Problem Trump

A mystery surrounds Donald Trump: if he is so good at selling himself, why is he so bad at selling his own-brand products? That he sells himself well is self-evident; otherwise, he wouldn’t have one of America’s historic political parties on a leash, like a well-trained puppy. He wouldn’t have won the presidency of history’s most powerful empire, nor be at risk of winning it again. As a result, for the past seven years half the world’s political commentators have talked about little else.

What’s more, last month he showed he could sell himself not just politically but financially, when the paper value of the Trump Media & Technology Group touched $10 billion (before falling by $2 billion when 2023’s balance sheet was made public). It’s clear that Trump was actually selling himself here since TRUTH, the social media controlled by TMTG, has only 9 million users and posted a loss of $58 million for the year 2023, after losing $50 million the year before. These figures are laughable compared to those of X, better known as Twitter, which has 550 million users and revenues of over $5 billion. Only its identification with Trump could explain why such a flimsy, loss-making project was valued (briefly) at such an eye-watering sum.

But equally evident, and quite funny, is the disastrous performance of the many products launched under the orange man’s logo. A non-exhaustive list, in chronological order:

  • Trump: The Game, a boardgame released in 1989, sold badly. It was re-released in 2004 to coincide with The Apprentice, but failed once again. Today it is a collector’s item for Trumpomaniacs.
  • Trump Shuttle, launched in 1989. A regional airline operating between New York, Boston and Washington, complete with faux-marble burgundy carpets and gold-coloured toilet fixtures. Went bankrupt 1991.
  • Trump Table Water (Ice Natural Spring), on sale in 1990, in cheap plastic bottles. Discontinued in 2010, though still available at Trump-branded restaurants and golf-courses.
  • Trump Pale Ale, announced in 1998 but never went on sale. Ditto, two soft drinks, Trump Fire and Trump Power.
  • Donald Trump: The Fragrance, a perfume brand launched in 2004. Sold under various labels, always at a loss; the cologne was relaunched this year as Victory47.
  • Trump University, which opened in 2004, was not a university and did not grant degrees. It provided courses lasting a few days on how to get rich, with fees of up to $34,000. Sued by 7,000 former students, Trump settled the lawsuit for $25 million after his election in 2016.
  • Trump Vodka, launched in 2005 as ‘Success Distilled’. Discontinued in 2011, though still sold in Israel, where it proved popular for Passover as distilled from potatoes, not grain.
  • online travel agency, set up in 2006, promising Trump-style travel. Closed the following year.
  • Trump Steaks, launched in May 2007, advertising fillet at $96 per pound. Closed down two months later owing a debt of $715,000 to suppliers.
  • Trump Home, a furnishing brand, launched in 2007. Produced the Trump Mattress, to very poor reviews. After various mishaps, these disappeared from shops in 2017.
  • DJT, a steak house, opened in Las Vegas in 2008. Briefly shuttered in 2012 for an alleged 51 health violations, including parasites in undercooked halibut, expired yoghurt, month-old caviar, four-month-old duck, two-week-old tomato sauce, expired peanut dressing and an improperly functioning freezer.
  • Trump Winery, a 500-hectare estate in Virginia, purchased by Trump in 2011 and run by his son Eric. Produces various wines, including Trump Pinot Noir, etc.
  • Trump Sneakers, all gold, with a capital T on the buckle. Launched in February this year at $399 a pair.

I’ll skip other failed initiatives, like Trump Magazine or Trump Mortgage, as the picture is pretty clear already.

It’s plain that the purpose of selling this stuff was not political. Trump was not using merchandise to spread ideas, as with party T-shirts, or the Tory flip-flops with Keir Starmer’s face, or the barracks humour of the UKIP condoms with a picture of Nigel Farage and the motto, ‘For when you have a hard Brexit’:

The only generically political Trump merch is his God Bless the USA Bible, released in March this year for $59.99. In addition to the canonical King James text, it includes the US Constitution, the Bill of Rights, the Pledge of Allegiance and the Lee Greenwood lyrics to God Bless the USA. We don’t know yet how sales of the MAGA Bible will go. In this instance, it is not so much that Trump wants to be seen as a co-author (though that cannot be ruled out), but rather hopes to endear himself to Evangelicals, close to him on many issues but not so keen on his relations with porn stars or his role in the gambling industry.


If Trump isn’t selling merchandise to spread ideas, perhaps he wants to use his ideas to sell merchandise: not money for politics, but politics for money? In fact, as the list shows, Trump was already selling board games and spring water in 1990, when he was still a real-estate developer, implicated in various bankruptcy proceedings. Trump started selling his image before he became Trump. This tells us something vital about his idea of himself. As someone dear to me used to say: ‘If you don’t believe in yourself, why should others?’ Trump was already cultivating a high opinion of Trump in the late 1980s.

The list also shows that the Trump brand surged with The Apprentice. Although perfume, vodka, tourism and steaks were a failure, their multiplication indicates that the reality TV show – a hit in its first two seasons, whose ratings then sank – functioned to reveal Trump to himself, as if he had found his way at last. The disparity between the boost of the promotional launch and the mediocrity of the product shows that, for Trump, the important thing has always been the packaging, not the object.

In this sense, he was a precursor. Many commentators, Italians in particular, point to Berlusconi as Trump’s forebear. Berlusconi also made his money as a real-estate developer, then built his political career on TV (and on his football club). Berlusconi presented himself as the anti-politician, who brought the know-how that had made him a successful entrepreneur to bear on running the country.  Like Trump, Berlusconi was a standard bearer for misogyny and machismo, surrounding himself with ‘women as objects’.

Trump was also a real-estate developer and he too presented himself as the anti-political saviour of politics. But here the similarities end. Berlusconi made his money himself, and didn’t inherit it from his father. Berlusconi bought a second-division football team and primed to win the European Champions Cup. Trump never managed to buy an American football team, despite his multiple, vain attempts to acquire the Boston Celtics. Berlusconi was the owner of a TV channel, not the presenter of a show. Berlusconi was the thing itself, while Trump always tried to present himself as the image of the thing; that’s why The Apprentice suited him so well.

Berlusconi’s channel put out reality TV shows, though only after he’d clawed his way into power. But he would never have dreamt of being a reality-show host, or appearing on one. This indicates a caesura in the realm of communications: with the reality show, there also appeared what we now call the influencer. While Berlusconi did politics as a tycoon, Trump does politics as an influencer, playing the tycoon. Not by chance did he say that reality shows were ‘for the bottom-feeders of society.’ As our list shows, Trump was already thinking and acting like an influencer in the 1980s, decades before the type appeared. He is the first top-level American politician to have internalised the modalities of social media for political purposes.


Critics have treated Trump as a calamity to be deplored, rather than a problem to be solved. His unprecedented novelty – no one, as late as 2012, could predict his meteoric rise – still obliges us to explain why we did not foresee what happened. Much treatment of Trump recalls that useless notion, the ‘humanitarian catastrophe’, which tells us that something ugly has happened between the head and the neck of some unfortunate bearer of (only) ‘human’ rights, without saying why or how – with no one guilty, or held responsible.

Or, worse, the blame is put on the (many) voters who backed him, and so are deemed irremediably stupid, perverse, racist or even fascist; the equivalent of saying it would be better if government depended a little less on the voters, if the political system were a little less representative – a return to ‘rule by the best’, perhaps now by a ‘cognitive aristocracy’. If Trump is treated as a problem, rather than a calamity, more discomfiting questions arise.

Meanwhile, it is easier to understand how Trump the influencer is good at selling himself, but not merchandize that doesn’t really correspond to his image. As a celebrated advertising guru explained to me, Trump has little real connection with board games or mineral water: ‘If your products are bad, or blurry, or too expensive, and you can only count on half the potential market, and your celebrity’s image, style and behaviour are a poor match with what you’re selling, well, it’s obvious you’re heading for a fall’.

She added an interesting observation:

‘I’m not sure the metaphor of “selling” is so appropriate, if we’re talking about votes and political support. A vote is something you give to someone, for a thousand reasons: anger, sympathy, interest, identification, lack of alternatives, resentment, convenience… Giving it costs you nothing, and you may get a certain satisfaction from it. If you don’t, it’s simple: you don’t go out and vote. Buying something costs you money, though, and the more expensive it is, the more you have to think. Or at least, the more you need to be able to rationalise your choice and show it’s worth it, even if it was an impulse buy. In this sense, consumers are more rational than voters. It’s not by chance that one of the sharpest political slogans ever – JFK’s poster of Nixon in 1960, asking, ‘Would you buy a used car from this man?’ – tried to persuade voters by turning them into consumers.’

She then produced a long list of reasons to vote for Trump, noting she thought some of them well-founded, despite being ‘not exactly a Trump voter’ herself. Here are some of them:

  • Because MAGA and America First are two big promises (who remembers Biden’s slogans?)
  • Because you can understand what he’s saying
  • Because he seems convinced of what he says, much more than Biden
  • Because this wokeness has gone too far
  • Because ‘let’s just see what happens’, it can’t get any worse
  • Because the newspapers and TV networks tell lies, and I only trust what I read in my internet bubble

At this point it is customary to ask readers how many they agree with.

On the efficacy of the JFK slogan, though, one might object that the Democrats lost the White House to Nixon in 1968 and 1972, even if they wouldn’t buy his used car. Besides, there is not much in this list that would convince the CEO of a large corporation, with billions in sales and hundreds of thousands of employees, to give Trump their financial backing. Yet such CEOs do exist. Here is the head of one of the world’s biggest banks, as reported by the New York Times:

The Davos attendees needed reassurance, and Jamie Dimon, the chairman and chief executive of JPMorgan Chase, had some to offer. In an interview with CNBC that made headlines around the world, Dimon praised Trump’s economic policies as president. ‘Be honest’, Dimon said, sitting against a backdrop of snow-dusted evergreens, dressed casually in a dark blazer and polo shirt. ‘He was kind of right about NATO, kind of right on immigration. He grew the economy quite well. Trade. Tax reform worked. He was right about some of China.’

In other words, classic liberal-capitalist policies, à l’américaine. This is why Trump continues to be a problem and not just a calamity.

Read on: JoAnn Wypijewski, ‘Politics of Insecurity’, NLR 103.