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The bronze-coiffed iconoclast has cut a controversial figure throughout the 2016 US presidential election campaign, rousing devoted grassroots crowds with brazen invective while appalling theRepublican establishment along the way. As American voters head to the polls on November 8th, time is running out for the underdog-turned-contender to make his biggest sell yet.
One of five children born into a Queens, New York, real estate family, the brash young Donald would follow in property-mogul Fred C. Trump’s fatherly footsteps. The grandson of a German immigrant and son of a Scottish mother, the young Trump was sent to a military academy as a teenager to quell a rebellious streak. He would nevertheless receive a series of deferments from service as the Vietnam War roiled on. After graduating from the University of Pennsylvania’s prestigious Wharton School of Finance in 1968, he joined his father’s business in Brooklyn and Queens. But Trump soon set his sights on the bright lights of the big city, setting up shop in Manhattan. There he earned industry attention with some of his earliest projects, converting a defunct Commodore Hotel into the glittering Grand Hyatt in 1980 and, in 1984, opening the 68-storey Trump Tower on Fifth Avenue, where he still resides today.
Whether Trump is truly the business titan he claims to be has divided observers.
“His enemies say he inherited a fortune and built upon it an empire of defaults and exaggeration,” The Economist wrote in February, adding: “To others Mr Trump is a mere celebrity playing a dangerous political game: a cross between Mussolini and the Kardashian clan.” The financial weekly deemed Trump’s performance “mediocre compared with the stock market and property in New York”.
Trump has admitted to receiving a “small” million-dollar loan from his father and, despite four business bankruptcies, waxes lyrical on his prowess in building an empire of hotels, golf courses, casinos and luxury addresses from California to India, alongside myriad commercial concerns often bearing the Trump brand.
“Almost every deal I have ever done has been at least partly for my ego,” the billionaire told the New York Times in 1995 in a piece entitled, “What My Ego Wants, My Ego Gets.”
And it is safe to say that Trump’s ambitions, or his ego, know no limit. He dabbles in sundry industries from launching an airline to owning beauty pageants, with longtime stakes in the Miss Universe, Miss USA and Miss Teen USA contests.
Trump’s official campaign bio boasts that his first book, “The Art of the Deal,” published in 1987, is “considered a business classic and one of the most successful business books of all time”. The same blurb deems Trump “the very definition of the American success story, continually setting the standards of excellence while expanding his interests in real estate, sports and entertainment”.
Forbes’s latest accounting pegs Trump’s fortune at $3.7 billion, while Trump has claimed he is worth $10 billion. The discrepancy itself may be archetypal Trump. “A little hyperbole never hurts,” Trump wrote in “The Art of the Deal.” “People want to believe that something is the biggest and the greatest and the most spectacular.”
Trump’s family life and indiscretions have made headlines. His messy early-1990s divorce from first wife Ivana played out in the tabloid spotlight after an affair with Marla Maples, his future second wife, became public.
Trump’s third and current wife, Melania, is a Slovenian-born former model nearly 25 years his junior. The septuagenarian Trump has five children by three wives and seven grandchildren. His three eldest children, Donald Jr., Ivanka and Eric, today hold executive vice-president roles in the Trump Organization.
Trump truly became a presence in American living rooms in 2004 as he expanded into reality television, dispatching candidates competing for positions at his Trump Organization with his blunt catchphrase: “You’re fired!” His Emmy-nominated “The Apprentice” ran for 14 seasons on NBC, some seasons as “The Celebrity Apprentice.” In 2007 Trump earned a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, a rarefied degree of celebrity sure to set him apart from the rest of the political field.
Trump’s politics have hopped around the US political spectrum, his views appearing to hew to the opportunities before him. He has been both a Democrat and an Independent. Today, he is a Republican who dismays his party’s more moderate conservatives. He has dropped formerly liberal views on gun control and abortion, and claims to have opposed 2003’s Iraq War when taped evidence suggests otherwise.
The showman publicly mooted his political ambitions for years, even seriously considering a bid for the Reform Party nomination for a presidential run in 2000, telling NBC’s “Meet the Press” at the time, “I understand good times and I understand bad times. I mean, why is a politician going to do a better job than I am?”
Trump would wade into the political arena again in joining the so-called “birther” movement that for several years disputed US President Barack Obama’s Hawaiian birthplace. In a late-2013 tweet, Trump went so far as to suggest a deadly conspiracy to hide the truth. “How amazing, the State Health Director who verified copies of Obama’s ‘birth certificate’ died in plane crash today. All others lived,” he tweeted.
That sort of caution-to-the-wind bluster was on display in June 2015 when Trump declared his intention to seek the Republican nomination for the 2016 presidential race. “I will be the greatest jobs president that God ever created,” Trump said in his announcement speech from Trump Tower. The prospective nominee went on to claim that Mexico was “sending people that have lots of problems, and they’re bringing those problems with us. They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists. And some, I assume, are good people.” In one of Trump’s most controversial campaign pledges, he promised to build a wall to keep Mexicans out of the US and have Mexico pay for it.
At the time of his announcement, Trump lagged well behind the front-runners in the Republican field. Surveys then gave him high negative ratings, with more than 50 percent of Americans saying they would never consider voting for him.
Trump’s ensuing road to the nomination was rife with controversy and scrappy jabs at fellow Republicans. In the month after he declared, Trump would question 2008 Republican presidential nominee and former POW John McCain’s warrior credentials. “He’s not a war hero. He’s a war hero because he was captured. I like people who weren’t captured,” Trump said.
In August 2015, Trump appeared to suggest that a Republican primary debate moderator, Megyn Kelly of Fox News, had asked tough questions about his history of derogatory remarks against women because she was menstruating, raising new charges of sexism. In December the aspiring nominee pledged to temporarily ban Muslims from entering the US, prompting accusations of racism that would also dog him throughout his presidential bid.
And yet, stumping to “Make America Great Again,” Trump would see off 16 rivals to clinch the Republican nomination, connecting with a majority of primary voters even as some party execs seemed to have to hold their noses to endorse him.
Trump’s campaign worked to cultivate an anti-establishment, everyman-despite-the-fortune image for the candidate. Indeed, long before “The Apprentice,” Trump was already making TV and movie cameos, appearing on Howard Stern’s notoriously crude radio show and appearing in ads for fast-food chains like Pizza Hut and McDonald’s. Trump’s 2016 campaign sought to strike the same blue-collar billionaire chord by tweeting photos of him eating a Big Mac on his plane and publicising his campaign stays at relatively downmarket – especially for Trump – Holiday Inn Express hotels.
Trump has credited summers he spent working on his father’s construction sites for his common-man touch with working class voters. “I know them better than anybody ever will know them,” he told the Associated Press in a phone interview. “I grew up on construction sites … I got to know the construction workers, the sheet rockers and the plumbers and the electrician and all of ’em. I worked with them. They were friends of mine,” he said. “And frankly, I like them better than rich people.”
But the rolling series of extraordinary controversies Trump has courted didn’t end with the nomination. With each successive scandal, pundits wondered whether Trump’s fortunes would turn. His summer feud with the parents of a fallen US soldier who happened to be Muslim was one. His suggestion that gun-rights advocates might take matters into their own hands if Hillary Clinton were elected was another. And derogatory remarks levied against women on 2005 hot-mic footage that surfaced in October 2016 seemed to some to be a final straw, raising the possibility that Trump’s machismo had finally cost him the support needed to win the election. The final answer will come on November 8th, when American voters decide whether to give Trump the nation’s top job or simply tell him, “You’re fired!”