Republicans’ decision to not initially kick the meltdown-mogul to the dumpster has become beyond an embarrassment, with Donald Trump behaving like a fraternity pledge hopped up on watermelon schnapps at a posh country club during a membership luncheon.
In February, he praised Planned Parenthood for what may be the first time in GOP debate history, following that up this week by possibly the worst response to an abortion question ever. On March 3 he plumbed depths fathoms beyond, making direct references to his genitalia in the year’s most-watched primary debate. The irony is a man who insists that his personal brand is all about quality and value has permanently befouled the image of his political party.
It turns out that none of this comes as a surprise. Trump has long typified the individual who can obtain wealth but never achieves classiness. In Don’s world, nothing is so gorgeous that it cannot be improved by being dipped in gold. There may be no greater assault on the human senses than the opulent crassness of the trappings found on a casino floor, but by all evidence this is the very aesthetic Trump employs within his personal dwellings.
All of the Glamour, None of the Endurance
This same felonious sensory assault has become attached to the greater realm of the man, the so-called “Trump Brand.” It is a capitalist paradox that the very brand name Trump has become representative of perceived excellence while carrying the palpable tincture of broad failure. His “brand” instills a product with all the perceived qualities of lavishness while imbuing it with the promise of doomed culmination.
Over the decades a number of diverse items bore the surname of the corporate titan. Just a few of the commercial ventures the Trump brand have been applied to includes a bottled water (Trump Ice), a board game, fragrances (one called Success), steaks, a magazine, an airline (Trump Shuttle), and Trump Network (a line of food, cosmetics, and vitamins, similar to Amway or Herbalife). Currently he is embroiled in controversy over Trump University, supposed real-estate seminar courses that appear to have fleeced people without providing a genuine education in the field.
Most of these were commercial failures of varying degrees. One branding attempt in particular seems to encapsulate Donald’s entrepreneurial track record and his trademark ostentatiousness, but also serves as a harbinger as to what we can expect from the political candidate. Trump Vodka manages to not only be emblematic of Donald’s brand, it also distills his political contradictions and failings into one (garishly designed) bottle.
The Spirit of the Material World
Trump Vodka had a strikingly brief shelf life. Launched late in 2006, the brand began to evaporate from stores less than two years later. It took lengthy Internet sleuthing, but I located a liquor outlet that had some of the remaindered vodka. After initially telling me they no longer had the standard label in stock, I quickly received a follow-up email, alerting me they had located a pair of the tiny airline bottles in their supplies. Overpaying, I arranged for those to be shipped out for a personal liver analysis.
The vodka is—make that was—actually quite impressive. Made from select European wheat, the spirit was distilled five times then aged for six months, followed by multiple filtrations prior to bottling. It has a crisp body, very clean finish, and a not-unpleasant aroma. This is what you expect from high-end vodka. So why did this fail?
Well, Donnie’s move into the premium potable market was like so many of his other dissolved projects. While the products themselves may have contained initial quality, a characteristic Trump spin sends the project sideways. Trump does not build these projects from the ground up, with an eye on lasting legacy. He frequently takes over an existing enterprise or employs a market operator to license his product, then applies his trademark. A “high-quality” label is attached, but other decisions lead to inevitable commerce calamity.
Trump-Coated Stuff Haphazardly Managed
Trump: The Game board game was awash in iconography dedicated to the man. Game pieces are the letter T, his image coats the playing cards, and he occupies a presidential position on the in-game currency. However, he shortcut the effort, as all of the graphics were simply recycled images from his best-selling book cover.
For Trump Shuttle he bought out a regional commuter airline, then had the fleet of planes retrofitted with “classy” maple flooring and gold fixtures. These high-end accommodations conflicted with the passenger needs of the previous inexpensive, no-frills commuter line. His Trump Steaks was meat labeled “The World’s Greatest Steaks” from the man never known to have cattle herding companies. This could have been the best, but who knew? He chose to sell his meat exclusively through The Sharper Image. Not too many were eager to get high-priced T-bones from a glorified version of Sky Mall.
With his namesake vodka he again went with other operators. Drinks America partnered with Kendall Jackson to distribute the spirit created by the A. H. Wanders distillery. The bottle sports gaudy gold printing with a design by Milton Glaser, which was supposed to emulate a Manhattan skyscraper. However, the “Trump touch” was again in play. He told Larry King he entered into the premium vodka market because “A great friend of mine was a founder of Grey Goose. And what we’re going to do is to top it. I want to top them just because it’s fun to top my friends.”
Thus, his foray into the premium spirits market was not a dedication to creating a quality product, it was as a “screw you” to one of his buddies. Ignoring that his friend crafted the Grey Goose recipe based on selecting a unique wheat form, and used practiced methods to craft his respected label, Donald sought to buy his way into the high-end vodka market.
Throwing Money at Things Isn’t a Solution
Further blunting his insistence that his was “The World’s Finest Super Premium Vodka,” Donald is an avowed teetotaler. This became amusing when Donald was promoting his potable. He declared that people would order drinks by his name, predicting the Trump and Tonic would become the most popular cocktail in the country. Upper-tier vodkas are reserved for drinking straight, or in martinis. Reducing his spirit to a mixer (here adding quinine and citric acid) basically compromises all of the supposed quality of his very product.
Moreover, there is something else at play with so-called “super-premium” vodkas. While there are certainly degrees of quality in vodka, there is also something of a threshold; more distillations and more filtrations do not automatically lead to higher quality. In some cases it could lead to diminishing returns by stripping away flavors. Higher price does not always mean “better.” Think of it in relation to another food product, such as peanut butter. You can choose the best peanuts, a secret roasting method, and work out the best sugar to salt ratio, but at some point you reach a quality plateau.
Topping off the issues was the price point. At the release Trump’s bottles carried a hefty retail price, in the $30 to $35 range for a 750ml bottle. Comparable five-distilled wheat vodkas, such as Ketel One or Vox, can be had today for less—and that is before factoring in ten years of inflation. This vodka’s release predated the economy collapse in 2008, and the vodka market was booming. Americans drink more vodka than the next five spirits combined. You almost had to try to fail in that kind of market.
Trump executed the equivalent of putting glossy reflective labels and a gold veneer lid on a peanut butter jar, offering it up for $10. He essentially priced himself out of the sector he hoped to conquer.
A Clarity of Comparisons
Beyond just a commercial failure for Trump, the doomed enterprise Trump Vodka displays many of the problems with Donald Trump the candidate.
First is the obviousness found in his empty boasting. His declarations that he’s the best man for the presidency, the most qualified, and the smartest guy in the room sounds like little more than the marketing hyperbole applied to his venture. Promotional material declared “Trump Vodka will demand the same respect and inspire the same awe as the international legacy and brand of Donald Trump himself.” Does that unproven insistence sound familiar? Then there is the humorous tagline: “Success Distilled.” That, for a label not surviving 24 months, in an expanding vodka marketplace.
Trump the candidate has tried getting traction regarding foreign work and American jobs lost. On this he’s been proven a hypocrite, forced in a debate to defend importing foreign labor to his hotels here in the states. His clothing line and campaign hats are manufactured in China and Mexico. This has been a common practice. For a man declaring American work is important, his bottled spirit was not a domestic product, but not for a lack of available field stocks. Trump Vodka was created in the Netherlands, a country dwarfed in size by the wheat fields in the United States. He would have distinguished his product by making it a domestic high-end entry.
Republicans have had no shortage of contradictions in Donald’s past to list, noting frequently the contrast between his claims and previous comments and actions. The same holds true to his business ventures. He refuses to consume fermented beverages because of his brother’s death due to alcoholism. Predating his vodka venture, in another Larry King interview (just to cement the contradiction fully) Trump told the host he was mystified alcohol companies were not being taken to court. “Why is it that everybody is suing the tobacco companies and nobody sues the alcohol companies? I mean, you have the car crashes and the kids that get killed by some drunk that’s, you know, riding on the road. It’s just terrible.” Years later he went on the same show to hawk wares from his alcohol company
One trend that follows suit is Donald’s hostility in the international marketplace, and yes, there is a precedent here as well. In 2011, years after Trump Vodka was off the market, an Israeli distributor was selling the product in Israel. Trump sued to halt the sales, even though he had abandoned the Trump Vodka trademark three years earlier.
You Can’t Trust Anything He Says
The most tangible lesson to take away from his failings here is the blatant insincerity behind his words. It is one thing to deliver hollow prolix in an effort to sell items. Words spoken in commercial efforts carry far less value, and buyers are aware of this reality. Anytime Donald has announced he was selling something that was the “best,” the “ultimate,” or “unsurpassed in quality,” it met skepticism.
Listening to Donald—both then and now—you are struck by the obvious disingenuousness of it all. It is not as if Don believes his own huckster bullshit; just listening to him you can tell he is very aware he is full of it. But he does believe he can will these proclamations into reality, that buyers/voters can be swayed if he is emphatic enough about his ultra-hyper-mega-supreme-optimum claims of quality.
It’s like he thinks this way: “Go get me a beef distributor, I’ll call them the ‘best steaks on the planet’ and sell them in an upper-crust toy store! Get someone to brew up the vodka everyone is drinking. I’ll call it ‘world’s finest’ and charge more for the gold bottles! Get me a campaign manager, and I’ll claim to be the smartest candidate, and that I’m anti-establishment!”
So shallow are his assurances that they cannot even be considered campaign promises. He spouts ad copy. At odds, of course, is the wake of failed endeavors left bobbing behind the man. Repeatedly he approached the marketplace. Consumers voted with their wallets, against Trump and his entreaties. It’s time now to value our votes as much as we value our spending money.