The Ma and Pa ‘Business Empire’ of Donald Trump
In 2016, when Malaysian real estate developer Tiah Joo Kim showed up for a meeting at Trump Tower to propose a hotel and condominium project in Vancouver, British Columbia — as reported here — he was shocked at what he saw.
Kim, influenced by the public perception that Donald Trump ruled over a vast multi-layered global operation, expected to encounter a maze of offices with the high energy of a huge staff engaged in feverish activity. Instead, he observed a sparse quiet setting, with several offices on two floors and a small staff of employees.
Kim was led into a conference room, where his proposal was vetted by Donald Trump’s children Ivanka, Donald, Jr., and Eric Trump. After their positive assessment, Kim advanced to the next step; he was ready to meet the Donald in his impressive office, with its stunning view of Central Park and Manhattan’s skyline.
During their conversation, Donald spoke mostly about himself and his trophies before he got to Kim’s project. But Trump liked Kim and his proposal, so he called a team of his loyalist lawyers and executives into the meeting to work out the details of a hotel branding project.
Contrary to his expectations, Kim was experiencing the core of a ‘Ma and Pa business,’ camouflaged by publicity, ostentatious glitter and boasts of extreme wealth. Peel away the facade, and the Trump business model has more in common with running a neighborhood grocery store than administering a Fortune 500 company.
And it is certainly not a business plan that can work for running the government of the United States.
The Trump Ma and Pa business plan explains a lot about the chaos in the White House’s organization and administration, the public policy decisions (and lack of them), and the numerous foreign affairs blunders that Trump has committed. And, sadly, Donald Trump’s fixation on the Ma and Pa business plan guarantees that little will change.
Loyalty is primary in choosing employees for Ma and Pa businesses –you must select people who can be trusted to support you, no matter what. That’s why Trump infuses his enterprises with family members, old cronies from Queens, and long-standing sycophant employees.
Competence and qualifications are far less essential than loyalty. For Donald Trump the lack of qualifications is especially appealing. The less qualified, the more likely the employee will be be grateful and dependent — and therefore loyal
This may explain why so many of Trump’s picks — who are woefully unqualified — continue to support him, despite charges of racism, suspicious financial dealings, allegations of serial sexual misconduct, possible collusion with a foreign power and turning the White House into a shopping network to promote his hotels, golf courses, and his daughter’s jewelry and fashion businesses.
Under Donald Trump’s leadership, more than 600 crucial government jobs remain unfilled, including key positions in the Pentagon, State Department, Agriculture Department, Energy Department, National Highway Transportation Safety Administration, and more. And we can add to these the almost daily defections of officials from government agencies and departures from Trump administration advisory positions.
And it’s likely to get worse.
Trump’s poor management and disorganization are not accidental, nor are they the result of mindless inaction. In fact, they are deliberate, perfectly designed according to the Ma and Pa business model. Ma and Pa (in this case, mostly Pa) needs to personally control everything — or to believe that he is in complete control.
That’s why Ma and Pa don’t want smart independent appointees with their own contacts, autonomous negotiations and decision-making power. Just as Trump says that he likes to sign every check (fine for the neighborhood grocery), he wants to have his hand in every pot. And Trump prefers to pretend — or believe — that there are no pots other than the ones he can see, touch and stir in.
Confirming that many important vacancies will never be filled, Trump rationalized his inaction with the claim: “You don’t need them.”
As the Ma and Pa business model dictates, the clan travels everywhere together — whether appropriate or not — and sometimes they share roles. So at a G20 meeting on July 8, 2017, when Donald Trump stepped out of the room, Ma (Ivanka) took his seat alongside heads of state, including Xi Jinping, Vladimir Putin, Angela Merkel and Theresa May, among others.
Similarly, Ivanka pops into high level meetings at the White House, possibly checking on Pa’s behavior. She unexpectedly interrupted a key meeting of Congressional leaders on September 6, 2017, evoking annoyance from the Republicans in attendance.
But now the Ma and Pa model is threatened. Ivanka, Jared and the boys have run into problems and public scandals, and may have to leave the White House. Some inner circle cronies — Trump’s Communications Director Hope Hicks and personal aide — have jumped ship; Secretary of State Rex Tillerson was fired on March 13, and others are running scared as they hear the thundering footsteps of Robert Mueller.
What will Pa do home alone without Ma and company? For that you will have to tune in to the next episode of the Ma-and-Pa Reality Show — staged in real time at the White House.
Bernard Starr, PhD, is professor emeritus at the City University of New York, Brooklyn College. His latest book is “Jesus, Jews, And Anti-Semitism In Art: How Renaissance Art Erased Jesus’ Jewish Identity & How Today’s Artists Are Restoring It.”