Don and Eric's American Idea
The president’s sons are expanding the big-city family business into rural areas.
It’s difficult to discuss President Donald Trump without delving, at least tangentially, into the urban-rural divide that ran through the 2016 election. Though subsequent analysis has complicated the notion that Trump won thanks mainly to rural, white, blue-collar voters, dozens of articles have been—and continue to be—written about small-town supporters who saw voting for Trump as a means of voicing their displeasure with well-off urbanites.
Now, a little over six months after the election, the Trump Organization is ready to expand its business into such rural regions. Months after a company spokesperson outlined efforts to grow the brand—and amid significant struggles in the big cities that have for decades been the locus of the hotel chain’s profits—the president’s two adult sons, Donald Jr. and Eric, have announced plans to expand their father’s empire, starting with a licensing deal in Cleveland, Mississippi.
Cleveland, nestled in the state’s northwest corner and boasting a population of 12,334 as of the 2010 census, doesn’t fit the profile of the Trump brand’s typical market. Historically, the organization’s portfolio has comprised luxury properties in major metropolises like New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles, and upscale resorts in vacation destinations such as Hawaii, Las Vegas, South Florida, and the Blue Ridge Mountains. Eric himself noted that “the Trump name is reserved for the Turnberrys of the world,” differentiating the new Cleveland location from properties such as the president’s golf club in Scotland.
As such, the Cleveland hotel, which is slated to launch in early 2018, will not actually bear the Trump name. Instead, the Trump Organization is licensing its new Scion brand to a pair of local hoteliers in the region. Other planned hotels in the area, including another in Cleveland and one each in the towns of Clarksdale and Greenville (also in Mississippi), will be opening under yet another Trump Organization imprint, known as “American Idea.”
As has been true of many of the Trump Organization’s dealings since the election, a hotel in Cleveland would present constant opportunities for unseemly favors back and forth between local officials and the Trump family’s business. Each new deal that the company pursues brings it into contact with more state and city governments that must balance existing policies regarding land use and hotels with the knowledge that the new tentative tenant just so happens to be the president of the United States. This could create all kinds of ethically complicated situations, ranging from officials who may feel pressure to bend rules for the commander-in-chief to citizens who see the hotel and its owner as antithetical to their civic identity. (Trump could resolve these problems by selling his holdings, but he has instead chosen to retain ownership of his company while passing day-to-day operations to his two adult sons.)
In this case, there’s an additional question: Why Cleveland? The city seems not even to have been the company’s top choice: Since announcing the creation of Scion in October, the Trump Organization has already seen licensing deals fall through in both St. Louis and Dallas, the latter felled by “public opposition” that included a widely-circulated petition highlighting the relationship between Scion and the president’s company.
The most obvious explanation is that the Trump Organization is embracing its newly politicized circumstances. For months, there have been rumblings that the Trump presidency may, in fact, be damaging the company’s fortunes as predominantly liberal city-dwellers shy away from properties owned by the controversial commander-in-chief. It’s not just polls indicating that most people major urban areas don’t like Trump (although polls do show that trend); independent analyses and high vacancy rates suggest that city-dwellers may be rejecting the president’s businesses along with his policies. Even Donald Jr. and Eric are reportedly worried: According to an unnamed Republican operative who spoke to The Washington Post in April, the Trump children expressed concerns that “the family brand would not sustain the collateral damage” of the administration’s bruising brand of politics and policies “so protectionist, nationalist, and backward-looking that they’d only be able to build in Oklahoma City or the Ozarks.”
Cleveland, Mississippi, isn’t in the Ozarks, but Donald Jr. did invoke the notion that rural regions’ support for the president played a role in the company’s expansion plans. Though the company says “there is no political thought to” the latest deal, Donald Jr. cited his experiences during the campaign as a key part of the decision:
Eric and I got a great crash course in America over the last two years. We saw so many places and so many towns and heard so many stories that were so touching. People that were so excited about the country and Americana in general. We started talking, Eric and I, as brothers, and saying, “You know what, there’s something here, there’s a market here that we’ve been missing our entire lives by focusing only on the high end.”
It’s difficult to read Donald Jr.’s explanation and not see in it a recognition of Trump’s deep political support outside of the urban areas where he’s done most of his business.
Indeed, just about everything about the new American Idea brand seems calibrated to capitalize on the company’s newfound association with the presidency. It’s not just the name (which, it should be noted, isn’t entirely original, considering that the phrase shows up in a certain 160-year-old publication’s founding statement); according to The New York Times, Americana will be a broad theme for the new properties: “The intention is to differentiate the chain ... by featuring artifacts of American culture in the hotels, such as an old Coca-Cola machine in the lobby or American-made sundries in the rooms.” The Trump Organization may not be the first business to adopt a patriotic identity like this, but it’s certainly the first to do so shortly after the company’s namesake became president. From a marketing perspective, the hotel will likely appeal to Trump’s supporters, for whom the slogan “Make America Great Again” has such resonance.
Even the company’s choice of partner for the project, Chawla Hotels, evinces the connection between the Trumps’ financial and political fortunes. According to The New York Times, Suresh Chawla, who owns the company with his younger brother Dinesh, first met Trump during a campaign visit in Jackson, Mississippi, in 2016, after having written a letter to several local newspapers praising Trump as having inspired the Chawlas’ father to get into the real-estate business. Though Suresh says he did not initially support Trump, he ultimately donated $50,000 to Trump’s presidential campaign. In the past, there have been troubling signs that Trump might do political favors for business partners, as arguably occurred when he named Steven Roth, with whom he co-owns two properties, to his administration’s council on infrastructure. The deal with the Chawla family suggests that the connection may run in the other way as well, with Trump potentially rewarding political support with financial largesse.
Though Trump won Mississippi by double digits, and rural areas in general broke strongly in favor of the president, the part of the state in which the company will be debuting its new hotels voted against Trump—and it wasn’t even close. Bolivar and Washington County, home to Cleveland and Greenville, respectively, both supported Clinton by a roughly two-to-one margin; in Coahoma County, where Clarksdale is located, more than 70 percent of the vote went to the Democratic nominee. In fact, of the state’s 11 counties that border the Mississippi River, nine went for Clinton, all by double-digit margins. That they did so represents one of the biggest shortcomings in continual efforts to understand and describe Trump’s support: For all of the discussions of how location shaped voting patterns, race was often just as important, if not more so—and according to the 2010 census, more than 75 percent of residents of Clarksdale and Greenville and roughly half of Cleveland’s are African American.
Nevertheless, it’s easy to see why Mississippi might offer friendly territory for the Trump Organization’s newest endeavor. After all, it mostly won’t be the people of Cleveland, Greenville, and Clarksdale patronizing the new Scion and American Idea hotels, as the blue crease they occupy along the Mississippi is surrounded by broad swaths of land that voted overwhelmingly for Trump. Many white working-class voters will now have a way to spend their money in support of the president without having to break the bank on a trip to New York to stay at one of his more upscale properties. Given the many ways the Trump Organization seems to be taking advantage of the Trump presidency, it was only a matter of time before Donald Jr. and Eric recognized the potential to capitalize financially in a region that helped deliver their father to political power.