Next year, the Trump Network plans to add more products and extend its reach to Europe and Asia. The goal, Trump says, is to eventually become bigger than Amway, now an $8.4 billion company and the giant in the field. Whether or not the people of Laos will spring for a skin-care line from a man famous for his perma-tan, some Long Islanders seem convinced.
“People have said, ‘This is Donald Trump’s network-marketing company? I want in,’ ” says Alex, Izzo’s pretty 29-year-old daughter, who quit her job and moved back in with her parents last year in order to become a marketer, as the people in the network call themselves. “I was talking to a woman the other day and she said, ‘If I can’t trust Donald Trump, who can I trust?’ And I said, ‘You’re totally right.’ ”
Back at the seminar, her father asked to see a show of hands. “If there’s any doubt in this room, I’d like for you to show yourself,” he said. None was raised. “Rest assured, you cannot fail at this,” he said. “You can only give up.”
The people in Izzo’s office have plenty of reasons to be doubtful. Even though brands like Avon, Mary Kay, and Tupperware have become household names, network marketing has a somewhat unsavory reputation. Fraud is so rampant that the Federal Trade Commission has a section on its website warning people about them: “These plans, often called ‘multilevel marketing plans,’ sometimes promise commissions or rewards that never materialize,” it reads. “What’s worse, consumers are often urged to spend or ‘invest’ money in order to make it.”
In suburbs like the ones found on Long Island, where network-marketing fads tend to come and go with the frequency of LIRR trains, people raise an eyebrow at any new scheme that purports to make them rich.
Dylan Florea, a 31-year-old commercial real-estate broker at Izzo’s seminar, ticks off a list of programs he’s been introduced to. “Kangen Water, this water-purification system I bought this filter for. MonaVie, which is a drink made with … what are those berries? Acai? Melaleuca, this all-green cleaning line. Herbalife, which I thought was totally subpar.”
“I mean, it’s Long Island,” says Richard Chester, the cheerful, white-mustachioed accountant who brought me to the meeting. “There’s always something people are trying to rope you into.”
But this time, he thinks it might be different. “Who in their right mind would not go with something Donald Trump is promoting?” he asks.
“When you think of Donald Trump as a brand, what do you think of?” asks DeCaprio. The stout, tan president of Ideal Health looks at me expectantly, his suit as dark and crisp as his hair. Since bird-of-paradise hairstyle, Muppet eyebrows, fights with Rosie O’Donnell, “Best sex I ever had,” don’t seem to be the words he is waiting to hear, I stay quiet. “Prestige products, best in class, really being successful,” he says. “No matter what happens, he can come back out of the ground like a phoenix and get right back on top again. He represents entrepreneurialism for this country. He represents success.”
However improbably, Donald Trump, who will be roasted on Comedy Central this spring, has over the past few years come to represent those things to many people. Though recently he’s suffered a few setbacks: Two Trump-branded condo projects in Florida and Mexico failed last year; a number of buyers at Trump SoHo sued, claiming they’d been misled about the sales rates at the property; and ratings for The Apprentice are down 45 percent. Trump, with characteristic bravado, brushes off reports that he is losing his luster. “The brand has never been stronger!” he says. “We’re setting records in virtually every category! We just sold one of the most expensive apartments in New York. We’ve got the No. 1-selling tie at Macy’s, and we’re selling the hell out of shirts. And we’re expecting the Trump Network will do very well.”
Network marketing is an unusual foray for Trump, because it’s not seen as a luxury field; it tends to attract people who are undereducated, underemployed, or just underappreciated—people who “feel kind of invisible,” says Nicole Woolsey Biggart, author of Charismatic Capitalism. But network marketing can be a cash cow for those who own the companies, which tend to do well in bad economic times, when people are broke, desperate, and angry at the system. Even in good times, there’s not a lot of downside to owning one: The IRS doesn’t recognize marketers as employees, so you don’t have to pay them a salary or benefits. And owners can collect on even the worst sellers, who are usually required to purchase a minimum amount of products per month. Warren Buffett has called one of his network-marketing companies “the best investment I ever made.”