece of bad PR—the spectacle of a stalwart of his own party, Ted Cruz, standing in front of the Republican crowd, refusing to endorse Trump, pointedly and in prime time. In background chats with GOP operatives and delegates around Cleveland, the refrain was consistent: The Trump campaign must be operating under the theory that the most important thing is sheer publicity, good or bad.

“I can’t explain it any other way,” said an aide to a Republican member of Congress who has hesitantly backed Trump. “They don’t care that this thing is a mess, as long as people are paying attention to it.”

Trump leaves the convention, though, as the official nominee of a party that still hasn’t united behind him, many of its members seeing as disqualifying his suspect conservatism, his ceaseless missteps and his overall disposition. In the months to come, too, he will be raked by an ongoing onslaught of Democratic attack ads, the fodder for which is the mass of material that generated the bad publicity he has turned into fuel—the bad publicity he has used to get to the brink of residence in the White House. But his unfavorable ratings are historically high. He sits at zero-percent support among black voters in swing states Ohio and Pennsylvania. He has well-documented meager support from Hispanics and from women. If bad publicity is partly what helped him run through the primaries, it is also, analysts contend, what finally will stop him over the next three-plus months heading into the general election.

“My expectation is that the data will continue to show that this isn’t going to work for him in the general, and his response to that is going to be to act out more,” Tim Miller, the former Jeb Bush communications director and Republican strategist, told me Thursday afternoon. “He’s a toddler. When he doesn’t get what he wants, he throws a tantrum. It’s a negative cycle for him that’s going to continue to spiral downward.”

“Look,” veteran Democratic strategist Bob Shrum added, “he does have the most extraordinary unfavorable ratings, and a lot of that is driven by the bad publicity. So I think it has hurt him. And I think it will hurt him.” The ads from Hillary Clinton’s campaign and associates have been relentless, and will continue to be. “And there’s no more effective negative ad,” Shrum said, “than one that comes out of the mouth of the object of the attack.”

November 8 is shaping up to be a referendum on a question Trump has pressed to its limits.

“Is there such thing as bad publicity?” Neal Hartman of the MIT Sloan School of Management wrote earlier this year. “Donald Trump’s campaign appears to be a test case in whether this old adage is true or not.”

“We’ll know,” Hartman told me, “on Election Day.


Liz Smith, the gossip columnist for the New York Daily News, broke the story on February 11, 1990, on a Sunday, on the front of the fattest paper of the week. “The marriage of Ivana and Donald Trump seems to be on the rocks,” she wrote, “and inside sources say lawyers are already at work trying to divide the complex Trump holdings.” Reports of Maples, the model and actress Trump had ensconced in a suite at the St. Moritz, and the size of the payout of the prenuptial agreement were on their way. The flood of headlines came fast.




Ten years before, in one of his first lessons concerning a round of bad publicity, he had had workers jackhammer valuable Art Deco bas-relief friezes to make way for Trump Tower—after telling the Metropolitan Museum of Art he would donate them. “Obviously,” the New York Times scolded in an editorial, “big buildings do not make big human beings.” Trump shrugged. He claimed the attention helped him sell more apartments. His takeaway from the incident, according to The Art of the Deal: “from a bottom-line business perspective, bad publicity is sometimes better than no publicity at all.”

Now, faced with a potentially embarrassing personal scandal, would he clam up? Hand off the task to a high-priced, top-flight public relations firm? No chance. Trump—at the time, the riding-high, 43-year-old builder of Trump Tower, the owner of the Trump Shuttle airline, the Trump Princess yacht and two and soon to be three Trump-branded Atlantic City casinos—mostly did it himself.

“I am leaving because I want to leave,” Trump told the News one day in.

“Ivana doesn’t want the money,” he said three days in. “She wants Donald. She totally loves me.”

He couldn’t help but marvel. “It’s a beauty, isn’t it?” he said. “Some story already.”

Five days in, the cover of the Post all but exploded from newsstands. “Marla boasts to her pals about Donald: ‘BEST SEX I’VE EVER HAD.’” Maples denied it. Trump discounted the report as a “disgrace.”

That day, though, Trump had no problem talking about it. He sat in his office with John Taylor from New York magazine. Taylor had said he thought that wall-to-wall coverage of Trump’s personal failures would be a “setback.”

“What do you mean?” Trump responded.

He told Taylor it was exactly the opposite. Now his name, he explained, was “hotter than ever.”

To PR experts, that was crazy. They thought he was doomed. A man who had crafted a widely known personal luxury brand had been exposed as an undisciplined adulterer, and more sober financial analysts and reporters had started to pick up hints that his corporate record, too, was about to be shown as a sham.

To Taylor, Trump didn’t seem like a man too troubled by the tabloid titillation.

“I’ve never seen anything like it in my life,” he said. “I don’t think there has been anything like this. One day it was eight pages in the tabloids. Even the Times is doing it.” That morning’s headline in the august broadsheet, the national paper of record: “Trumps! Scoops! Frenzy! Competition!”

Their conversation turned to “BEST SEX EVER.”

“Well,” Trump reasoned, “you could take it as a great compliment.”

Not everybody saw it that way. A full seven days in—February 18, 1990, the second Sunday of the story—the News reported on the results of its “Trump Wars Telephone Poll.” Readers of the paper overwhelmingly sided with her, not him, “by a margin of more than 4 to 1,” said the News.

Also that day, on the 15th page of the business section of the Times, there was a totally different, much less splashy headline: “Rocky Times for Trump’s Bonds.” “Trump’s mortgage-bond issues have fallen so far in the past several months that Salomon Brothers, the Wall Street bond house, recently advised its institutional clients to sell the bonds issued for Trump’s Castle casino in Atlantic City casino,” Diana B. Henriques reported. Analysts warned the bonds’ shaky state could be exacerbated by the opening of the Trump Taj Mahal—Trump’s third casino—which was scheduled for early April. It was one of the first indications in ink that his business empire was actually a debt-burdened, panting-for-profit, smoke-and-mirrors show. Barely anybody noticed.




“I think that the news media should be ashamed of itself,” Trump said. “I’m sure that it sells, and people don’t care for the truth. … I think it’s a shame that this has been allowed to take place. I always thought there was a far higher level of professionalism in this …”

But he kept talking to reporters. He kept taking their calls. He kept answering their questions.

One reporter from the Post asked if he considered adultery a sin. “I don’t think it’s a sin,” he said, after half a minute of silence, “but I don’t think it should be done.” Had he done it? “I’ll let you guess,” Trump said.

And he kept talking about how all “this negative publicity,” as he put it to the Post, was helping his business, not hurting it. “Business has never been better,” he told the Associated Press.

“If you had to pay by the column inch or the network minute, only our national debt could fund this much publicity,” Howard Rubenstein, a Trump spokesman, told Newsday—quickly adding that of course all this publicity was neither sought nor welcome. (Rubenstein told me he didn’t want to comment.)

Ten days after the story broke, the New York Society of Association Executives hosted Trump at a luncheon to give him an award as the “Outstanding New Yorker of the Year”—this was on the schedule before the hubbub—and Trump got up in front of an audience of the group’s 750 members and a horde of press.

“I cannot believe the media turnout for this award,” he said with a smile. People laughed. “Isn’t it ridiculous? Isn’t it? It’s sick.”

Others weren’t smiling. Critics clucked.

“The publicity has finally pushed him over the line,” marketing consultant Al Ries told ADWEEK. “Trump has gone from somebody to be looked up at to somebody to be laughed at.”

“It is going to be hard to view Mr. Trump as a prudent individual,” corporate identity expert Clive Chajet said in the Times.

Even Liz Smith, the doyenne of attention, access, gossip and celebrity, figured this was too much. In her column two weeks post-LOVE ON THE ROCKS, she tried to take stock of the madness.

“I once wrote a flattering and, I thought, truthful evaluation of Donald for New York magazine,” she wrote. “I said I thought (I hoped) one day he’d get over his youthful immaturity and build low and middle-income housing and maybe get into a better form of philanthropy. I opined also that he might one day be President.

“I pointed out that Donald didn’t want to have to think seriously right now about the needs of others while he was busy empire-building,” she continued. “And he was satisfied to do only superficial charity giving. He congratulated me at the time for my ability to size him up.

“Well,” Smith concluded, “now it appears Donald Trump will never be President. He can be a lot of other important things, but not the chief executive of the U.S., unless, of course, the next few generations of Americans produced are mutants with very brief memories.”


By early 2004, the Trump playbook for bad publicity was battle-tested.

Trump Hotels and Casino Resorts, his casino company that hadn’t turned a profit since it went public in 1995, filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy. Shareholders noticed. Few others did. Instead, most people followed along as Trump played the boss on the year’s breakout reality TV show, The Apprentice.

The way he talked evoked the 1990 sit-down with Taylor from New York.

“The brand is obviously very hot,” he told Newark’s Star-Ledger. “It’s hotter now, I guess you’d have to say, than it’s ever been before—and it’s been hot before. But this is the all-time in terms of heat.”

The bankruptcy didn’t seem to bother Trump, but it did others.

“This shows that the Emperor may not have that many clothes on,” Fraser Seitel, the managing director of Emerald Partners and the author of college textbooks on public relations, told the Times.

“It doesn’t matter,” Trump told the News. “It’s terrific,” he told Newsday.

“He didn’t mind conversations about bankruptcy and what have you,” said Dowd from Dowd Ink, who was doing PR for Trump at the time, “because it was driving awareness.”

Dowd added: “He gets the value of just being a part of the conversation—positive or negative.”

By early 2011, Trump was weighing whether to run for president in 2012—a longtime publicity ploy of his, dating back to 1987 when he was promoting The Art of the Deal—and here he opted to wade into the rightward fringe of “birther” conspiracy theorists. Trump’s six-week fixation on the zany wedge issue ultimately prompted an exasperated Obama to make public his “long-form” birth certificate to prove he in fact was born in Hawaii. Many considered it an unseemly distraction with upsetting racial overtones. With a certain portion of the populace, though, it upped Trump’s political profile.

“I feel I have accomplished something really, really important,” he said in a press conference. He said he was “really proud” of what he had done.

In USA Today, a reader wrote to Steve Strauss, a business columnist, with a question: “I don’t see how anyone in business takes Donald Trump seriously right now. I mean come on, really, pandering to birthers?”

“What seems obvious to me is that almost everything Trump does publicly is designed with one purpose … to build the brand,” Strauss wrote. “The idea is this: The more we hear about Trump, the bigger his name gets, the more valuable it should be on buildings, golf courses and other buildings. So instead of some fringe right-winger, it seems to me that Donald Trump the birther is nothing but a cold-blooded cynical capitalist capitalizing in our celebrity culture.”

Strauss stressed: “I think there is such a thing as bad publicity. I think there is a point where you can unfortunately discover how far you can go because you finally went too far.”

Four years and two months later, Trump rode the Trump Tower escalator down into the orange-peach marble atrium and said he was running for president, and that he wanted to build “a great wall,” “a great, great wall,” to keep out Mexican rapists.


Trump has done this with such longevity that bad publicity somehow has become a facet of his perceived authenticity. He has done it with such consistency that a lack of bad publicity weirdly would feel like a betrayal to his brand. Experienced, respected advertising and marketing professionals—including some who have worked for Trump—told me there’s never been anybody quite like him, this combination of arrogance, intelligence, obstinacy and manifest incapacity for shame.

George Lois is a giant in the ad world. He was the brains behind dozens of iconic covers for Esquire. He wrote books like The Art of Advertising and $SELLEBRITY. And he came to loathe Trump—because he had worked for him. In the mid-1980s, he did some casino ad strategy for Trump, and Trump tried to short him from the agreed-upon pay, Lois told me last week. “I think the guy’s a total scumbag,” he said.

In 1990, though, when he was asked whether all the coverage of Trump’s divorce would damage his brand or ruin his name, Lois said ... no. And this is how he got Trump precisely right.

“Like it or not,” he told the Times, “the Trump name stands for a man who’s the master of wheeling and dealing—the king of excess. People have always either loved or hated him. In the long run this could make his name even bigger.”

Lois, a cynical but sophisticated student of the fame game, saw then what Trump was doing. “Even the Zulus know who he is now,” Lois told Newsweek.

He’s been watching with interest, of course, as Trump has spent the last year-plus shocking his way to the Republican nomination. “Here’s a guy who thinks every prisoner of war is a pussy because they gave up,” Lois said. He added, “Everybody who knows anything knows that is the Star of motherfucking David!”

Now, finally, he believes Trump has gone too far.

“I think it’s getting bad,” he said. “I think it’s getting worse and worse. I think it’s got to come to a point pretty damn soon where sooner or later he’s going to get nailed. If he doesn’t get nailed, maybe he wins this election. But I think the time of reckoning is coming. He’ll be a loser on election night.”

Bad publicity, Stuart Stevens, Mitt Romney’s top strategist in 2012, told me in an email Thursday evening, “does stick to him. He’s the most unpopular national politician in America.”

Since Trump’s announcement speech, though, he has explored the frontiers of effrontery more boldly than any major candidate in the history of the country—and the “time of reckoning” is TBD.

In the primaries, every time Trump did something that spurred another round of bad publicity—the “captured” McCain comments, the Megyn Kelly “blood” comments, calling for “a total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States,” playing dumb when asked to disavow white supremacist David Duke, on and on—overall, his poll numbers went up, not down.

And his “pivot” to the general election, that sudden maturation of style from smashmouth into something more sophisticated and presidential, has been nothing of the sort.

He became the presumptive Republican nominee on May 3; two days later, the taco bowl tweet. Asked in the middle of that month if he thought voters have a right to see his tax returns, he said, “I don’t think they do.” Asked to disclose his effective tax rate, he said, “It’s none of your business.” That fallout, though, got fogged over by a (welcome) few news cycles fixated on how he used to use a fake name to pose as his own spokesperson. He issued credulity-straining denials. He responded to assiduous reporting about his lying about donations to veterans by attacking the press, knowing that maligning the media would play better than any additional focus on phony philanthropy. He responded to reporting about the Trump University trouble by attacking the judge, knowing that even racial animus would play better than ongoing talk about a venal scheme masked as education for striving Americans. He responded to the June massacre in the gay club in Orlando by bragging on Twitter: “Appreciate the congrats for being right on radical Islamic terrorism.” And earlier this month, in the dying-down wake of the Star of David tumult, he reignited the bad publicity in a speech in Cincinnati by saying he regretted only deleting the offensive tweet and then changing the six-sided star to a circle. “I said, ‘Too bad. You should have left it up,’” he said of a conversation with a campaign worker. “I would have rather defended it.” He blamed the media—“bad people”—for making it a big deal.

“Is there such a thing as bad publicity?” asked MIT’s Hartman.

“I think there is,” he told me last week. “But it isn’t an easy thing to measure.”

Just as it’s difficult to gauge specific reasons for fluctuations in polls—it’s almost always a combination of factors. But Trump now is heading out of Cleveland armed with recent polls that show him gaining on, all but even with or outright ahead of Clinton in critical swing states as well as overall. And the experienced, prominent industry experts and professionals who said bad publicity would hurt Trump—in 1990, in 2004, in 2011—now don’t sound anywhere near as certain.

“It may be there is a tipping point at some point,” said Steve Strauss from USA Today. Or maybe not.

Clive Chajet, the corporate identity expert who in 1990 said it was “going to be hard to view Mr. Trump as a prudent individual,” has had to reassess. “He’s obviously very, very, very skilled at managing the media,” he told me. “I think that has allowed him to say and do the things he’s done and get away with it.”

Al Ries, the marketing consultant who in 1990 said Trump had “gone from somebody to be looked up at to somebody to be laughed at,” has had to update his critique. “The brand was damaged,” he told me. “But brands come back. People forget.”

And Fraser Seitel, who in 2004 called Trump the emperor with no clothes, grasped in our conversation for a way to explain what’s going on.

“It’s perplexing, and it’s just unfathomable, almost,” he said. “He really has defied this traditional model that you have to back up what you say with reality. It really is a new day in terms of publicity. In this new era, it’s gotten dangerous, where it’s really the case that any publicity is good publicity.”

I asked him if he wanted to modify his memorable quote from 2004.

“The emperor has no clothes,” he said again.

He paused.

“But it doesn’t seem to matter.”

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