by Ben Cohen
There was a time in my life when I seriously considered getting into the real estate game. House flipping shows were all the rage, and as someone determined to work for myself, I thought buying fixer up properties and selling them would be a rewarding way to make a living. The prospect of making money without someone telling you what to do, then being able to take off months in between projects was extremely enticing, and I spent a considerable amount of time researching how to do it.
I never did get into the property game in a serious way (other than buying my own apartment) for a couple of reasons. Firstly, I wasn't really interested in property itself (picking out show sofas wasn't exactly my idea of a good time), and secondly, I began to feel that I would be contributing to an insane industry that had helped obliterate the economy through predatory lending practices. Real estate is a game rigged to favor the wealthy and the banks, and the lure of easy money is not only false but part of the symptom of a materialist culture gone mad.
Which brings us to Trump University, and the ongoing scandal tying up the presumed Republican nominee for president. Reported the Huffington Post yesterday:
A federal judge on Tuesday unsealed nearly 400 pages of documents related to a lawsuit over the for-profit Trump University, revealing the aggressive and predatory practices that Trump U. salespeople were encouraged to use on potential participants of the real estate seminar, which has been accused of being a scam.
The documents detail the internal “playbook” of Trump University, including information about how its salespeople were told to deliberately mislead potential customers, manipulate their emotions and ignore their concerns. Taken together, they represent a damning new window into the company that Trump closed in 2011 amid multiple investigations but has promised to revive.
The revelation that Trump University is a giant scam is not, frankly, much of a revelation. Donald Trump is a serial, pathological liar with such disdain for reality that he rarely bothers to address the lies when called out in public. "People tell me it's true" is apparently the litmus test of credulity for Trump on issues ranging from President Obama's 'fake' birth certificate to the denial of global warming.
Trump made his fortune through his inheritance, and it's likely he would have done just as well by putting it into an index fund. These facts are publicly known, and anyone with an interest in following his advice or 'teachings' should be well aware of them. So when thousands of students enrolled in his university, paying up to $35,000 to take "Trump Gold Elite" courses on how to make boat loads of money flipping real estate with 'creative financing' techniques, they probably don't deserve a great deal of sympathy.
According to the lawsuit, the 5,000 or so former Trump University customers are mostly upset about the particular business model of the University, claiming they were "pressured into spending money they didn’t have on Trump University products," and made to feel bad about their current financial status. According to the Huff Post:
The playbooks instruct salespeople to mention Trump by name in order to intimidate potential customers who are hesitant to spend thousands of dollars on a Trump University product. “Mr. Trump will not listen to excuses,” the playbook tells salespeople to say, “and neither will we.”
In another scenario, salespeople are instructed to berate potential customers, telling them, “You’ve had your entire adult life to accomplish your financial goals... and you’re not even close to where you need to be.”
While this is of course horrendous, they had no doubt viewed many hours of The Apprentice and have seen their idol berate and insult "losers" on a regular basis. Why they thought going to a university with the Trump brand would be any different is anyone's guess, and given the wealth of public information available on Trump they again deserve no sympathy for buying into it.
There is a broader point to be made here though too -- and that is one of personal ambition and the pursuit of wealth in a time of great distress. I do not begrudge anyone making a living for themselves the best way they know how, but we are living in a time of unprecedented wealth inequality, social injustice and massive environmental destruction. The world does not need more real estate investors, more loan officers or more people dedicated to spending their lives getting filthy rich.
Like Donald Trump himself, Trump University is a symbol of the narcissistic greed that has brought not only the global economy to the brink of collapse, but the biological systems that support all life on the planet. Our desire to own and consume more comes at great cost, and our future generations will pay the price for our recklessness and greed.
To sign up for a real estate course at Trump University means you are buying into the Donald Trump model of success -- rampant capitalism and the pursuit of grotesque opulence at all costs. A course titled "Trump Gold Elite" is an indication of what one would hope to attain from taking it -- elite status, lots of money, and affiliation with Donald Trump. These are not attributes anyone should respect, and those who bought into it quite frankly deserve everything they get. Because $35,000 is money that could be spent on a real eduction for a career with at least a modicum of social value. Learning to code, becoming a teacher, working for a non profit, becoming a doctor -- the list goes on for things infinitely more valuable than learning how to borrow money and flip houses from a sociopathic, fraudulent billionaire.
I hope that the former Trump University students are successful in their bid to sue Donald Trump, but only because it would do more damage to Donald Trump. His image as a successful business man is his one calling card, and without it, the country won't be nearly as willing to send him to the White House. But they do not deserve compensation for buying into the Trump brand given it says just as much about them as it does the abhorrent figure whose footsteps they wished to follow in.