For "blue-collar billionaire" Donald Trump, money's an asset

Posted at 11:42 AM, Jul 17, 2016
and last updated 2016-07-17 14:42:18-04

A handful of vacation homes. A car elevator for his four-car garage. A wife whose hobbies included show horses.

When Mitt Romney ran for president four years ago, his estimated $250 million fortune was quickly turned into a liability by Democrats, who painted the former Bain Capital chief as out of touch with Americans still struggling to recover from the Great Recession.

Four years later, Donald Trump's much-bigger pile of money is a central character of his campaign. And far from seeing it as a liability, the candidate flaunts it.

"I'm the most successful person ever to run for president," the billionaire businessman has bragged, noting that he's "really rich." On the stump, he vows to "make our country rich again."

Trump will officially become his party's nominee at this week's Republican convention, powered by white, working-class voters drawn to his populist message.

The billionaire lives an opulent life on Manhattan's Fifth Avenue, worlds away from the day-to-day reality of most supporters. Yet many nonetheless believe he understands their problems in ways other politicians do not. Some dub him the "blue-collar billionaire."

"You might say because he lives in the ivory tower he doesn't see what people are doing down below. He honestly does," said Claude Thompson, 59, a Trump supporter who lives in Fresno, Calif.

Thompson, who runs a property maintenance business, cited Trump's employment of people through his companies as proof of his working class connections. "He knows that these people are blue-collar people, they're middle income. ... So he understands America," he said.

The difference between the perception of Trump's and Romney's money, Trump supporters say, comes down to attitude.

While some felt that Romney tried to downplay his wealth, Trump has embraced it — even mocking, at times, Romney's smaller net worth.

The candidate jets around the country on his private plane, adorned with plush leather seats and gold-plated seatbelts. He sometimes holds rallies in open airplane hangars, landing triumphantly in front of screaming crowds. His campaign has doubled as a tour of his gilded properties, from Trump Tower in midtown Manhattan to the Mar-a-Lago club in Palm Beach.

"Trump's like, screw it, you know? I'm rich, I don't care," said Aspen Trevino of Carrollton, Texas. "He flaunts it. He makes it known."

Trevino, 25, said he views Trump as someone to look up to. "He makes it the America Dream, so people will say, 'I can do that.' I want to follow a president that I can look up to."

As the campaign moves toward the general election, Democrats have begun to paint Trump as an out-of-touch billionaire who has trampled the little guy to build his fortune. Among Democrats' evidence: contractors and vendors who suffered during company bankruptcies when Trump emerged just fine.

Whether that reputation will stick remains to be seen.

But there's no question that Trump's regular Joe habits — including his penchant for fast food — have helped him connect. His campaign has actively worked to cultivate the image, tweeting out photos of him digging into a Big Mac on his plane and publicizing his campaign stays at Holiday Inn Express hotels.

Evangelical leader Jerry Fallwell Jr. has recalled expecting a stuffy ride with "champagne and caviar" ahead of his first ride on Trump's plane. Instead, Trump treated the group to Wendy's cheeseburgers and fries.

Conservative radio host Howie Carr, another Trump backer, shared a similar story: Trump, he said, ordered lunch for the crew: "McDonald's all the way. ... He travels in an easy chair in front of a large TV screen turned to Fox."

"He's one of us," said Diane Priolo, 65, a social worker who lives in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. "I don't care if he's in a plane with 24 karat gold. He talks like us. He gets us. He's a guy from Queens who's not too big for his britches."

Indeed, Trump's supporters often credit his upbringing in Queens despite the fact that he was raised in a mansion by a millionaire real estate developer father who helped him get started with a $1 million loan.

Trump himself credits the summers he spent working on his father's construction sites for his ability to connect with blue-collar voters.

"I know them better than anybody will ever know them," he said during a recent phone interview. "I grew up on construction sites. ... I got to know the construction workers, the sheet rockers and the plumbers and the electrician and all of 'em. I worked with them. They were friends of mine."

"And frankly," Trump added, "I like them better than the rich people."