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The real costs of Donald Trump’s anti-Mexican slur controversy, explained

Donald Trump: en la lucha.
Donald Trump: en la lucha.
Andrew H. Walker/Getty Images

Donald Trump is not going to be the next Republican nominee for president of the United States. But he's not running for president because he wants to mount a serious presidential campaign. He's running for president because he wants to promote the greater glory of Donald Trump — and that means getting in the news as frequently as humanly possible.

So it's not surprising that his campaign has been dominated by a controversy over anti-Mexican slurs. Trump himself courted the controversy, and he's working doggedly to keep it alive — even though it's cost him tens of millions of dollars in lost corporate partnerships, thanks to a surprisingly successful pressure campaign by Latino activists. Companies from Macy's to NASCAR have dropped their association with Trump, turning him into a folk hero among some conservatives.

But Trump might gain less from his new conservative friends than he loses if he's cut off from the cultural mainstream. The media are covering his outrageous statements now, but once his campaign is over (or becomes irrelevant) the mainstream media might find him just as toxic as corporate America does right now. And that's a high cost indeed for a man who seems to crave fame more than anything else.

1) Trump keeps calling Mexican immigrants rapists (and disease carriers)

This started all the way back during Trump's campaign launch on June 16, when — among plenty of other ridiculous things — he said that Mexican immigrants were "bringing drugs. And they're bringing crime. And they're rapists." When MSNBC asked him about it the next day, he reiterated: "We have drug dealers coming across, we have rapists, we have murderers, we have killers."

It goes without saying that most immigrants from Mexico are not murderers, rapists, or drug dealers (if you must know, immigrants commit fewer crimes than native-born citizens). But what made Trump's comments particularly offensive was that he wasn't talking just about unauthorized immigrants — he was talking about all immigrants. "They're sending us not their finest people," he said of Mexico and other countries that send immigrants to the US. It was an impressively broad insult against American Latinos. (In subsequent statements, Trump has tried to pull the "some of my best friends are Mexican" card and say he wasn't talking about legal immigrants.)

donald trump yells

He's continued to defend and reiterate these statements. After a couple of weeks — as it became harder to get attention for repeating what he'd already said — he added a new claim: that "tremendous infectious disease is pouring across the border."

That's both inaccurate and kind of stale (people have been complaining about immigrants bringing disease since before illegal immigration was even a thing). But it got him a new wave of press.

2) Donald Trump's presidential campaign isn't about politics, it's about thirst

If none of this sounds like the behavior of a serious presidential candidate, that's because Donald Trump is not a serious presidential candidate. Donald Trump is running for president because Donald Trump may very well be the thirstiest human being alive.

Remember that Trump first flirted with running for president in 2000 — when he championed universal health care and a tax plan to the left of self-proclaimed socialist Bernie Sanders. But by the Obama era, there was a much bigger media economy in conservative, Tea Party–style resentment politics. So that's where Trump went. In 2012 he went so far as embracing birtherism to keep himself in the news, before ultimately deciding not to run after all.

It appears that Trump felt he needed to actually file some paperwork to get anyone to pay attention to him this time around. Maybe he worried that after two rounds of crying wolf, he wouldn't be taken seriously if he simply dropped hints. Meanwhile, as Alyssa Rosenberg of the Washington Post (who's been doing some of the sharpest writing on Trump) has reported, his current star vehicle, Celebrity Apprentice, has been losing viewers for a while now; maybe he felt he needed this presidential run to reboot his media career.

3) He's polling well because he's famous; he's getting press because he's polling well

Right now, it's looking very good for him — he's doing surprisingly well in the polls. But this is almost certainly due to name recognition: More people who are getting called by pollsters have heard of Donald Trump than have heard of Scott Walker. (My colleague Andrew Prokop has a very persuasive article about this, if you're not convinced.)

That's put Trump's Republican opponents in an awkward position — most of them have condemned him, but only after weeks of hoping he would just go away on his own. Liberal Latino and immigration advocacy groups, on the other hand, are happy to treat Trump as a serious Republican candidate, for the purposes of demanding that other Republicans and the RNC distance themselves from him. They're treating Trump as the Republican id: He expresses racist feelings that some liberals suspect many Republicans secretly harbor but lack the cojones to say out loud.

Ironically, while Trump's knack for getting into headlines is what's driving his current surge, the surge justifies continuing to cover him as a candidate. As Prokop writes, and as we saw in 2011, the hype cycle can give a candidate a brief surge in support — but once his 15 minutes of hype are over, he doesn't get more press attention than any other second-tier candidate.

That said, it is unclear how far Trump actually plans to go in the Republican primary. Getting on state ballots takes work. And Trump doesn't need to be covered as a candidate — he just needs to be covered, period.

4) Trump has lost cold, hard cash over his comments

On June 25, Spanish cable network Univision said it was pulling out of its contract to broadcast the Miss USA pageant (which Trump owns) in Spanish. That emboldened activists to push for a broader boycott of Trump — and put companies that had business relationships with him on the defensive.

On June 29, after a petition to NBC got 200,000 signatures in three days, NBC severed its ties with Trump, including not only the main broadcast of the Miss USA and Miss Universe pageants but also his role in Celebrity Apprentice. On July 1, Macy's said it would no longer stock Trump-brand clothing (which, to the internet's delight, is mostly made in Mexico). Mattress brand Serta isn't renewing its contract to sell Trump-branded mattresses. NASCAR isn't holding its award ceremony at a Trump hotel anymore. Washington, DC restaurateur Jose Andres has pulled out of a deal to open a restaurant at a hotel Trump is building. And both ESPN and the PGA have pulled out of hosting golf tournaments at one of Trump's resorts.


Happier days for Trump and NASCAR. (Chris Graythen/Getty)

Trump's reaction to all of this has varied depending on what he thinks will keep him in the news. He's accused Univision of being controlled by the Mexican government, tried to ban its employees from his hotels, and filed a ridiculous $500 million lawsuit against the company. He claimed he decided to leave Macy's — not the other way around — because they were trying to impinge on his freedom of speech. And he issued a press release bragging about the cancellation fees he'd collect from ESPN and NASCAR.

But he's also used the losses to portray himself as a conservative culture-war hero being victimized by the politically correct left. On July 6, he told Fox News that "it's bad for my brand, I'm losing customers" — the implication being that he was doing something that he knew would hurt him financially because America deserved to know the truth.

5) Trump has probably lost tens of millions of dollars

So how much is all of this costing Trump? We don't know for sure.

One estimate, by the Wrap, came out to $50.5 million (and that was before the partnerships with ESPN, NASCAR, and the PGA got severed). Another, much less conservative estimate from Vice came out to $78.5 million.

The biggest loss for Trump is his salary as Celebrity Apprentice host and producer — rumor has it he made $65 million from NBC, but NBC says that rumor is laughably high. (The Wrap, trying to account for this, estimates Trump's contract at $32.5 million.) The Miss America and Miss USA broadcast rights, which started the whole thing, actually come out to very little of Trump's empire: about $14.5 million. (Trump's Macy's sales were even more negligible.)

If and when Trump files financial disclosure forms with the Federal Election Commission, he'll have to show a little more detail about his assets — which could give the public a little more information about what he's lost. The FEC filings don't provide a tremendous amount of information — this article by Bloomberg's Richard Rubin is a great explanation of what they entail. But they're still detailed enough to make candidates nervous. Especially rich candidates. Especially rich candidates whose businesses have gone bankrupt several times. (When Trump ended up not running in 2012, some speculated that he didn't want to go through with the financial disclosures.)

6) But "tens of millions" is a drop in the bucket for him

Until then, there isn't much better information than what Trump himself says. And Trump has been known to exaggerate his finances. When he ran for president, he issued a one-page summary of his assets that came out to nearly $8 billion; Forbes has been tracking Trump's fortune for decades, and says it's closer to $4.1 billion or so.

Even $4.1 billion, though, is a lot more than the $50 million or more that Trump has lost. The lion's share of his wealth comes from his real estate holdings. And that's one part of his empire that hasn't been touched by the current controversy.

construction trump tower

Most of Trump's fortune is in real estate. (Mark Wilson/Getty)

The city of New York says it's reviewing Trump's real estate contracts in light of his comments, including a $230 million golf course deal. Lawyers are skeptical that the city would be allowed to revoke a contract based on a contractor's offensive opinions. On the other hand, it's hypothetically possible — though unlikely — that recent rumors that unauthorized immigrants are working to build Trump properties in Washington, DC, could give cities an excuse to void the contracts.

7) Latino activists are flexing their economic muscles

While $50 million isn't much money to Donald Trump, it's a lot of money to people who aren't Donald Trump. And the fact that over the course of a few weeks several different corporations have felt enough pressure to drop their associations with Trump is inarguably a victory for the Latino activists who started the campaign (which has taken the hashtag #DumpTrump on Twitter, because of course it has) and for the Latino media groups that have supported them.

Corporations like NBC and ESPN are trying to appeal to the large and growing Latino market. They've made the calculation that they could get enough good press with Latinos out of dropping Trump that it would outweigh any logistical costs associated with dumping him — or, for that matter, any boycotting they'd get from older conservatives in protest. It's impossible to know whether they'll actually get more money by dumping Trump than they would have by keeping him, but it's significant that they're more interested in catering to the Latino market than to opponents of political correctness.

8. The controversy plays into Trump's newfound conservative culture-warrior persona

Opponents of political correctness may not be worth as much money to megacorporations as Latinos are. But they're a consumer market, and a media market, of their own. And Trump's provocations are both the result of his need to get media attention as often as possible, and part of a strategy to claim the mantle of conservative culture-war hero.

There's a weird symbiosis between Trump (and other culture trolls, like Ann Coulter) and the liberal activists who work to shame him. Left-leaning Latino and immigration advocates treat Trump as the id of white conservatives, saying things that Ted Cruz, for example, wouldn't say. That's exactly the image Trump himself wants to project: a bold truth teller who says the things career politicians believe but are afraid to say out loud.

donald trump yelling

Hey, Vox has a lot of pictures of Donald Trump yelling. What can I say.

If Trump has a plan for keeping himself in the public eye beyond this presidential campaign, that's probably it. The "conservative provocateur" is a pretty well-established persona for entertainers: see Ann Coulter or (in a more contemporary vein) Adam Baldwin. And indeed, as Trump continues to grind away at the "rapists" controversy, he's won some support from other conservative entertainers — like Bill O'Reilly. O'Reilly didn't defend Trump's original comments, but as Trump has continued to paint himself as a martyr to political correctness, O'Reilly is taking his claims more seriously.

9) Trump might miss his mainstream cred when he's no longer a presidential candidate

Here's the problem with building a persona on culture war: You can't stay relevant if your would-be opponents aren't paying you any attention. Just look at what's happened to Ann Coulter over the past several years. Her book sales, which routinely got her on the best-seller list during the Bush years, have weakened substantially.

Coulter has tried to escalate her rhetoric to stay "provocative" — by fat-shaming a prominent unauthorized immigrant activist, for example — but for the most part, it hasn't worked. She's been reduced to whining that she doesn't make the liberal media mad anymore.(Ironically, the most prominent national journalist to give Coulter a platform is Univision's Jorge Ramos.)

Donald Trump is billions of dollars richer than Ann Coulter, and he's not going to lose that fortune anytime soon. But he's not content with money — he wants attention. His presidential run is guaranteeing a certain amount of relevance, for as long as it lasts. But he hasn't just lost money over his anti-Mexican remarks — he's lost one major media platform (Celebrity Apprentice) and a substantial amount of mainstream credibility. The corporate media sees Donald Trump as politically toxic right now. It's possible to imagine that once he's no longer a well-polling presidential candidate, the news networks that cover him now will feel the same pressure that NBC and ESPN did to stop giving him a platform.

There is money in the conservative entertainment industry, from Fox News to publishing. But without enough attention or outrage from the mainstream, there isn't a lot of fame. And fame is what Donald Trump wants.

CORRECTION: This story originally stated that the mattress brand that had (and is not renewing) a contract with Trump was Sealy. It is actually Serta.

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