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Hillary Clinton’s Atlantic City speech is her answer to Donald Trump’s populism

Speaking today in Atlantic City, Hillary Clinton lit into Donald Trump’s record of managing casinos in the New Jersey resort town and gambling mecca, and argued that his business career shows he’s unfit to serve as president.

"As the people of Atlantic City know better than anyone," she said, "Donald Trump cannot get the job done for American workers."

Trump is essentially unique among modern presidential candidates in having no experience in elected office or high-level government service. Consequently, much of his campaign necessarily focuses on the idea that the skills he has deployed as a businessman are both admirable and transferable to service in the Oval Office.

But Clinton is arguing that his actual business record proves the opposite — that he’s only skilled at enriching himself at the expense of others and has demonstrated no competence in actually building and managing sustainable operating companies.

"What he did for his businesses and his workers," said Clinton, "is nothing to brag about. In fact, it’s shameful. And every single voter in America needs to hear about it."

Trump on Atlantic City: "I made a lot of money"

On the surface, Trump’s close association with Atlantic City, where several casinos once boasted his name but which has now become something of an economic disaster zone (see Nick Paumgarten’s "The Death and Life of Atlantic City" for an excellent account that has nothing to do with Trump), is a bad look.

But Trump has a standard line of defense on this point.

"I made a lot of money in Atlantic City," he said in a Republican debate late last year. "And I'm very proud of it."

He further notes that he personally got out of the Atlantic City casino business before it collapsed entirely, and that the collapse of Atlantic City casinos has much more to do with the spread of legal gambling to other East Coast locations than with anything particular to the Atlantic City properties.

This all appears to be true. But the upshot of extensive reporting from Russ Buettner and Charles V. Bagli of the New York Times is that Trump made money despite the fact that his "casino business was a protracted failure" in which he "put up little of his own money, shifted personal debts to the casinos and collected millions of dollars in salary, bonuses and other payments."

As Clinton put it, "He intentionally ran up huge amounts of debt on his companies — hundreds of millions of dollars — he borrowed at high interest rates, he defaulted on those loans, didn’t pay them back, and in the end he declared bankruptcy four times."

How Trump made money

Trump made money in Atlantic City through two primary means. First, he extracted management fees from companies he was involved with, and second, he transferred personal debts to companies he controlled:

  • The pattern started with his very first Atlantic City venture, a partnership with Harrah’s for which he was paid a $24 million construction management fee.
  • Over the years, the Times reports, Trump "collected millions of dollars in salary, bonuses and other payments."
  • In 1993 the Trump Plaza casino sold more than $100 million in junk bonds, and "more than half of the new money went to pay off Mr. Trump’s unrelated personal loans."
  • In 1995 the company staged an IPO, and then a week later "the new company began using some of the almost $300 million it had raised to clear Mr. Trump’s personal debts."
  • Trump’s casinos paid $300,000 a year for the right to use Trump’s jet to transport celebrities to gigs.
  • Trump appears to have bilked the shareholders of Trump casinos and resorts out of the opportunity to share in a $1 million profit related to the sale of shares in Riviera Hotel and Casino, keeping the money for himself instead.

What Trump did not do, according to the Times, was run successful casinos:

  • "Revenues at other Atlantic City casinos rose 18 percent from 1997 through 2002; Mr. Trump’s fell by 1 percent."
  • "Had Mr. Trump’s revenues grown at the rate of other Atlantic City casinos, his company could have made its interest payments and possibly registered a profit."

The public company never turned a profit, leaving behind a trail of losses for shareholders and bondholders and unpaid bills to contractors and subcontractors.

This is Clinton’s counter to Trump’s populism

In what’s generally regarded as his best speech of the campaign, Donald Trump lambasted Clinton as a "corrupt" candidate who "gets rich by making you poor."

The essence of the charge is that Clinton and her husband, who hail from relatively modest origins but have been powerful politicians for decades now, have sold out the American working class to the forces of globalization. They’ve raised money for their foundation and profited personally from speaking fees, all while promoting policies that have opened up American workers to competition from foreign trade and immigration.

Trump’s own ideas in this regard don’t make much sense and wouldn’t help many people, but it’s a fundamentally powerful frame for connecting concerns about Clinton scandals and cultural anxieties around immigration with concrete economic issues.

The Atlantic City speech is Clinton’s best and most direct counter to this populism.

Trump, Clinton argues, "always got paid no matter how his companies performed" and proved himself to be someone with a fundamentally exploitative approach to business dealings. Contractors didn’t get paid, "and many of them went bust, but Trump walked away with millions."

Whatever else you may throw at her, Clinton can always fall back on a long list of initiatives promoted or enacted by herself, her husband, and Barack Obama that were aimed squarely at helping people afford health care, higher education, child care, etc.

Trump has nothing but his businesses, and his approach to business is fundamentally zero-sum, emphasizing "winning" deals and mining the value of his brand name rather than inventing new products or creating sustainable ongoing enterprises.

With Trump, says Clinton, "it’s not about what he can build — it’s about what he can take." She says "he didn’t just take advantage of investors; he took advantage of working people as well."

It’s a charge that’s particularly powerful because while Clinton can always try to pivot away from aspects of her record that she’s less proud of in favor of discussing more popular aspects of her legacy, Trump really doesn’t have much beyond his businesses. Either he can make the case that his record of taking money out of Atlantic City and running a fake university is admirable, or he has nothing at all.

The bad map we see every presidential election

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