Louise Sunshine, a former New York lobbyist and real estate executive, has known Donald Trump for more than 40 years. She shared a small office with Trump just as his career as a developer began to take off. She helped him cajole politicians for tax breaks on his first buildings.
Knowing how Trump operates, Sunshine was surprised to hear his rival Jeb Bush brand him last week as a “chaos candidate.” Trump, she said, “is the least chaotic person I know.”
“The least,” she added to underline the point. “And the most determined person I know.”
Trump’s raw, in-your-face style of politics can come off as random ranting. Over the weekend, he called Hillary Clinton a liar and Bush a loser.
“Dumb as a rock!” he wrote on Twitter of the former Florida governor.
But if Trump sows chaos, it is tightly controlled chaos. The bluster and put-downs are part of a meticulously calculated strategy by a surprisingly disciplined front-runner for the Republican presidential nomination. Trump is the rare first-time candidate whose mastery of basic political skills seems unmatched by most, if not all, of his rivals in a crowded Republican field.
Trump’s history as a builder of major Manhattan real estate projects schooled him in the real-world give-and-take of politics at a level where enormous amounts of money and power are at stake. For New York developers whose business model depends on taxpayer subsidies, a keen understanding of how governors and mayors operate can make or break a real estate empire.
Trump’s father, Fred Trump, was a major New York City developer with deep ties to elected officials. In the 1970s, Donald Trump began forging his own ties with politicians — among them Mayor Ed Koch and Gov. Hugh Carey — as he sought tax breaks on midtown high-rise projects with a higher profile than anything his father had built.
Bill Cunningham, a veteran New York political operative, said the city’s big developers must weather bad press, but stay focused on their goals as they battle unions, contractors, public agencies, environmental groups and property owners who refuse to sell their land.
“You learn to take a lot of hits and keep on going, and that’s Donald Trump,” Cunningham said.
Trump, 69, jokes that he hates being a politician after six months in the trade. He also boasts of using no teleprompter, giving crowds the impression that his remarks, sometimes salted with profanity, are spontaneous.
“I speak for an hour and a half with no notes, no nothing,” he told a recent rally of supporters in Las Vegas.
But in city after city, Trump hews closely to his stump speech, staying on message as faithfully as the best of career politicians. The words vary, but the themes stay the same — all in service of solidifying and expanding his core audience of blue-collar white men.
Staples of the speech include pledges to build a wall on the southern border at Mexico’s expense; stop Mexico, China and Japan from “ripping off” the U.S. in trade; and arm more Americans to gun down terrorists when they strike.
“They’re cutting people’s heads off in Syria,” Trump told the Las Vegas crowd as he mocked Democratic front-runner Clinton for questioning his temperament. “They’re drowning people in steel cages, and she says Donald Trump has a harsh tone.”
Trump modulates his approach according to the setting. In the Deep South, he shows his firebrand side; it was in South Carolina that he called for a ban on Muslims entering the U.S. until the government can “figure out what the hell is going on.”
He sometimes tones down his rhetoric in Iowa, where he recently urged a mild-mannered audience in Des Moines to “be very gentle” with a heckler escorted outside by security guards.
Trump can be judicious with his insults. He says the country is being poorly run by “stupid people,” but typically leaves them unnamed – a nod to decorum as he taps conservative hostility toward a president with degrees from Columbia University and Harvard Law School.
Trump’s more impolitic provocations — the temporary ban on Muslims entering the U.S., for one — can seem high-risk. Yet his popularity has only grown, even as he has offended women, Mexicans, the disabled, Muslims and other groups.
Most recently, he criticized Clinton for taking a bathroom break during Saturday’s Democratic debate, saying it was “disgusting.”
Like a veteran politician, Trump keeps promises vague. He pledges trillions of dollars in tax cuts, but also preservation of all Social Security and Medicare benefits. He vows to stop what he calls the theft of American jobs by China and Mexico, but skirts details.
“We’re going to start making Apple computers in this country,” he told supporters in Des Moines. “What the hell good does it do to make them in China?”
Mitchell Moss, an urban planning professor at New York University, said Trump’s rhetoric ignores constitutional constraints on a president’s power.
“There’s no recognition that the president is not a king,” Moss said.
Over time, Trump’s real estate business has grown into a worldwide brand, putting his name on hotels, golf resorts and condo projects in Brazil, India, Turkey, South Korea, Canada and cities across the U.S. His book and television ventures, along with his lines of men’s eyewear, suits, ties and eau de toilette, have given him almost universal name recognition — no small asset in politics.
All the while, Trump’s brash personality has sustained him as a magnet for attention in New York’s tabloid-driven media culture, a fierce training ground for candidates. His personal fortune gives him the luxury of speaking his mind without fear of a backlash by Republican donors, and Trump’s national media exposure has spared him the need to advertise, even as rivals spend millions of dollars on TV commercials.
“He is the absolute guiding light in manipulating the media,” Sunshine said. “And he always used to say bad publicity is better than no publicity at all.”
What Trump’s opponents and critics have failed to understand, she said, is that “everything he does is strategic.”