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Trump’s Indictment Tests the Limits of His Brand

For Donald Trump, four years in the White House have left him arguably worse off.

President of the United States. Leader of the free world. Commander-in-chief of a superpower military.

It doesn’t get much better than that – on a resume. Former U.S. presidents – even the ones who lost re-election or suffered from low approval ratings – tend to do very well after leaving office, scoring lucrative book deals and other perks.

But for Donald Trump, four years in the White House have left him arguably worse off. His eponymous brand has been damaged, his finances took a hit during his presidency, and – no matter how his legal problems are resolved – the twice-impeached Trump will go down in history as the first U.S. president to be indicted.

“I still wonder, if when he began the campaign in 2015, he actually did so with the idea of winning,” says Jeffrey Engel, founding director of the Center for Presidential History at Southern Methodist University. “One has to imagine that, like so many politicians, he was trying to build his brand.”

With the opening of Trump Tower in the early ‘80s, Trump used “architecture as corporate branding” and used his own personal style – including gadding about the city with prominent journalists – to advance both his own brand and his company’s, says Debbie Millman, founding chair of the master’s in branding program at the School of Visual Arts in New York.

Trump made real estate “sexy,” Millman says, with real estate moguls as rock stars, and it fed a broader Trump brand. He then expanded that brand into politics, to his advancement and peril.

A 2016 loss might have hurt the fiercely competitive Trump, but it also might have given him an expanded consumer base for his media empire – which in itself would have buttressed his licensing deals on products ranging from hotels to consumer goods.

But his behavior in office led some hotel owners to drop the Trump name. By the time he left office, Forbes magazine reported, his fortune overall dropped from $3.5 billion to $2.4 billion.

From a personal standpoint, the entire Trump family has lost its stature in New York, where the former president once held a prominent – if often mocked – role. Having made the transition from Queens kid to Manhattan real estate magnate and frequent boldfaced name in the New York Post’s Page Six gossip column, Trump had become a fixture in New York.

Now the city doesn’t want him – or his children. Daughter Ivanka Trump and her husband, Jared Kushner, were once a prominent part of the Manhattan social scene. The month before the 2020 election, they were featured on critical Times Square billboards, paid for by the anti-Trump Lincoln Project. The two now live in Florida.

Unpopular presidents still got a hometown hero’s welcome back when they went back to private life, Engel notes: President Harry Truman went back to Missouri and got smiles and a, “Hi, Mr. President,” from locals. The same happened with President Dwight D. Eisenhower in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania.

But Trump?

“There are only about a half-dozen New Yorkers who would be thrilled to have the president show up,” says Bill Cunningham, a longtime political and communications consultant in New York. “I don’t see him going to the Met Gala.”

As for the adult Trump children, Don Jr. and Eric were not big players in the New York social world, but “Ivanka and Jared really wanted to be part of that society – the beautiful people scene,” says Lincoln Mitchell, a Columbia University professor who writes frequently about the New York and San Francisco social and political environments on his Substack column, Kibitzing With Lincoln.

“The whole world had a dance party when he lost his job,” Mitchell says. “That can’t feel good.”

But while Trump’s brand suffered overall during his presidency, the loyalty has only intensified among his most devoted followers, Millman says, noting that stock in Trump’s Truth Social went up after his indictment.

“His brand is in many ways frozen. There’s very little that can be done now to enhance or detract from his brand,” Millman says. But because Trump has achieved “brand extension” – his message and rhetoric kept going through the voices of such figures as GOP Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene of Georgia and Jim Jordan of Ohio – he will have a lasting impact on politics even if he is convicted, Millman adds.

Trump, Mitchell says, “has lived his entire life with the idea that the rules don’t apply to him.” His indictment – which may be just the first of several – will test the limits of the brand he spent many decades building.


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