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Back when I was paid to write about casinos, I had reason to talk to Donald Trump a few times. The first was for a story about the sudden death of another casino executive, and Trump was perfectly reasonable and said all the appropriate things. The second time was for an article about why his casino empire was crumbling. He didn’t want to meet in person, but was willing to talk by phone.

It was an open secret back then that Trump owned a tiny fraction of the casino company he founded. But since it carried his name, I figured I should ask why the company was struggling.

In the course of our brief conversation, he made it clear that he had left Atlantic City behind. The casinos were basically a licensing deal; he was getting paid to lend them his name and aura of success. “The Trump name is the hottest name going,” he told me, and if the casinos failed, it wasn’t because of him.

Besides, he had other things to occupy him: television. He just finished the first season of The Apprentice. “You wouldn’t believe how big this show is. It’s huge.”

Forward almost a decade and The Donald’s presidential run has taken over my Twitter feed. He’s making buffoonish statements about immigrants, he’s insulting John McCain, he’s flying to Laredo to inspect the border. And he’s rising to the top of the polls. The national media, once unsure of how to deal with him, can now justify its breathless coverage. He’s a legitimate candidate, they nod; he has to be taken seriously.

Except he’s not. And they don’t.

Trump has made millions, even if they’re not his claimed billions, from leveraging his name and image. And that business model only works if people know your name and image. The more attention you get, the more people know your name, and the more outrageous your antics, the more attention you get.

Like his spiritual cousin, George Steinbrenner, Trump thrived in the New York City outrage-entertainment industrial complex. The tabloids feasted on his divorce from Ivana and he feasted on the attention. The Apprentice took his act national. Running for president breathes new life into the flagging performance.

(One could argue this blog only feeds his hunger for attention. But since virtually no one reads it, he’ll gain little sustenance from me.)

Trump is a lot of things but dumb is not one of them. He knows he isn’t going to be president. But his run is generating him the sort of publicity – sustained, serious, ego-inflating publicity  – money just doesn’t buy. Whenever his romp through the GOP field ends, he’ll be in that much better position to negotiate his next TV deal and command higher prices to license his name.

It’s easy to treat Trump’s presidential run like a joke. But the joke’s on us.

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