Kevin McCarthy, Donald Trump
House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) (left) with President Donald Trump in better times. Photo credit: US House

We shouldn’t be surprised if the Trump brand survives — or even thrives.

Is Trump already back? Could we only manage one week off?

On Thursday, Rep. Kevin McCarthy (R-CA), the House Minority Leader (and thus a leader of the Republican “resistance” to Joe Biden), paid homage to the ex-president in Florida. McCarthy, who had briefly rejected Trump, accusing him of fomenting the Capitol riots, suddenly reassessed his position and decided he was better off with Trump than without him. Other Republican politicians evidently feel the same way, openly admitting that being anti-Trump is a good way to become an ex-Republican politician.

We shouldn’t be surprised. Everyone gets a second chance in American politics. The permanent wildernesses in which former Rep. Anthony Weiner and former Gov. Eliot Spitzer, both Democrats from New York, dwell are puritanical aberrations. Former Rep. Tom DeLay, a Republican from Texas, is still hanging around. Former Rep. John Boehner, a Republican from Ohio, is a weed lobbyist. Even former Sens. Claire McCaskill (a Democrat from Missouri) and Rick Santorum (a Republican from Pennsylvania) are enjoying lucrative political afterlives as prized pablum dispensers on cable television. 

Still, never has the Trump-bronzed imprimatur been more toxic and encumbered. Never has Donald Trump had less of a pulpit to start the sales machine again. Never has he had less to work with. But then again, that sounds exactly like the kind of 2016 analysis we’re now supposed to know to avoid. 

So, did we see his final exile, or is Donald Trump merely serving a term of penance in the Florida wilderness until Americans’ attention wanders onto something else? 

Anybody Want to Buy 20-Foot Letters, Slightly Used?

Diminished, silenced, a loser, Donald Trump exited public life on January 20, the opposite of how he’d entered it. The scene on the tarmac of Joint Base Andrews, to which the soon-to-be-ex-president had slunk on his way out of town on Inauguration Day — the first outgoing chief executive to duck the ceremony since Andrew Johnson — was a world away from the cheeky, smirking, jingoistic escalator ride four-and-a-half years prior.

Now, dumped by everyone aside from the MyPillow guy, who played the Kissinger to his Nixon at the last hour, Trump’s mission was his biggest ever: Trying to salvage his brand. 

In the age of the influencer, the power of the personal brand is axiomatic. Our brands are us. Donald Trump’s “genius” is that he grasps this concept (maybe accidentally, maybe by instinct, but he “gets” it). His essence is the public’s perception, kept afloat for years by debt and an unending stream of pure-yet-somehow-palatable-and-sometimes-profitable bullshit. He maintained an image of himself as strong and powerful and smart and successful. But that’s hard to keep up when every brand you’ve done business with decides dumping yours is good for business.

The L’s came fast and hard. On January 11, the PGA Tour announced that its 2022 Championship, one of the biggest tournaments in pro golf, would no longer be played at Trump’s Bedminster, NJ, club. More consequences piled up. In New York City, his hometown and a major supporting character in The Apprentice — the ghastly apparatus that restarted Trump’s celebrity machine in the 21st century and jump-started his political career — city officials announced they’d be terminating all contracts with Trump’s companies, costing the Trump Organization millions of dollars at a time when loans are coming due and lawsuits are piling up. 

In Chicago, where TRUMP shouts out in 20-foot letters from the 96-story tower downtown, city aldermen are preparing legislation that would force the building to take down the sign. They might need a conviction in the ex-president’s impending impeachment trial to force the unbranding — but they believe it can be done.

The worst blow of all, for a king of debt like Donald Trump, came from Deutsche Bank. Trump’s longtime lender of last resort, the last bank willing to float the deal-maker a loan during his 1990s nadir — whom his organization owes $340 million — announced it, too, was finally cutting bait. Keep in mind Deutsche Bank still does business with drug cartels, terrorist organizations, and human traffickers, as BuzzFeed News’s FinCen Files investigation found. Trump might not be Deutsche Bank’s “worst” client, but right now, he’s the worst for business.

“Extraordinarily Weak”

It’s all just more “cancel culture,” proclaimed a defiant Eric Trump, who devoted most of his father’s term to running the Trump Organization. Bravado, hubris, or alternative facts? Trump still has a phone book’s worth of companies. Trump still has properties all over the world. But his final financial disclosure painted a dark picture: more than $300 million in debt, most of it due in the next four years, and revenue at the top producing properties — Trump’s golf clubs in Miami and Scotland — down by as much as 60 percent.

Stripped of his Twitter account, finally grasping the serious fiscal consequences, the first president to be impeached twice, and the first one-term president in a generation, Trump spent his last week in office peculiarly subdued. And that’s not his brand, at all.

“Trump will go down as a total failure,” someone posted in the Proud Boys Telegram channel, one of the preferred online homes for the erstwhile MAGA fanatics, per the New York Times. The veneer pierced, some fanboys quickly abandoned him. Diminished in the Proud Boys’ eyes, Trump failed to excite even the mainstream MAGA. Planned “protests” at state capitol buildings across the country on Joe Biden’s Inauguration Day fizzled — in California and New York only a single demonstrator turned out — or turned into epic trolling opportunities. 

“So have a good life, we’ll see you soon,” the former president said before boarding Air Force One. No plans, promises, or pitches for the future. “Extraordinarily weak,” in the view of the far-right. No longer hot.

America Has a Short Memory, but Business Never Forgets an Opportunity

And yet.

Many of the same big brands that made a show of “firing” Trump also took public “stands” against racism with woke social-media posts last summer. Companies that cut ties with Saudi Arabia after agents of the kingdom’s dictator, Mohammed bin Salman, murdered and dismembered the dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi all quietly snuck back as soon as things quieted down. Saudi Arabia is still an opportunity. Is Trump?

Deutsche Bank still handles Jared and Ivanka’s accounts. Ivanka is exploring a run for governor in Florida. And already, the post-Trump Republican Party is organizing under what passes for its strongest unifying principle: Donald Trump. McCarthy’s meeting on Thursday was perhaps just the soft launch of a brand-new product: Trump, elder statesman and savior of the Republican Party in 2022.

Will impeachment proceedings stand in the way? Dismissing earlier talk of a third, Trump-centered “Patriot Party,” Trump reportedly sent word to GOP senators that anyone brazen enough to vote to convict will suffer a MAGA-fueled primary challenge. Trump made Tommy Tuberville; he can unmake you just like he did Jeff Sessions. 

How far behind is the PGA Tour? That’s up to Americans. Like Richard Nixon before him, Trump figured out how to exploit and direct grievances, and Americans have plenty. Dismissing the ex-president as a crude, cruel, and crass racist will win you friends on Manhattan’s Upper West Side but will trigger shrugs in Scranton. 

After all that’s happened — maybe because of what happened — Trump still has appeal. Even during his reelection campaign, Trump marketed himself as an underdog and an outsider, two qualities that Americans gobble up. For now, he’s undeniably both.

Related front page panorama photo credit: Adapted by WhoWhatWhy from Gage Skidmore / Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0), 3d U.S. Infantry Regiment “The Old Guard” / Flickr, Anthony Crider / Flickr (CC BY 2.0), Anthony Crider / Flickr (CC BY 2.0), Atlanta Community Food Bank / Flickr (CC BY-NC 2.0), and PGA / Wikimedia.


  • Chris Roberts

    Chris Roberts is an award-winning investigative reporter with bylines in VICE, The Daily Beast, The Guardian, The Verge, Curbed, Forbes, SF Weekly, and others.

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