“Calling a person a “liar” used to be one of the worst things you could say about somebody personally,” a friend recently commented. He was referring, ruefully, to the president of the United States being routinely characterized as a liar, and his well documented lies being accepted as “politics,” without a negative reflection on his character. My friend also noted how Trump appears to divide Americans between “his” people and everyone else and then to mock non-supporters with insulting names and profane epithets. He worried that Trump’s politics of deceit and division, and requiring followers to profess loyalty and obedience to him and contempt for others, would spread virus-like from Washington to Main Street.
Actually, it is more likely the other way around. It is on Main Street where Donald Trump learned the tactics of absolute authority, deceptive propaganda and division. He learned it in multi-level marketing, the movement that laid a grass roots foundation for Trump’s candidacy and his style of politics.
This is a premise of the book I am writing now about multi-level marketing and its history. My book makes the case that Donald Trump’s practice of unapologetically lying to achieve his ends – creating an “alternative” world that is not bound by the same facts, truth or ethics as everyone else’s – was legitimized on Main Street long before most people ever knew or cared about Donald Trump. Trump gained his expertise in the “Big Lie” from Main Street – when from 2005 right up until his election in 2016 he was the country’s most famous supporter and promoter of “multi-level marketing.”
In 2014, the website of the MLM, ACN, stated that Trump “[set] the record for the most appearances from the ACN stage by any ACN special guest speaker.” He also sold his name to a new MLM, called “Trump Network”, and gave his personal pledge to tens of thousands of its recruits that the scheme – and its MLM model – were their surest pathway to both financial and personal success in life. In classic MLM style, he learned to characterize financial wealth and personal fulfillment as one and the same. MLM believers in hundreds of other MLM schemes pointed to Trump’s involvement as proof of the MLM “model” to deliver its members to prosperity.
Trump’s namesake MLM, “Trump Network”, collapsed within 18 months and everyone in it lost, except perhaps Donald Trump. He continued as the most famous MLM endorser and to specifically promote the MLM, ACN, including on the Apprentice TV show. ACN provides no income disclosure in the USA, but in Canada, it revealed that the “average” income for its recruits was $500 a year. The initial cost to join ACN was $499, plus monthly and renewal costs.
In his presidential-candidate financial disclosure form, Trump revealed that in just one year, he had received $1.3 million supposedly for making just three speeches in support of that MLM. In fact, Donald Trump promoted ACN at recruiting events and on its website for over nine years. His total payments are unknown. On his show, in 2011, he introduced ACN’s two top executives with, “They run a company called ACN, which I know very well.”
When Donald Trump announced his candidacy, and ACN’s business practices, secrecy, payments to Trump, consumer lawsuits and government investigations came under media attention, ACN suddenly removed all references to Donald Trump. When questioned by the Wall Street Journal about massive consumer losses in ACN and ACN’s “multi-level marketing” identity, Trump made the amazing claim, “I know nothing about the company other than the people who run the company, I’m not familiar with what they do or how they go about doing it…”
Of course, Donald Trump was famous decades before he entered the world of MLM. His businesses in New York real estate, golf courses, casinos, wrestling, and professional football, even when they went bankrupt, were constantly in the news. His marriages and divorces and sexual affairs were regularly in the tabloids. Millions watched his “reality” game show, The Apprentice. Then, there were the “Trump” products – vodka, steaks and neckties, among others, many of which failed in the market.
But in all of those years of publicity and fame, Donald Trump was never in direct contact with the public at large. He was a creature of the media, a “personality”, a “celebrity”, a “brand.” For many, he was an unsavory even obnoxious human being, yet also admired or envied by millions for his wealth. His book, The Art of the Deal, presented Donald Trump as a wily deal-maker, never a moral leader.
It was only in MLM where Donald Trump made direct and personal contact with millions of people. In MLM he learned to promise not just a taste of prestige, but economic salvation, self-respect, a way to rediscover and realize life dreams – to be great (again)! He offered membership in a special community of believers. The Donald Trump-phenomena in which he plays messianic savior and, without irony, the billionaire voice of the common man, had its inception and inspiration in his previous role as the embodiment of “multi-level marketing.” At MLM “spectacles” Donald Trump connected “his” principles of wealth building with those in the MLM model.
It was in multi-level marketing where Donald Trump – for the first time – had a rapturous, self-glorifying experience of promising financial deliverance and happiness to millions of people. As MLM guru he stood in front of tens of thousands of adoring, hope-filled followers in person who placed total trust in him and staked all their hopes for a better life on his words and promises. It was in MLM where Donald Trump first got an intoxicating taste for the cultish, large-spectacle politics he now practices.
Lying – which Trump is known for – is routine and normal in MLM. Leaders promise “extraordinary income”, when 99% per year gain nothing. They promise “self-employment” – when no one owns anything of value, including the names on their downline. They claim to be “direct selling”, when almost no one has retail “customers.” They promise to represent “free enterprise” while operating a rigged recruiting scam.
The normalized lying in MLM is sustained by redirecting people from facts and figures to an alternative reality, based on belief and belonging. Citizens having to be either “with” Trump or banished to a dark group of “liberals” and “enemies” is a political version of MLM’s view of “winners” and “losers.” Any critic of MLM is suspect. Books, blogs and articles questioning or investigating MLM are said to be “fake” or intended to harm people – evil.
In style, methods of persuasion, promises, outcomes, economic model and actual personalities the connections between the MLM-phenomenon and the Trump-phenomenon are clear and obvious as is the historical chronology of events. Each movement has its millions of adoring followers who permit and even support blatant lies from their leaders and personally repeat them, believing they are for a higher purpose. In each, the followers are told to see any criticisms or doubts as evil or ill-informed. Both promote isolation of the followers. Both promise a utopia for believers.
Donald Trump’s appointment of Betsy Devos – from the largest and oldest MLM, Amway, and among the largest contributors to the Republican Party – to head US schools and universities is the outcome of MLM’s imprint on Donald Trump and deep penetration into government.