ECONOMY

Trump’s Next Challenge Is to Turn 74 Million Believers Into Buyers

They backed Donald Trump in November, and now they aren’t buying what he’s selling.

A quarry owner in the heart of Texas Trump country says she has little interest in staying at one of his hotels. For a sheep rancher in Montana, life’s too tough to throw money at golf. A ballroom-dancing Alabaman who was one of the billionaire’s first donors hasn’t bought anything from him in years.

Interviews with supporters show the challenges for an ex-president who’d like to turn 74 million voters into customers. His business empire is under pressure from a pandemic that’s emptied office towers and hotels, the repercussions of the Capitol riot and government investigations. The company could use a boost from fans who sent Trump to the White House and wanted him there for four more years.

Winning their vote may be easier than getting their dollars, according to the interviews with four of Trump’s earliest donors and six backers in some of the most conservative corners of the country. Some people would like to spend a night in his Central Park hotel suites or pay $375 for a round of golf at his Miami club, but can’t afford them. Others have the money but not the inclination. Several see no reason why political backing should translate to being a patron. While they represent a small sampling of voters, their responses highlight why Trump may have to expand into media or beyond if he wants to make big money from millions of fans.

“Just because I’m a Trump supporter doesn’t mean I have to support him and his personal businesses,” said Brenda Edwards, who owns stone quarries in Texas’s heavily Republican Glasscock County. The 73-year-old said she can afford one of Trump’s hotels but doesn’t care enough to visit. She drinks wine, “but that doesn’t mean I have to buy his wine.”

Eric Trump, the former president’s second-born son and executive vice president at the Trump Organization, says he is confident the family can convert voters into customers without trying too hard. There are also die-hard Trump fans going out of their way to support his businesses, seeing it as a way to thank him for his service or even fight “cancel culture.”

But Donald Trump built his corporate and political empires around very different groups. While rural voters without college degrees were the core of his constituency in November, his career caters to the coastal elites he mocks from the podium.

“I won’t become a customer, because I won’t become a customer of anybody in his league,” said Jack Murnion, a Targhee sheep rancher in his 70s who’s a former county commissioner in Montana’s Garfield County. More than nine in 10 voters there cast their ballot for Trump in 2020. “I’m never going to stay in a world-class hotel.”

Heather Gibson, another Trump voter in the county, was blunter.

“I don’t give a fig about his business,” said Gibson, a mother of four girls and a superintendent who oversees one-room schoolhouses. “He’s got plenty of money.”

The Trump Organization gets the bulk of its income from towering office buildings, glitzy hotels and golf courses that are out of reach for much of America. The company started developing a mid-market hotel chain in the Mississippi Delta in 2017, but shelved those plans two years later, saying it would return to building the “most luxurious properties in the world.”

“He’s more of a luxury brand,” said Trump’s friend Elie Hirschfeld, an old real estate partner. “Not so much McDonald’s or Holiday Inn.”

Since he first entered office, many of Trump’s businesses have seen a dip in revenue, according to his financial disclosures. Last year was especially bad for his properties as the pandemic slammed travel. Trump’s Doral golf resort, one of the company’s biggest sources of revenue, brought in $44.2 million in 2020 and the first 20 days of 2021, compared with more than $70 million in prior years. Revenue at his Washington hotel, a hotspot for the Republican elite while its owner was in the White House, dropped 63% from 2019 to 2020.

One of the bright spots has been Trump’s online store, where revenue has grown from $107,186 in 2017 to almost $2 million last year. It sells trinkets and memorabilia that are more accessible to supporters than hotel suites. New arrivals include $15 pet collars and an $80 faded denim jacket with Trump’s name over the heart.

The brand also extends to wine produced at a Virginia estate that’s run by Eric Trump. And there’s the potential for wider reach, with many political watchers speculating Trump will start his own media platform. He’s teased another run for president in 2024, keeping him in the spotlight and potentially making his businesses appealing to Republicans seeking to gain his favor.

In an interview, Eric Trump said there’s “unbelievable political enthusiasm” among visitors to their properties. The 45th president’s company is now selling hats with that number in its online store for $36.

It “symbolizes my father, and he is ultimately the owner of this company,” Eric Trump said. “He was sacrificing so much to go run for office. And I think people appreciate that.”

Trump inherited the business from his father, who built rent-controlled housing in Queens and Brooklyn. “But it was a very tough way to make a buck,” the future president wrote in his first book, “The Art of the Deal.” “I wanted to try something grander, more glamorous, and more exciting.”

Lonnie Hardy, one of Trump’s first donors, bought that book. The futures trader and accountant was on a trip to Texas last year when he picked up four bottles of Trump wine for $21.99 each.

“I have a certain desire to be a patron of his, because of what he did for our country,” said Hardy, who owns a life-sized cutout of Trump giving a thumb’s up. Even so, he said Trump’s expensive hotels and private golf courses don’t interest him and most Americans. “It just isn’t something that touches my life.”

Michael J. D’Angelo is the kind of devotee the Trumps would appreciate. The former banker spent his birthday at Trump’s Mar-a-Lago resort with his family in February, his second birthday party there in three years. Near the end of a meal featuring prime rib and chocolate cake with sparklers, the former president strolled into the dining room and got an ovation.

Trump’s full-time presence at the Florida club is a draw to supporters, which, thanks to $250,000 in initiation fees, translates to revenue. The Trumps are testing their support among the area’s wealthy by putting their nearby eight-bedroom house on the market for $49 million, up from the $18.5 million they spent in 2018.

The property, which comes with a complimentary membership to Mar-a-Lago, is so associated with the Trump family that its eventual buyer will likely be a supporter, said Guy Clark, a Douglas Elliman real estate agent in Palm Beach.

D’Angelo patronizes Trump-linked businesses “more directly and with more purpose” than ever before, support that extends to allies including the head of Goya Foods and the pillow salesman Mike Lindell.

“I’ve never bought Goya beans in my life, and now my house looks like a Goya factory,” D’Angelo said. “We’ve got MyPillows everywhere.”

In Alabama, early Trump donor Larry Taylor hasn’t felt the need to buy anything from Trump in the past five years, but the retiree and ballroom dancer would sign up if Trump started his own cable channel. Ted Garrett, a construction manager in Tucson who also was one of the first people to cut a check for Trump’s 2016 race, is less enthusiastic about a media venture.

“I’m not going to spend a dime on something extra like that,” Garrett said. “Never even crossed my mind.”

Garrett plans to spend about 100 nights on the road this year for work, none of them in Trump hotels. He doesn’t see the point in spending hundreds of dollars more than he needs to on a room for the evening.

Murnion, the Montana sheep rancher, wouldn’t subscribe to a Trump network if it cost him, say, an extra $10 a month.

“If we spent money like that, we wouldn’t still be here,” he said. “This is tough country.”

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