Are Smart and Rich the Same?

Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump speaks at the National Federation of Republican Assemblies on Saturday, Aug. 2
Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump speaks at the National Federation of Republican Assemblies on Saturday, Aug. 29, 2015, in Nashville, Tenn. (AP Photo/Mark Humphrey)

More than two decades ago, a Southern California public relations firm representing the Trump Organization retained my services for an agreed-upon amount. A few days later, Donald Trump's executive vice president called to say she was very pleased I was aboard, but we had to resolve a problem: The Trump company had just done, she said, "the same project in Joy-zee [New Jersey]" at forty percent of my bid. I knew that was impossible, and I politely declined the project as I started to hang up the phone; she immediately said to move ahead, at the original amount.

Apparently it was standard practice for Trump's people to refuse even the most reasonable initial offer. Always negotiate, they are told. And this approach likely defines his immigration plan: identify, apprehend and deport ten million or more men, women and children and then re-process "the good ones." Will we have enough Trump moniker motels built in Tijuana and Juarez and elsewhere to house the young and old, the healthy and sick, the workers taken out of their jobs, their children removed from schools that then will lose state per student stipends, and those who default on their mortgages, rent, car and credit card payments, while they await their date for possible re-entry?

In fact, Trump's fictional plan ("details to be worked out") is an opening gambit; then negotiate to reality.

This is, of course, not the way public policy is formulated.

Yet, give Trump deserved credit for raising politically incorrect issues like uncontrolled illegal immigration, which does indeed strain schools, health services, and jails. But a national mobilization of the military and police to round up those who entered illegally and those who overstayed their visas, all for forced mass deportation, is hardly the answer.

And Trump is right that lobbyists and special interests are too powerful, but he's disingenuous to say that because he has worked the system, he can reform it. He's also correct -- trade negotiators are inept and often serve corporate interests and donors, but an all-out tariff war will lead to a Great Depression.

Yet, Trump has the pulse of the electorate. In a general election he could make inroads among African-Americans, union members, and disaffected and aspiring middle class voters. On an issue that unites Republican and other voters, Trump wisely pledges to raise the lower tax rates of the "the hedge fund guys" to normal levels, while Beltway Republicans remain in bed with Wall Street, the Chamber of Commerce, and the National Association of Manufacturers. Mick Huckabee and Rick Santorum run as blue collar conservatives. Scott Walker and Marco Rubio talk of their family budget challenges. John Kasich's father was a mailman. Yet, billionaire Trump ironically emerges as the unlikely populist.

How, then, do we explain the paradox of Trump's indulgent elitism? I have worked closely with people of great wealth, even a number of billionaires. Many of them correlate net worth and intelligence. Trump says he'll get the "best people," but he boasts that he is "rich, very, very rich" and "very smart." He seems to wonder how someone can be smart, and yet not rich.

Trump, even more than other wealthy people who run for office, is an instant expert at politics. But money can't buy electoral success. My own state of California is littered with the political eulogies of failed rich candidates -- venture capitalist Norton Simon, steel tycoon Leland Kaiser, oil heir Michael Huffington, Continental Airlines Al Checchi, high-tech entrepreneur Steve Poizner, and visionary businesswoman Meg Whitman.

Trump's remarkable political success understandably has seduced him. Perhaps it should. Unlike the other rich candidates who spent lavishly on the consultant class, polling and ad campaigns, Trump is his own consultant, does no polling, and has shrewdly manipulated a compliant free media. In the process he has changed all the rules under an inexplicable double standard embraced by even right-wing talk show hosts like Laura Ingraham and right-wing talking heads like Ann Coulter.

Thus, Chris Christie was a bully who praised and hugged President Barack Obama, but Trump is a forceful leader who supported Hillary Clinton for business reasons. Rand Paul rudely interrupted reporters, but Trump boldly calls them out. Kasich accepted Medicaid, but Trump's support for single-payer nationalized health has evolved. Other candidates compete for the most pro-life position, but Trump's pro choice record is old news. The litmus test is defunding Planned Parenthood, but Trump would still fund it. Crony capitalists exploit eminent domain, but Trump was just a well-connected developer. Carly Fiorina was fired as CEO by Hewlett-Packard, but Trump's four corporate bankruptcies were just taking advantage of the law.

Trump is not the CEO of a public corporation who reports to shareholders. He is the autocratic ruler of his own empire and makes his own rules. He can say to anyone in his operation, "You're fired." As a young man, I worked for Senator Jim Buckley who once complained to President Richard Nixon about a recalcitrant ranking appointee. "He's still around," Nixon protested. "But I've fired him twice." As president, Trump would head one of three co-equal branches of government. We are a nation of laws, not men. Republican voters are critical of what they view as Obama's imperial presidency. They want a strong leader like Trump but not one who acts beyond his constitutional authority.

Yes, Trump resonates when he says, in an age of beheading, his critics are off to complain of his "tone." Yet, righteous indignation is neither a starting point nor a policy. In an unstable and dangerous world, we surely need a leader who is prudent and deliberative, not impulsive and reactive.

Smart and rich are not the same.