This week four anonymous plaintiffs filed a lawsuit against President Trump and his three oldest children — Donald Trump Jr., Eric Trump and Ivanka Trump — accusing them of enticing financially struggling Americans to enroll in two multilevel marketing companies (ACN and the eponymous Trump Network) as well as a seminar series called the Trump Institute. The suit alleges that in return for secret payments not disclosed to the sales targets, the Trumps talked up ACN and featured it on “The Celebrity Apprentice” not once but twice. These actions allegedlytricked the four plaintiffs — who included a homeless man and a woman working for a hospice — into “giving up hundreds or even thousands of dollars — losses that many experienced as devastating and life-altering.” Reading through the 164-page legal filing, I am reminded that the all-too-often predatory world of multilevel marketing explains much about Trump, too. It’s all there — the exaggerated claims of success for everyone and the nonstop need to make the sale, all carried out with a cultlike fervor.
Multilevel marketing, also known as network marketing, is a sales plan that people buy into — the $499 start-up fee that ACN charged its recruits for the “opportunity” to sell video phones is not uncommon. They then have the right to purchase and sell the product promoted. The lure: It’s a great product, and it will make you lots of money. Trump claimed, for example, that joining Trump Network offered its salespeople an opportunity for “unlimited income potential.”
But it’s not selling the goods — be they vitamins, telephones or the scads of others products out there, ranging from Amway (the origins of the DeVos family fortune) to sports drinks, scented candles and jewelry — that earns a payday for eager salespeople. The real money comes when they can persuade others to sign up and sell the company’s products, too. People who enroll in multilevel marketing businesses are explicitly instructed to reach out to friends, families, children’s schoolteachers, work acquaintances and almost anyone in their extended network to talk up the business, its products and the opportunity it represents. It reduces all human interactions to potential commercial transactions, ones that can be monetized for personal profit and gain.
Those people will forever pay a percentage of their sales to their recruiter (as long as he or she remains active in the company), and their recruiter above them, and so on up to the top of the line. The result? There are a handful of people at the top earning lots of money, while the remainder make very little. A survey released in September by personal financial website Magnify Money found that the typical multilevel marketing recruit earned 70 cents an hour — before expenses.
Failure, in other words, is almost certain. But multilevel marketing culture says it’s on you if that happens. You didn’t sell hard enough; you didn’t commit enough time; you didn’t invest even more money in the systems sold by — naturally — the multilevel marketing companies themselves. All this should discourage people, but often the opposite happens. There’s a bunker mentality. The result isn’t reflection but instead a doubling down. Salespeople, per ACN, are instructed to stay away from “negative” and “closed-minded” people who “are not only opposed to trying the products or the opportunity, but they will also try to convince you that there is no opportunity for you.” This is more than a con; it’s a cult.
Now think about the Trump presidency.
There is the con at the heart of this presidency: Trump campaigned as the champion of the working man, but almost everything he has done in office makes the wealthy wealthier. Multilevel marketing is all but a petri dish of income inequality, with a few top salespeople at the top earning hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of dollars annually, while the rest make do with scraps. The same is true of Trump’s signature tax cuts, which shower their benefits on the one percent, while giving relative pennies to the rest of the population.
There are the exaggerations, familiar to anyone who knows about multilevel marketing companies’ exaggerated promises of potential earnings. Trump has claimed in recent weeks that an arms deal with the Saudi government would create 450,000, or 500,000, or 600,000, or 1 million, or more than 1 million jobs. The correct total? The State Department says it’s “tens of thousands.” Multilevel marketing companies emphasize winning, strength and size. When he promoted the reelection of Rep. Kevin Yoder (R-Kan.), Trump claimed that he has “my Total Endorsement!” When Trump discussed Hurricane Florence, it’s “one of the biggest to ever hit,” and was “tremendously big and tremendously wet.” This is not the language of a politician. It’s the language of sales.
There is the complete absence of accountability. Even though less than 1 percent of multilevel marketing participants profit, it’s never the companies’ fault. As one ACN training pamphlet says, “Only you can give up on your dreams.” When U.S. soldiers died in raids he authorized, Trump blamed the generals. When his administration separated children from their parents at the U.S.-Mexico border, Trump blamed the Democrats. And when incidents of domestic terrorism took place last week — some attempted, another horribly successful — Trump blamed the media.
And there is the cult of Trump. Any event is viewed as an opportunity for him to display his sales skills. You are either with him or against him. The president is always right and righteous. The doubters? They are “fake.” Any outlet or person that reports negative information is to be avoided.
So where does this leave us? Well, here is one fact worth noting: The majority of multilevel marketing recruits will eventually realize that they’ve been had and move on. And, here, perhaps, we are seeing some signs of progress. Fox News is no longer airing Trump rallies live, perhaps because viewers are tiring of them. We’ll get a proxy for his public support when we see how Republicans do next Tuesday. Here’s hoping.