Don Jr comes up trumps in India
So there he was, his legacy overshadowing his every move and gait, every word and whisper, the Secret Service and minders hemming him in from unsavoury inquisitors. But quite overwhelmed by country bookings of the Trump Towers project, he warmed up to India, meeting his customers as promised, indulging in fireside chats and keeping it light and easy.
Donald Trump Jr whizzed in and out of the country, even took some potshots at his father and now US President and played the perfect, crafted contrast with his unassuming self, preferring to talk about his private life and India, which he betted on when he saw Indian guests checking into Trump Towers as part of their travel experience. It was eight years ago that he scribbled the blueprint of his India plan on a piece of napkin in New York with his friend Kalpesh Mehta. Of course, he cannot take up new ventures, careful as he is of avoiding the conflict of interest criticism by virtue of being a member of the US First Family. “But yes, I thought differently and looked at this part of the world as one full of potential. And I have been visiting India since the last ten years.”
He stayed off the seriousness of newsworthy engagement, be it of convergence potential in the Asia-Pacific, a subject he diplomatically dropped at an economic conclave earlier in the day or politics, which he felt was too “polarised” and “caught between binaries”. He didn’t want to give more fodder to the American Press, which has been panning him equally, calling him out on his social media comments on socialism, refugee influx and seriously nailing his lie on Russian links during his father’s presidential campaign. Even the dinner galas with home buyers in India and the presence of power players haven’t gone down well there, media observers speculating if he would not take back some messages to the US President of whom he is a close adviser.
So though he chose to show up proper, in black suit and pink tie, he could just as easily slip into ordinariness, be the guy in “jeans and ball cap” playing with his kids in the front yard or taking them camping. Having seen the performance-driven lives of his glamorous parents, he would like to be the normal dad. “I don’t want to miss out on my children’s events. That would be odd these days, so I try to be there for them.” He is hands-on father to five kids, who, he claimed, get more instagram hits.
So as Lara Dutta-Bhupathi, herself a brand ambassador of one of Trump Jr’s Indian promoters, fielded structured questions, Don Jr found himself at ease. He talked of the regular boy who grew up away from his famous parents, learning to love the outdoors, hiking, camping and fishing. He still loves to do that. “I can just make do with a 20 pound backpack and get somebody to drop me to a place that has no infrastructure or connectivity and I could be on my own. They could just come back to pick me up.”
He is pretty grounded, he said, simply because he had to work his way up to earn his place in the Trump empire, working extra man hours at the golf retreats the whole summer as an intern and not getting a raise. He tried to reason with his dad who felt he had not done anything extraordinary. But that’s how he learnt what keeping up a legacy is. Even when he mainstreamed into the family trade, he did take a career break of sorts, melting away in the outdoors. “I worked as a bartender, did odd jobs.... you could sort of call it an early retirement, a timeout to do all the things I wanted to do and not regret later. Of course, it was easier coming back to something that was already huge and didn’t need my presence at the time. Life is about dichotomies and you’ve got to know both sides.”
He didn’t have to helm the business on his shoulder like his father but he did learn the ropes the hard way. He recalled how as a young man at board meetings, people often underestimated his strengths. “It was actually a good thing to be underestimated. People prepared less thinking I would not know my job,” he told the gathering, laughing with them.
But he is a firm believer in work-life balance in today’s corporate world. “You don’t want to die thinking ‘I wish I had that one last deal’. Nobody says that,” he said. So he is not a “deal junkie” like some of his friends and father. “Oh yes, he is one... a bit of a perv there,” as the audience lauded him for his self-deprecatory take on father-son relations.
He admitted to having a thing for the sub-continent. Spending young years with Sri Lankan friends who would cook themselves, he developed an immunity to hot and spicy food. “I just loved the saag meat here on this trip. And I keep telling people I don’t want to be served the weak versions, just bring it on.”
The last ten years of to and fro taught him more things about India. “I would come for about 18 hours to finish up the land agreements and then find that it did not belong to the builder I had been introduced to in the first place, it belonged to his cousin or a friend’s cousin and there was no way of knowing who it would go back to. It is all cleaned up now though.”
Of course, there is one thing that he likes and dislikes about India — enthusiasm. “It is there in everybody, fuels the entrepreneurial spirit but an aggressive kind or over enthusiasm is a bit too much,” he said, which observers likened to his disapproval of bending rules with zealousness.
But he loved the Indian Press which he felt “got him” like many of his Indian friends. He still hadn’t forgotten how the Washington Post took his remark on lesser privileged Indians managing to smile despite their impoverishment as a patronising gesture of “liking poor people smile.” He clarified, “To those who heard me, I had made it very clear that the impoverishment is worrying and I am not insensitive to it. But still through that condition, people had an inexplicable spirit that’s not there in other emerging economies.” And it is this spirit he is counting on to redefine the skyline of Indian cities, given that his brand name and appearances did yield a noticeable spike in sales of his properties this week. But then that’s business as he kept on insisting he was here as a businessman. With five ventures under the Trump brand, India has the company’s largest number of projects outside the US and the stakes are high. The Trump Organisation charges a licensing fee to its Indian partners who build the properties under the Trump name. If given the top job back home, he would, of course, in his words, “keep America better.”
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