THE BLOG
09/08/2015 08:57 am ET Updated Sep 06, 2016

A Property Developer for President

"We need Trump now!" It is a random outburst from somebody in the audience, but it is the only conclusion possible in the context of the oration that is being delivered: an endless rant about everything that has gone desperately wrong in America in the last eight years. America doesn't have victories anymore. The incompetence and stupidity of its (elected) representatives are about to squander the country's great history. America needs fixing. The intervention seems unscripted, but given the speaker's quick response ("You're right!") and knowing his long history of playing the media, one cannot help but wonder if the 'spontaneously' interrupted monologue is anything other than a carefully rehearsed theatrical exchange.

It is June 15th, we are in the atrium of Trump Tower, New York, where the property tycoon to whom the building owes its name is about to announce his intention to run in 2016 US presidential elections. The performance he delivers is undeniably entertaining. In the context of a race which, prior to his announcement, had seemed business as usual, his openly obnoxious manner is a breath of fresh air to many. In the present political landscape, dominated by fears to alienate potential voters by saying the wrong things, it seems that authenticity alone - however abrasive - suffices to generate political clout.

Up until Trump's announcement, the question if a property developer can make a good president had been hypothetical. Berlusconi made it to Prime Minister of Italy, but his fling with the construction industry had been limited to a single project. Spanish real estate mogul Jesús Gil y Gil went on to become the mayor of Marbella, but there his political career ended and few would regard Jeb Bush, Trump's main contender for the Republican nomination, who also has a background in real estate, as a developer rather than a politician. Generally, the involvement of the property world in politics has remained limited to financing the political career of others, mostly in the form of donations to their campaigns. (Trump claims to have made many, including to Hillary Clinton.) Political influence was something people from the property world bought, but seldom exercised themselves. Prior to Trump, no developer had ever seriously attempted to become head of state, let alone become head of the United States. Still, if the current polls are anything to go by, Trump has more than a fair shot.

Donald trump isn't just any property developer; he is more. Trump has owned his own airline, he is a TV personality, an author, a politician and as of late also a potential president. Trump's ambitions know no limits and, with the exception a few bankruptcies, neither seem his abilities to accomplish them. His carefully cultivated image of a 'universal entrepreneur' makes him a role model for other property developers, who, like architects before them, may come to aspire political careers. In Trump's slipstream, we may witness the birth of a whole new generation of politicians, eager to 'do a better job' than the stagnant politicians they intend to replace.

Trump sets the bar high. Whereas the political aspirations of architects have not reached above the position of mayor, developers might well aim higher. Trump certainly does. With a developer for president and the architect as mayor, society becomes a perfect reproduction of the construction industry's pecking order. One may wonder if that is a good thing. When the construction industry
becomes a blueprint for governance, what will ensue? Will society develop the smooth logistics needed to deliver to its citizens on time and on budget (Trump wastes no opportunity to suggest it will) or will society fall victim to the type of underhand deals (another reality of the construction industry) that you would only expect to find in a banana republic?

Clearly, in a democracy people from all walks of life, provided they earn their living in a legal way, should be able to pursue political careers. There is no reason to introduce a 'Berufsverbot' for property developers. Still, studying more closely the arguments with which Trump presents himself, certain questions arise. He repeatedly quotes his success in business as the reason why he would make an ideal public official. The mindset that creates success in business - so he claims - is exactly the mindset needed to put an entire country back on the road to success. The public sector as it stands, dominated by career politicians (habitually referred to by him as 'losers'), is morally and spiritually bankrupt, deeply incompetent and above all, fundamentally unwilling to solve America's problems.

The position Trump takes is curious, not least because in large part the Trump family business owes its success to the same public sector Donald Jr so vehemently criticizes. During the Great depression, Trump's father Fred leveraged public programs to construct single-family homes in Queens and Brooklyn, using mortgage commitments from the newly created Federal Housing Administration to obtain construction loans. During the war, he used government funds to construct no-frills homes for the Navy. Then after, when the government was trying to jumpstart the construction industry to house veterans, he built large FHA-backed projects, financed through public bonds issued by the state. When Donald took over the business in 1971, the reliance on public funding in no way diminished. In New York, Trump was the first developer to receive a public subsidy for commercial projects under programs initially reserved for improving slum neighborhoods. Because of his family liaisons with then Mayor Beame, he won a 40 year tax abatement to rebuild the crumbling Commodore Hotel at Grand Central Station - a deal which cost the taxpayers $60 million. In the nineties, Trump sought and got federal help to build 16 luxury towers on Manhattan's Westside (estimated cost: $1.9 billion) and it was Government funding that enabled Trump to develop his hugely profitable Trump Hotels & Casino Resorts.

It can be argued that the public sector made Trump and that therefore his current stance, which decries government involvement with businesses as a threat to the "American Dream", makes a strangely incongruous case. The public sector is portrayed as incompetent, its officials spineless - giving him and his lobbyists whatever he asks for. However, if the public sector had lived up to his standard, Trump's career in the private sector would not have been the same, and he certainly would never have been able to pursue public office with the same high profile. It would seem that Trump's political views are, at least partially, the product of a deeply flawed assessment of his own success. Trump says it like it is, but there is a lot he doesn't say. If indeed the public sector is dysfunctional, then Trump is the monster it created.

In Trump's professional context, the world of property development, his views are not uncommon. Whenever developers commit themselves politically, it is generally on the right of the political spectrum. Property tycoons are amongst the most eminent donors of the Republican Party in the US and of the Conservative Party in the UK. They are also amongst the most vocal critics of large government. This is no coincidence. As a trade, property development really surged in the 1980's when the conservative revolution, first in America, later in Europe, sharply reduced the public sector and privatized a number of formerly public tasks. As a result, these tasks became 'business'; in the case of formerly public building programs it became big business: real estate.

Real estate had both an economic (an increase of property values equals an increase of the economy) as well as a political motive. By incentivizing people to own their property, the prevailing powers hoped to sway them politically. Having a mortgage would lock people into an inescapable financial reality and inevitably make them complicit in the economic agenda of the right. Property owners - so was the reasoning - would form an instantaneous conservative constituency. It is here that real estate and conservative policies entered the 'special relationship', which continues until this day. In exchange for the profits to be made of building, real estate became the executive arm of conservative ideology.

It is not the point of this article to assess whether or not Donald Trump as a person would make a good president (he may), but rather to question the (desirability of an) active role of the property world in politics altogether. More than any other professional community, the property world has stood to gain from conservative politics. For the last 40 years, that ideology, in tandem with real estate, has been responsible for the largest sell-out of the public sector in the history of man. For developers to now pose as potential saviors of that public sector seems disingenuous to say the least. It is like looting someone's home, then offering him to buy it citing the empty interior as the main reason for a low price.

When it comes to assuming political office, the property world may want to exercise discretion. So far, even with the alignment of interests, real estate and politics are two different things: there is still a form of checks and balances in place (if only to ensure the continuation of the mutually beneficial relation). Once the two converge in a single person, a fundamentally different situation presents itself. The political sphere is no longer a corrective against the forces of the market economy, it becomes its champion. You hear it in Trump's rhetoric: his main credentials for a political career are his accomplishments in business. If elected, I'm sure Trump will play by the rules and neatly transfer his business interests into an entity with no formal ties to himself, but that is hardly the point. The point is exactly what Trump raises himself: the influence of the special interest groups over politicians. That won't happen to Trump, not because he is rich, but because he is a special interest group all by himself.

The candidacy speech approaches its finale. There isn't much left to be said. Anything has been discussed, from the state of the US's nuclear arsenal ('it doesn't work.'), to Obamacare ('a disaster') to even government expenditure on the website ('astronomical'). Trump embarks on a last rhetorical question, this time to himself: "But Mr. Trump, how are you going to get people to vote for you? You are not a nice person..." He is barely given the opportunity to finish his sentence. A female voice in the audience cries out: "We don't need nice!" For a moment even Trump seems overwhelmed. He pauses. The right corner of his mouth betrays the immense joy he takes from the moment. Then, he regains his composure and proceeds to answer: "That's true. But actually, I think I am a nice person."

My thoughts go back to the documentary 'What's the Deal?' about the old Trump who made (and lost) it in the 1980's. Residents of the building 100 Central Park South give an account of the Trump they got to know. Trump had bought the building with the intention to demolish it and build luxury apartments in its place. Tenants, mostly from moderate income groups, were advised to move out or face eviction if they didn't. When they refused to comply, services in the building were discontinued and a specialized 'relocation' firm was hired to 'work on the tenants' weak spots'. The case was brought to court, which ruled in the tenants favor. In a last desperate attempt to get the tenants to move, Trump embarks on a major publicity stunt, in which he offers vacant apartments in the building to New York City's homeless. The stunt is Trump all the way: never give up, always present your goals as a pursuit of the greater good and never forego a good PR opportunity. Listening to him announcing his candidacy, I wonder to what extent the old and the new Trump are the same Trump.