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The lesson of Trump University: how little Trump’s supporters mean to him

Libby Nelson is Vox's policy editor, leading coverage of how government action and inaction shape American life. Libby has more than a decade of policy journalism experience, including at Inside Higher Ed and Politico. She joined Vox in 2014.

President-elect Donald Trump protested that if he didn’t have to focus on being president, he could have won the three lawsuits against Trump University instead of paying a $25 million settlement.

But he should consider $25 million a bargain. Settling with the plaintiffs didn’t just save Trump from the spectacle of testifying in court as he tries to set up his administration; it also puts an end to a case that revealed an ugly fact about the president-elect: In the past, he’s made his biggest fans believe that he’s going to use his power, wealth, and knowledge to help them — and then exploited them to enrich himself.

This is a facet of Trump’s personality that should trouble his supporters as much as his critics. During the campaign, white voters seemed undeterred by his racist remarks about Muslims and Mexicans. Lots of men — and plenty of women — weren’t put off by his misogyny. As ugly as those qualities seemed to Trump’s opponents, they signaled to his base that he was on their side against the forces of liberal elites, political correctness, and the Washington establishment.

But what happened at Trump University shows how Trump treats the people who think he’s fighting for them. The students at Trump University weren’t part of the liberal elite. They sincerely believed he wanted to help them. Instead, what Trump really wanted was to make as much money as possible.

The choices Trump has made so far in setting up his administration suggest that pattern of behavior wasn’t an anomaly. Instead, it could be a prelude to more of the same during his presidency.

Trump University had one goal: to separate gullible people from their money

The misleading claims about Trump University, which was in business from 2005 to 2010, started with the name.

Trump University wasn’t a sleazy for-profit college, as the name might suggest. It wasn’t any kind of college at all. It didn’t offer degrees, it didn’t hire professors, and it didn’t enroll students. It was just a grandiose name for a series of real estate seminars that promised participants they could learn the financial secrets that made Donald Trump so successful.

The first seminar was free. The second, a two-day affair, cost $1,500. And after the second seminar, the salespeople were supposed to upsell participants one more time to the real moneymaker: a $35,000 year-long mentorship.

And recruiters put on a hard sell. The playbook unsealed as part of the class-action suits against Trump University shows that they were trained to pressure participants who had come to the free seminar or the $1,500 version to sign up for the mentorship, telling them they couldn’t be successful otherwise.

They asked participants at the seminars to ask for increases in their credit limits, telling them that it would help improve their credit score, without mentioning that it would also allow them to charge more expensive Trump University courses. They sorted participants based on their financial background, so that they could put the most pressure on the ones with enough resources to pay for the $35,000 year-long course.

Salespeople toyed with customers’ emotions: “Fear is preventing you from investing in yourself,” one script read, according to the unsealed playbooks. “I find it very difficult to believe that you'll invest in anything else if you don't believe enough to invest in yourself and your education.”

The sales staff were cautioned against making specific promises, like telling students how soon they would be successful, because they could be held to it in court.

And the product they were selling was, some former employees said, ultimately worthless. "To my knowledge, not a single consumer who paid for a Trump University seminar program went on to successfully invest in real estate based upon the techniques that were taught," Ronald Schnackenberg, a former sales manager for Trump University, said in a deposition unsealed in May.

Without the puffery used to promote the seminars — calling them a “university,” saying Trump had “handpicked” the professors — Trump University might have been able to stay in business. It’s the specifics that tripped it up in court.

But even if it had been able to continue to operate, the business model was scammy. It played on the hopes and dreams of Trump’s fans, and used them to make more money for Trump.

“It was a façade,” another former executive said in a deposition. “A total lie.”

The students at Trump University looked a lot like Trump’s base

Trump University had specific types of people it preferred to target. The chief prospects, according to the playbook, were middle class or wealthier — well-educated, in their 40s or 50s, making at least $90,000 per year, worth at least $200,000, and living in a single-family home with a man as the head of the household. They should be married with children. They should give to charity. They should be "early adopters of the internet and currently heavy users."

The class-action lawsuits filed against the university, which have since been settled, suggested it swept in more vulnerable customers, too. One lawsuit was on behalf of retirees who had bought into Trump University’s promises and lost their savings.

Trump University’s customers, in other words, were similar to Trump’s voters — both demographically and in their faith in Trump to elevate them. During the campaign, this meant that the Trump University lawsuits were potentially very damaging. They suggested that even when Trump claims to be on the side of the little guy, he’s really working for himself.

But Trump proved a master of distraction. When the lawsuits started making headlines more often, he struck up a fight with Judge Gonzalo Curiel, who was overseeing two class-action lawsuits in California and had issued some rulings Trump disliked. Curiel, he said, couldn’t be trusted to oversee the case fairly because his parents were Mexican (he was born in the US) and belonged to a Hispanic lawyers’ association. Trump argued Curiel couldn’t be neutral in the case because Trump was promising to deport Mexican immigrants and build a wall on the border.

The comments about Curiel immediately drew censure and dominated the news cycle. Rep. Paul Ryan called them the “textbook definition” of a racist comment. It seemed like Trump was engaging in self-sabotage.

But he was also distracting the voters he needed most. The Curiel comments were appalling to many Americans, but they also changed the subject. Instead of talking about how Trump University was accused of cheating the people who looked like Trump’s supporters, the media, Trump’s critics, prominent Republicans, and Trump himself were all talking about Trump’s attitude toward a group that wasn’t likely to support him.

A Trump presidency could turn out a lot like Trump University

Trump didn’t just make exorbitant promises in the Trump University marketing materials. He also made them on the campaign trail, promising supporters that “every dream you’ve ever dreamed for your family and your country” would come true if they elected him.

Promising to make every dream come true is a tall order for anyone. But even the more concrete promises Trump made, and the messages his supporters took away from his less specific remarks, seem unlikely to be fulfilled. The president can’t force companies to bring back jobs from overseas or coal mines to reopen.

And Trump’s actual policies won’t do anything to help some of the people who propelled him into office: the white working class. His tax proposal would actually increase taxes for some middle-class families. The policies Ryan wants Trump to sign into law would cut programs that many working-class people depend on, including Medicaid. While Trump railed against the elites, he’s likely to appoint a former Goldman Sachs partner as Treasury secretary. Bankers are thrilled with his election.

This is why the Trump University story was so potentially damaging for Trump. It shows how his promises to help elevate the little guy ended up actually enriching the wealthy. The way he’s setting up his presidency so far suggests it could be more of the same.