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The art of the con

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con game

This two-year-old piece from the Atlantic reveals how “Trump University” was an outright bait and switch scam:

Amid the thousands of pages generated by Trump University lawsuits, one document offers a particularly revealing look into the inner workings of Trump’s would-be educational empire: a 41-page “Private & Confidential” playbook printed on Trump University letterhead.

Here are the basics: In cities such as New York, San Francisco, and Dallas, Trump University promoted free seminars as a chance to follow in Trump’s very own footsteps. One ad had Trump proclaiming, “In just 90 minutes, my hand-picked instructors will share my techniques, which took my entire career to develop. Then, just copy exactly what I’ve done and get rich.”

Guess what happens next:

The playbook, prepared for Trump University seminars in Texas in 2009, might be summed up in one word: sell. Or as the playbook puts it on page 23, “Sell, Sell, Sell!” The playbook posits a “Minimum Sales Goal” of $72,500 per seminar, meaning that the seminars leaders needed to convince at least 20 percent of attendees to sign up for three-day seminars costing $1,495.

Under the heading “Registration Goal & Procedure,” Trump U. staffers are instructed to “Welcome attendees and build a Trump-esque atmosphere,” “Disarm any uncertainty,” and “Set the hook.” The hook in this case consists of selling seminar attendees on increasingly costly additional courses, culminating in the “Trump Gold Elite” package, for a cool $34,995. Pricey, yes, but the playbook notes that the list price of the Trump Gold Elite package is $49,415, a savings to students of 29 percent. Even before Trump University students had made their first real-estate transaction, they had managed to get themselves a deal, of sorts.

The playbook also features instructions on setting the room temperature and the mood music (“For the Love of Money” by the O’Jays; no courses in irony were available apparently) in the hotel conference rooms where “Trump University” had its evanescent existence.

Once seminar attendees were comfortably (but not too comfortably) seated in the no-hotter-than-68-degree meeting room, the lights dimmed and an introductory video featuring Donald Trump began. The video marked the closest any Trump University student would get to Donald Trump. None of the school’s courses, not even those in the pricey Trump Gold Elite level, featured an appearance by the flesh-and-blood Donald Trump.

That didn’t stop Trump University instructors from hinting that Trump might drop by one of the school’s seminars. According to New York State’s lawsuit, Trump U. classes often began with the promise that Trump “is going to be in town,” “often drops by,” or “might show up.” However, Trump never materialized. As consolation, attendees sometimes were offered the opportunity to have their photo taken next to a life-size cardboard cutout of Donald Trump.

At the conclusion of the Trump introductory video, a guest speaker took to the podium and launched into his real-estate presentation. Trump University advertised that its instructors were “hand-picked” by Trump himself, but the state of New York’s complaint asserts that Trump had no role in selecting teachers. “Many instructors came to Trump University from jobs having little to do with real estate investments,” the complaint reads, “and some came to Trump University shortly after their real estate investing caused them to go into bankruptcy.”

The playbook says almost nothing about the guest speaker presentations, the ostensible reason why people showed up to the seminar in the first place. Instead, the playbook focuses on the seminars’ real purpose: to browbeat attendees into purchasing expensive Trump University course packages.

Trump’s “people” who set up this classic ripoff were well aware that he and they were at best walking the often ragged line between the legal scamming of the naive and desperate and civil and criminal fraud:

Every university has admission standards and Trump University was no exception. The playbook spells out the one essential qualification in caps: “ALL PAYMENTS MUST BE RECEIVED IN FULL.” Basically, anyone with a valid credit card was “admitted” to Trump University. . .

Even though Trump University is facing two multi-million dollar fraud lawsuits, Donald Trump continues to defend his educational efforts, calling Trump University “a terrific school that did a fantastic job.” But if Trump had read his school’s own playbook, he might have foreseen the likely outcome of running a university with comically lax standards. At one point, the playbook advises Trump staffers: “If a district attorney arrives on the scene, contact the appropriate media spokesperson immediately.”

A few notes:

(1) The only moral or practical difference between Trump University and a fraud factory such as Corinthian Colleges (which Marco Rubio tried his best to protect two years ago) is the difference between a shorter and a longer con.

(2) The evidence that Trump is actually good at making money, as opposed to self-promotion, is scant. The nature of contemporary capitalism is such that, for a person who starts out with an enormous fortune, making that fortune many times larger over the course of an investment “career” is about as difficult as falling off a log. Trump could have increased his wealth twenty times over in nominal terms, and five-fold in constant dollars, since the mid-1970s simply by passive investment in market-tracking equities funds. Has he done better than that? I doubt it: for one thing if he had, he would have put the evidence up in neon already.

I also doubt that “Trump University” was primarily about making money, as opposed to stroking this despicable man’s insatiable ego. Trump inherited something in the nine figures and basically couldn’t avoid turning that into ten figures without trying to. The money he made off this particular scam was surely trivial in that context. It was an exercise in narcissism, which of course is exactly what his presidential campaign is about.

(3) All of which is to say that the key to understanding Trump is to see him as a classic American type: the con artist who lives to “score” by ripping people off. The money side is almost incidental: again, Trump isn’t stupid, and despite his immense ego he must realize he could have made just as much or more money in more socially respectable ways. But then everybody wouldn’t know his name.

(4) Helmut Norpoth sounds like a made-up name, plus from the story it also seems as if his “predictive” model was actually invented a few months ago and retro-fitted onto previous outcomes (how that counts as “prediction” is probably a question you can get answered at Trump University), but this guy is a political scientist, so there’s a 3.34% chance this might be meaningful.

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