By Steve Welch The Philadelphia Inquirer
They both lie as easily as they breathe. This ability has made Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton both fabulously rich and provides us great insight into who they are and how our economy is transforming.
Trump claims to be the wealthier of the two and is very eager to tell you so. We don’t actually know what Trump earns because he has not turned over a single tax return. We do know that, in 1974, he became president of his father’s real estate firm, which was estimated to be worth about $200 million at the time. An estimate by Forbes recently put Trump’s net worth at $4.5 billion.
It is clear that Trump received a lot of advantages from his father. It’s also clear he has grown this wealth significantly over his lifetime, through hard work and solid calculated risk-taking.
In many ways, his early success was a very traditional path of the ‘70s, ‘80s, and ‘90s. He borrowed from others, creating something physical and of greater value than what he originally borrowed. In the process, he created value for the world and wealth for himself.
As early as the 1980s, Trump understood how media and culture were changing to value personalities and brands. In the 2000s, Trump transformed his enterprise from a real estate business to a real estate brand and himself into a media star.
As media transitioned to sensationalism, Trump followed suit. In this process, Trump developed a skill of lying, to sculpt whatever narrative would best fit the story he was selling that day. His moneymaking machine was propelled by simple, ordinary and often contradictory lies that generated news and increased his celebrity.
He owns few of the buildings that have his name on them, but receives income from these properties with little financial risk. In this way Trump’s money is also of the new age, made solely by monetizing a brand. Trump’s currency is his celebrity, and he values that above all else.
Right around the time Trump started to make this transition, Bill and Hillary Clinton were leaving the White House, as she termed it, “dead broke,” even though she had two million-dollar-plus homes. Yet, today, she is worth more than $100 million. During that time she earned less than $200,000 a year as either a U.S. senator or secretary of state. Her husband spent his time starting a nonprofit, sitting on boards and consulting. So how could the couple have earned that much money in such a short time?
The majority of their income came from giving paid speeches, earning more than $150 million since 2001. Like Trump, the Clintons learned how to build a brand. But they monetized it in the fuzzy area in society where governments, big business and nongovernmental organizations meet.
It’s a world in which there are fewer actual bribes than the conspiracy theorists like to tout, but there is simple — yet legal — corruption. It’s the kind of corruption that can come from having the ear of a policymaker making a decision on something critical to your interests. In this world, a donation of a couple million dollars to someone’s favorite charity, or paying someone a half-million dollars to come speak to your friends, can have huge economic returns.
No quid pro quo has been found regarding the Clinton Foundation or the couple’s speech-making, but it’s clear the Clintons have gone to great lengths to hide any possibility of one being found. They took the unprecedented step of using their own server for doing the business of secretary of state. Once this server was discovered, she rushed to delete 32,000 emails, which she claimed were personal, before turning the server over to the FBI. As the FBI has disclosed, it found thousands of work-related emails that Clinton deleted in other people’s in-boxes, emails that should have been part of the public domain.
To protect this fuzzy system, Hillary Clinton has learned to lie as well. But unlike Trump, her lies are consistent and designed for precision and to deceive. The Clintons’ currency is power, and they have shown they will stop at nothing to protect it.
So while the average household income has declined by more than 10 percent in the last 16 years, Trump and Clinton have increased their incomes dramatically. Both are symbols of the wealth divide and the new economy in the United States. Trump is the symbol of a global brand rooted in personality and celebrity. Clinton is the symbol of the power and legal corruption of the political system.
Trump and Clinton are more alike than they would like to admit; they both have built a fortune from telling lies. But as a society, we have created the government, media and culture that thrive on the incentives and lack of consequences used by Trump and Clinton to build their fortunes.
On Nov. 8, voters will have to decide if they will continue to reward these individuals. Contrary to what the media tell you, there are other options.
Steve Welch is the founder and chairman of venture capital firm DreamIt Venture.
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