President Trump’s post-election machinations are not a bungled coup attempt; they add up to a scam to enrich himself. A coup would require broad collaboration from the courts and, failing that, from the military. The evidence suggests that Trump may not even be serious about election fraud. If he were, he would have recruited serious election law experts in the states he has contested. Instead, Rudy Giuliani and Sidney Powell blanketed the country with a blizzard of lawsuits, offering fever dreams from the dark web as their legal justification and evidence.
The president’s post-election campaign demonstrates his singular talent for taking care of himself even when he loses. It is a momentous historic attack on the democratic process, on the order of Reconstruction. But for Trump, as Michael Corleone put it, “it’s just business.” Ultimately, Trump’s goals are to remain a star, make money, and solidify his clout. The corrosive effects on democracy are collateral damage.
Donald Trump has always craved fame, a drive common to national politicians. But he alone honed his approach to politics through his stint as a reality TV star. That’s where he learned how he could weave a narrative around his personality that tapped into the fantasies of a national audience. His quixotic claim to have won an election that he knows he lost rests entirely on his curated public persona. And as long as he pursues his claims, he is the center of attention instead of an ignored, sad, lame duck.
Trump’s intrigues embody his drive to come out ahead whether he succeeds or fails. His campaign hardly touched on the pandemic, the economy, or even his signature complaints about immigrants. Instead, he offered a narrative about systemic voter fraud and a stolen election. The strategy was smarter than Trump’s consultants and most media understood. It strengthened his connection to Americans who feel vulnerable to powerful shadowy forces beyond their reach, sufficient to drive nearly enough of them to reelect him.
This approach also laid a foundation for Trump to come out on top again, albeit not as president, and monetize the loss. Soon after the polls closed, his campaign announced an “Official Election Defense Fund” to help pay for his election challenges – with much of the proceeds diverted to his personal PAC, Save America. And by mobilizing his millions of true believers around a false narrative that his enemies have cost them their leader, Trump secured an enormous fan base for whatever he does as an ex-president. Millions will pay to attend more rallies or perhaps subscribe to a new Trump streaming service or cable network.
The strategy will give Trump a global stage to spotlight his inevitable grievances with President Joe Biden. It could become a means to mobilize public pressure against ongoing criminal investigations and possible indictments. Even from Mar-a-Lago, he could keep officeholders aligned with his interests, even as an ex-president.
Ensuring that Trump benefits even when he loses—and so never appears to fail – is an approach he has honed over his career. It nearly always involves making himself richer. He forged the strategy in Atlantic City. When he issued $100 million in junk bonds to bail out the failing Trump Plaza casino in 1993 temporarily, he used half of those proceeds to cover his personal debts. When his three casino hotels went bankrupt, he collected $160 million in management fees from the time the hotels declared Chapter 11 to the inevitable moment, years later, when he had to surrender them to his creditors.
Trump had figured out how to win while losing other people’s money. The final collapse of his Atlantic City properties also became personal paydays: He walked away with $916 million in tax losses based on $3.4 billion in defaulted debts owed to the banks and junk bondholders that actually put up the capital. To make it legal, Trump had assumed personal liability for the loans. But that was at the heart of the scam: Since he had not put up his own money, he couldn’t claim the losses without putting himself technically “at-risk” for the loans.
As president, Trump continues to profit from losing other people’s money. He owns 16 golf courses, all financed by accommodating lenders who put up the money to buy and operate them. As any real estate operator knows, golf courses are notorious money losers. Here too, Trump is personally “at-risk” for those loans – because otherwise, he couldn’t write off their annual losses. Based on the tax returns described in the New York Times, he claimed $15.3 million in those tax losses in 2017, his first year in the White House. For that year, he also reported personal income of nearly $14.8 million from branding deals, income tied to his old reality TV show, and revenues from favor seekers joining Mar-A-Lago and taking suites at his hotels. The losses Trump claimed for ventures paid for with other people’s money enabled him, even as president, to avoid paying personal income tax on all of his $14.8 million income.
Winning by failing has been Donald Trump’s signature business strategy, and now it is his political strategy. Since he couldn’t force the Justice Department to arrest Biden or coerce the courts to overturn the election results, he is left to enrich himself and maintain his influence with his fans and GOP elected officials. Thankfully for democracy, Americans now face not a coup d’état but yet another scam from Donald Trump – and probably not his last.