It is not denied or hidden that Donald Trump is involved and connected to multi-level marketing (MLM). Wall Street Journal and other business media report Trump’s 10 years as spokesman for ACN and his namesake MLM, Trump Network. How much money in total he gained from MLM is not known but thought to be in the tens of millions.

There has also been coverage of MLM connections to individuals working in or close to the Trump administration, with Amway’s Betsy DeVos as the most prominent. Carl Icahn, the largest shareholder of Herbalife was to be an informal advisor on “regulations.” Ben Carson, a medical doctor who oversees American housing needs, was a notable endorser of MLM cure-all “supplements.” And most recently, Trump’s nominee to oversee the Open Technology Fund has a history in the notorious MLM, Fortune High Tech Marketing, which was shut down as an illegal pyramid scheme by the FTC.

Most of this news coverage focuses on how Trump provides publicity, credibility and support to MLM. These Trump-MLM news stories imply, but never state directly, that Trump’s MLM association is shady or inappropriate. Explicit charges of corruption, racketeering and fraud are spelled out in a 2018 class action lawsuit against Donald Trump and his family for his work with MLM, but no MLM company is named as a defendant.

Wrong End of the Stick

The media – and the lawsuit too – are looking at the least important side of this MLM-Trump relationship. Far more significant than what Trump does for MLM is what MLM has done for Donald Trump. Since the media have not directly investigated MLM and wrongly portray it as “direct selling”, while implying that something is wrong with it, they miss the main story: MLM shaped Trump’s politics and presidency. MLM gave Donald Trump his populist, prophetic identity. It elevated him from salacious media celebrity and New York real estate tycoon to a hero of Main Street USA. MLM recast Donald Trump in the starring role as a Moses, who will return “his” people from financial troubles and oppression to respect and prosperity.

Of course, Donald Trump was famous long before he entered the world of MLM in 2005. His real estate deals, golf courses, casinos and his bankruptcies were regularly in the business media. His marriages, divorces and sexual affairs were splashed luridly in tabloids. Millions watched his “reality” game show, The Apprentice. Then, there were the “Trump” products – vodka, steaks and neckties, among others. 

He was a brash personality, famous for being famous, a walking brand name, but he was seldom in direct physical contact with the public at large. For many, he was an unsavory and immoral human being, yet also admired or envied from a distance for his wealth and wiles. His book, The Art of the Deal, presented Donald Trump as a shrewd deal-maker but certainly no moral leader. 

MLM changed all that. Donald Trump was transformed into a benevolent champion of the people, an iconoclast fighting for the common man. His wealth, formerly a sign of superiority and possible double-dealing, was converted to a badge of magnanimity and incorruptibility. He flaunted luxury and leisure only because he wanted others to have the prosperity, status and happiness he enjoys. In his new role as MLM evangelist, whatever he did or said, even when it was rude, cruel or petty, was seen as serving a higher purpose – for the good of the people. 

“Big Lie” Expertise

Some people see President Trump as the harbinger of a new culture of deception in which he brazenly makes false statements and then unapologetically refuses to correct them, even when his error is irrefutable. Instead, he attacks the fact-checkers, including the news media, Congress, regulators, and institutions of science, as biased liars. Where did Donald Trump learn this?

The history of MLM argues that Trump actually gained his expertise in the “Big Lie” – lies so audacious or repeated so widely and so often most people cannot believe anyone would make them up – from MLM. From 2005 leading to his election in 2016, Donald Trump was making personal appearances at huge MLM recruiting rallies and absorbing the MLM culture. He learned to repeat the famous claim that MLM is the “greatest income opportunity in the world,” while producing annual loss rates of more than 99%. He called obsolete video phones the technology of the future and commodity supplements magical cure-alls. He endorsed the lethal “endless chain” recruiting scheme as a sound business model for struggling people to invest their hopes and dreams in. 

Whereas Trump’s earlier history of deception had been limited to business “deals” and private relationships, in multi-level marketing his fantastical claims and promises were recast as prophetic, positive and inspiring, all for the people’s benefit. No longer a self-serving braggart, he was now leader and role model for the common man. 

In MLM, for the first time, Donald Trump had the rapturous experience of promising financial deliverance and happiness to millions of people. He became a trusted guide to a life-saving program – MLM – that would provide the financial opportunity that elites in business and government denied to the average person. Previously, he may have been admired, envied or feared. In MLM, for the first, time, Donald Trump experienced the people’s love. 

As newly minted MLM guru, he gazed out at the faces of thousands of adoring, hope-filled followers staking their deepest hopes for a better life on his words and promises. It was at MLM’s “extravaganza” events where Donald Trump got an intoxicating taste for the cultish, large-spectacle politics he now practices. Who can fail to notice that his “rallies” look and feel just like Amway events? 

Control, not Division

Many journalists are shocked to see President Trump deliberately sow division among the people and demean and insult large segments of American citizens. They do not understand that the goal is less about division and disparagement of non-supporters and more about dominance and diversion of his loyal followers, exactly as he learned in MLM. 

To divert attention from the destructive flaw of the “endless chain” proposition, MLM recruits are taught to shun non-MLMers and anyone who might question or criticize the “plan.” To enforce this separation from reality and keep the followers buying and paying for as long as possible, MLM leaders demean and insult non-followers as “negative thinkers” and “pathetic losers.” They are said to “hate success” and “want you to fail.” They are labeled “anti-business.” Separated even from family members that may try to warn them of MLM risk, and exposed constantly to MLM disinformation, many MLM recruits become robotic, cultic loyalists, displaying a strange idolatry toward MLM leaders. 

What so many journalists, attorneys, regulators, and academics do not see – because they do not look beyond MLM’s disguise of products – is the extraordinary power of the MLM platform. To millions of people the role of MLM leader is a status higher than national political office or even a religious title. The acclaimed MLM power to provide the secrets to wealth and happiness, to become “winners”, is assumed by anyone who stands on the MLM stage. With the FTC’s endorsement of MLM as “legitimate,” MLM’s messianic income promise, its totalistic belief system and its “endless chain” recruiting model are accepted by millions of people as their last best hope to achieve the American Dream. Career paths, a living wage, relief from debt, and a better life for their children seem already closed off.

MLM’s “prosperity” philosophy asserts that “everything is possible,” if you believe. To accept this, one must all accept that “nothing is true,” unless you believe. Objective, consensus reality, including science, the reality that non-MLMers and established institutions accept and live by, does not exist. It is just made up. In MLM world, the “endless” recruiting pyramid can work for everyone, if you believe. The opportunity is unlimited and markets will never saturate. The only people who lose in MLM are those that quit and only losers quit. In MLM world what the media and government say is “real” is only institutional bias, a self-serving prejudice to maintain the status quo and keep millions of people from realizing their full potential. MLM’s fantastical perspective of reality is tangible and visible – to those who believe. Those who don’t see it are, by definition, “anti-MLM.”

Donald Trump had heard this magic, long ago. His father regularly took the family to Norman Vincent Peale’s Marble Collegiate Church in New York City. Donald Trump was married in that church. Peale was the most famous evangelist of “positive thinking” and “prosperity theology.” When Trump discovered this “spirituality” of his youth preached in MLM, it was a fateful reunion. The minister in his youth, Norman Vincent Peale and his chief disciple, Robert Schuller, founder of the Crystal Cathedral in Garden Grove, California, had long been MLM promoters. Both clergymen were regular speakers at Amway “rallies.” Amway co-founder Richard DeVos served on Schuller’s board overseeing his broadcast empire. Devos and Peale both grew up in the Grand Rapids Michigan area, were of Dutch descent and members of strict Calvinist denominations. 

Amway’s Devos and all future MLMs used Peale’s and Schuller’s prosperity message to mystify and obscure the destructive “endless chain” scheme, the basic structure of  MLM’s false income promise. Prosperity thinking – believing that dreaming and envisioning can reshape objective reality – diverts attention from MLM’s verified record of deception and loss. Putting it in “spiritual” terms also protects MLM promoters from fraud prosecutions. When FTC prosecutors charged Amway with running a pyramid scheme, the politically-appointed commissioners overruled, calling Amway’s promises of “unlimited” income and “infinite” expansion “inspirational and motivational.” (Prosperity theology, it turns out, may protect from fraud laws, but not economic laws. Schuller’s Crystal Cathedral Ministries went bankrupt in 2010 and the opulent church building was sold off.)

MLM’s claim of mastery over truth and reality gave Donald Trump keys to a source of power far greater than anything he had found on Wall Street, in real estate, in brand promotions or in celebrity. When he announced his run for the presidency, Donald Trump, a self-proclaimed billionaire, modeled his candidacy in the likeness of an MLM leader.  He did not need a political platform and policies. He only made amazing promises asked his supporters to believe. MLM’s tools of hope, belief and persuasion carried him into office. Its methods of control, diversion and dominance shape his presidency.