It Could’ve Been Me: Sympathy For Trump University Students

REUTERS/Carlo Allegri

Matt K. Lewis Senior Contributor

Thank goodness he never attended Trump University, but my dad did once drag me to a “timeshare” pitch. The mailer we received promised, “No strings attached.” We had won some sort of prize. Just sit through their spiel, we were told, and walk away with either a car or a boat. Upon leaving, we were handed an inflatable boat in a cardboard box.

In fairness, I got a lot more than a boat; I got a lesson in gullibility. And it’s a lesson that has served me well. I don’t buy anything unsolicited. I’ve never once sent money to a Nigerian Prince who e-mailed me. Even with family, I trust but verify; if my mom tells me she loves me, I still check it out.

Dad also sold Amway. Actually, though, I’m not sure he ever actually sold any Amway. Now, as far as I know, they’re a reputable company. I don’t think we ever actually lost any money. Let’s just say we never ran out of Glister toothpaste. Speaking of which, the man who recruited dad into the business used to always say, “I grew up loving Crest, but they never sent me a check.” I’m not sure “Glister” ever sent us too many checks either.

(Note: Years later, I would be approached by a middle-aged couple at a Ruby Tuesday’s in Frederick, Maryland, who spotted me wearing a campaign t-shirt and must have realized my untapped entrepreneurial potential. The husband offered to buy me dinner; all I had to do was listen to their offer. As a broke college student, I went into that free dinner fully expecting to eat as many brown breadsticks with honey butter as possible, before turning down their indecent proposal for a “devil’s threesome.” Instead, all I ended up turning down was an equally un-tempting offer to sell Amway.)

At some point, dad also invested in buying, fixing up, and renting a red brick duplex property in Hagerstown, Maryland. It was a lot of work, and, after all was said and done, I suspect we might have broken even on the deal. This was all an effort to create what is called “passive income.”

In case you haven’t picked up on it, my dad was a bit of a dreamer. This was good and bad. He got me to read Dale Carnegie, and he opened my mind to the importance of being entrepreneurial and having a positive attitude (this mentality fits pretty neatly with a modern conservative political ideology). He was an honorable and decent man, and I wouldn’t be doing what I’m doing if it wasn’t for him. But his “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” life lessons have long since been tempered by other experiences in my life involving scams and con artists.

This, of course, brings us to Donald Trump. When I first read about how Trump U allegedly targeted and exploited vulnerable people by attempting to “upsell” them, I couldn’t help thinking there but for the grace of God. Luckily, I never got dragged to a Trump seminar as a child. But I do have great sympathy for people who were pressured into spending money they didn’t have. As the New York Times reported, this came out of testimony on Tuesday:

One sales manager for Trump University, Ronald Schnackenberg, recounted how he was reprimanded for not pushing a financially struggling couple hard enough to sign up for a $35,000 real estate class, despite his conclusion that it would endanger their economic future. He watched with disgust, he said, as a fellow Trump University salesman persuaded the couple to purchase the class anyway.

Luckily, in his quixotic adventures, my dad mostly just wasted time—not money. But not everyone is so fortunate. What really disturbs me about all of this is that they aren’t taking advantage of people who are lazy (not that I condone that), but rather, people who are naively attempting to better themselves and achieve the American Dream.

So will any of this matter? Hillary Clinton’s team is at least testing this. It’s hard to say whether anything will ever stick to Teflon Trump, but it’s worth a shot. If Clinton can cast Trump in the usual role of “evil, rich Republican” instead of “blue collar billionaire,” then she’s probably home free—but it won’t be easy to do. For whatever reason, Trump’s brand as a sort of everyman is strong.

However, Clinton’s team is tough. And frankly, a lot of the details coming out of the Trump U case seem pretty damning. If it can be demonstrated that, instead of being a man of the people, Trump is a man who exploits the people, then that’s incredibly damaging. Unlike so many of the charges against him where he basically concedes guilt, but argues: “Who cares, I was a businessman,” Trump will instead try to muddy the waters on this one. He will argue this is a politically motivated suit. He will present other Trump U students who were greatly satisfied. He will not roll over and play the victim—which is a big reason why so many Republicans like him.

The reason Clinton won’t let this one go away is because if she can make it stick—and that’s a big if—he’s toast. The trouble is that it’s very hard to tell people who are being conned that they’re being conned. Nobody wants to believe that. So if Trump wins, I suspect that a lot of really good, if credulous, Americans may be surprised when, instead of the political savior they’ve been promised, they are simply handed an inflatable boat as a consolation prize.