Trump's Political Reality Show: Will the Donald Really Run for President?

Donald Trump, who has been toying with the idea of a presidential-campaign announcement, talks as if the nation were just another run-down co-op in need of redevelopment. But could the business mogul and TV personality actually corral Washington?

  • Marco Grob for TIME

    Donald Trump

    Sitting 26 stories above Fifth Avenue in the trophy room of a skyscraper he named for himself, boasting sweeping views of Central Park and the Plaza Hotel, which he once also owned, Donald Trump, 64, a golden mist of hair wafting perfectly across his forehead, holds up fresh evidence of his greatness. "This thing just came out," Trump says, waving a 2012 Republican primary poll from the website Newsmax. "This is Trump."

    He points to a bar graph showing the 57% of voters who support his unannounced campaign for President. Then he points below. "These are the people," he says, referring to established politicians like Mitt Romney, Mike Huckabee and Haley Barbour, none of whom garner even 10%. "A little crazy, right?"

    Trump doesn't linger on the poll, since there is too much to brag about, like his new top-rated NBC reality show or all the money he has made with Asian investors. "I did very well with Chinese people," he says. "Very well. Believe me." And anyway, if you read the fine print, the poll doesn't really mean much, having been culled from a self-selected group of Internet surfers who clicked banner ads displaying Trump's face. But then, such details don't bother the Donald, as he is known to his fans, or Mr. T, as some employees refer to him. In Trump's gilded world of shiny surfaces, few dwell on what lies beneath.

    This is the thing to remember about Trump, who has been toying with the idea of a presidential-campaign announcement in late May. Fretting over the niggling details of reality didn't get him where he is today — worth $2.7 billion, according to Forbes, with a hit reality show, a men's clothing line at Macy's, a string of best-selling business books, swanky country clubs, luxury hotels, Trump tea, Trump chocolate, Trump bottled water, mail-order Trump steaks, the Miss Universe pageant and foreign financiers who solicit the use of his name for new condos in Dubai or on the Black Sea or wherever money is blowing up the skyline with brazen luxury.

    Unlike most developers who scraped Manhattan dirt, Trump didn't make his fortune simply by building things with glass and steel. He sold story lines of living large: Trump, with the best, the tallest, the most, the biggest and the brightest. A decade before reality television, he offered himself as performance art, what Advertising Age calls the "human logo." "The show is 'Trump,'" he told Playboy in a 1990 interview. "And it is sold-out performances everywhere." Without the "Trump," after all, those steaks are just meat in the mail, and he is just another rich guy who thinks he can buy his way into the White House.

    So now he gets down to the business at hand: the presidency of the world's most powerful nation, a last frontier for a lifetime winner. "Nobody can do the job that I can do," he says in his office, cluttered with awards, plaques and framed magazine covers — ubiquitous reminders of his own success. "I can make this country great again. This country is not great. This country is a laughingstock for the rest of the world."

    He has been repeating that sound bite for weeks, as if the nation were just another run-down co-op in need of redevelopment. But his play is not new. Back in 1987, Trump took out full-page ads in several newspapers, criticizing the political establishment, then run by Ronald Reagan, for its coddling of the OPEC countries and Japan. "The world is laughing at America's politicians," ran the copy, which stoked false rumors that he might throw his hat into the 1988 ring. About a decade later, he danced with the 2000 Reform Party ticket, releasing a book of policy proposals that included an embrace of single-payer health care and plans for a one-time 14.25% net-worth tax on all Americans worth more than $10 million. The revenue would pay off the national debt; primary residences, like those in upscale Trump properties, would be exempted.

    This time around, Trump says he is more serious than ever before, even without a new policy book, and he has come out swinging, dominating the cable-news airwaves with a steady stream of head-turning alpha-dog ideas. President Trump, he says, would not have bombed Libya unless he were assured that the U.S. could keep Tripoli's oil afterward. He would impose a 25% tariff on all Chinese imports unless China allowed its currency to appreciate faster against the dollar. He would make South Korea "pay us for protection" from North Korea, and he would threaten to withdraw military cover for OPEC members unless they brought the price of oil back down. "I made a lot of money with them," he says of the Arabs in the Persian Gulf. America's problems, in the Trump view, can be mostly solved by sending a tougher cookie into contract negotiations. "Obama would be a very terrible chess player," he says, suggesting politics is little more than a pose. "He broadcasts all his moves."

    Of course, Trump's biggest headlines come not from policy but from controversy. In recent weeks, he has revived the national sideshow over the veracity of Barack Obama's birth certificate, which the state of Hawaii long ago confirmed to be in order. "We have a President who may not have been born in this country," he says, before detecting skepticism from yet another Beltway reporter who has been down this road before. "I am a really smart guy. I was a great student at the best school," the Wharton grad explains. "And I say that up front.

    "A lot of people are saying it's a bad issue for me. I don't think so," Trump continues. "The polls are showing 55% of the Republicans agree with me." Dwelling on the birth certificate is not the only way he has been playing to the Republican base. He has backed away from supporting a single-payer system, and he wants to repeal Obama's health care reforms. He has abandoned his net-worth tax and promises he won't raise any taxes. He opposes gay marriage because it doesn't "feel right" and recently became pro-life, he says, after a close friend decided not to pursue an abortion of his unborn child.

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