Mitt Romney, he’s not.
If Donald Trump loses the presidential election on Nov. 8, as most prediction markets and polls suggest, there’s just about no way he’ll fade into the background and become some kind of Republican elder statesman. The Republicans wouldn’t have him, for one thing, and he’s not statesmanlike anyway. No, Trump will instead become a brand-new force on the alt-right spectrum, and one who probably turns out to be way more clever at making money than Bill O’Reilly or Rush Limbaugh.
Trump has been many things in his career, but what he turned out to be best at has little to do with the real-estate portfolio he inherited from his father, Fred Trump, and built into the Trump Organization. Real-estate developer was Trump’s first act, and he had mixed results. He bullied tax authorities into giving him breaks that made projects such as New York’s Grand Hyatt hotel a success, but he overplayed his hand so badly on casinos and other businesses that he nearly lost everything when they went bust in the 1990s. Trump recovered, but by the 2000s he wasn’t even mentioned among New York megadevelopers such as Jerry Speyer, Stephen Ross or Bruce Ratner. Big personality, middling portfolio.
Time for Act II: The Apprentice, which first aired in 2004. The reality TV show turned Trump into a mass-market showman, something he had dabbled in up to this point as an occasional Howard Stern guest, a pro wrestling cameo, a boastful author. The Apprentice gave Trump’s brand a sheen—and enhanced value—that seemed to surprise even him. “The brand has been enhanced by the great success of the Apprentice and Celebrity Apprentice on television,” Trump said in a deposition for a 2010 lawsuit. “All of a sudden, we started making some deals which were licensing deals, some deals which were licensing and partnership deals.” In other words, Trump no longer had to build, manage or market a project to make money. All he had to do was lend his name to it, and let others handle the heavy lifting, collecting fees for the mere use of his name.
Act III is happening now. Trump the Presidential Candidate is a shaky business, since he has alienated women and minorities (by definition, well over half the US population), nearly all Democrats, many independents and even a substantial portion of those belonging to his own Republican party. But Trump has done something else that’s important, by tapping into a vein of outrage among some Americans that no other national politician has been able to capture. In business, that’s called a potential market.
How big a market? Pretty big. Trump’s approval rating is a fairly dismal 35%, not nearly high enough to win the election. But there are roughly 150 million registered voters in the United States, and the 35% of them who say they approve of Trump adds up to about 53 million people. If 10% of those people bought a Trump book, it would be a gargantuan bestseller. If 10% of them bought a $15 hat, it would generate $80 million in revenue. And if 10% of them tuned into a hypothetical Donald Trump TV show, it would be easily best The O’Reilly Show and become the best-rated program on cable news, luxuriating in ad revenue.
Could this be Donald Trump’s Fourth Act? How could it not. The Financial Times reports that Trump’s son-in-law, real-estate scion Jared Kushner, has been shopping the idea of a new Trump TV network to firms accustomed to making such media deals. The idea of an entire Trump network may be a stretch—24 hours of Trump? Really? But a heightened Trump presence on TV, via his own show or something even bigger, seems like a no-brainer. Plus his pal Roger Ailes, recently defrocked as the head of Fox News, is now a member of the Trump inner circle, and probably looking for an encore performance of his own. Trump’s bombast is catnip for viewers, with the proof being attention lavished upon him by networks such as CNN and MSNBC that hold their noses but air every Trump clip they can get.
Don’t dismiss the foreign audience. Trump has struggled for years to become a player in Russia, and may finally have his chance, assuming he loses in November. Trump has generated intrigue in Russia by bro-thumping Vladimir Putin, the Russian leader who is almost categorically dissed by conventional western leaders. Trump is now the one western personality bestowing any respect at all upon the Russian strongman. It seems quite possible Russia has hacked into Clinton campaign emails—and published them, via Wikileaks—to help Trump get elected. It also seems possible Trump has used his candidacy to curry favor with Putin, should he lose. Trump has said he would love to build his landmark towers in Moscow and other Russian cities, and he might just get his chance.
If he returns to the private sector after the election, Trump will undoubtedly have to reassess his brand. New data released by Hipmunk and Foursqure show that traffic to Trump hotels in 2016 has dropped significantly. Earlier analysis by Yahoo Finance and Redfin showed that Trump properties in nine U.S. cities had lost a pricing premium this year that they enjoyed in prior years. Trump’s brand-new hotel in Washington, D.C., has reportedly been discounting rooms, even during peak weekends. The opening of a Trump hotel in Vancouver, Canada, that was supposed to take place in November has now been delayed until 2017.
But Trump has faced far worse business downturns than this, and rebounded. It’s highly likely he will bounce back again. And he’s got a big tailwind this time: His presidential opponent, Hillary Clinton, isn’t popular either. So if she vanquishes Trump, there will be marketplace demand for somebody able to provide fresh insights into the “rigged” system that sent this controversial figure to the White House. Nobody seems better suited for the job than Donald Trump.
Rick Newman is the author of four books, including Rebounders: How Winners Pivot from Setback to Success. Follow him on Twitter: @rickjnewman