This is where we are at this point of the collective national nightmare of the Republican Party’s 2016 campaign: On Thursday, Donald Trump told The Wall Street Journal that because of US District Judge Gonzalo Curiel’s “Mexican heritage,” the federal judge has an “absolute conflict” in presiding over a lawsuit brought by former students of Trump’s self-named real-estate courses. Curiel’s ethnic background is of importance because, Trump said, “I’m building a wall. It’s an inherent conflict of interest.” Trump clearly misunderstands the concept; a defendant’s own prejudices have no bearing on whether a judge is unfit for the job.
When Trump first mentioned the Indiana-born judge’s ethnicity at a San Diego rally last Friday, it was to do his usual jabbing and dancing to avoid ethical punches. At that event, Trump raised Curiel and mentioned his ethnic background in the same breath: “The judge, who happens to be, we believe, Mexican, which is great, I think that’s fine,” adding that he was sure that Mexican Americans would come around to support him “when I give all these jobs, OK?” Then he circled back around. “I’m getting railroaded by the legal system,” he said, “Frankly, they should be ashamed.” Trump labeled Curiel “a hater of Donald Trump,” and also called him “a total disgrace.”
It was a classic Trump move: create bogeymen out of thin air in order to prop up his self-imagined victimhood; home in on a person’s race or sex as the basis for his attacks; and then antagonize as a form of diversion from the matter at hand. That matter would be Trump University, the mogul’s real-estate courses that purportedly taught customers how to become like Trump, for as much as $35,000, or starting at the low, low price of $1,495. The lawsuit alleges that far from teaching students actual real-estate expertise, Trump ran a fraudulent business scheme.
The marketing schemes for Trump’s real-estate seminars at times sound ripped straight from the recruitment playbooks of the scandal-plagued for-profit school industry, which has preyed on single moms, people of color, veterans, and those who’ve been locked out of more prestigious avenues for higher education.
Take, for instance, the 2010 Senate testimony of Joshua Pruyn, a former admissions representative for Westwood College, a for-profit chain of, at the time, 17 campuses. Pruyn was technically an admissions advisor, but in reality his position was that of a glorified sales rep. “During the interview, we were taught to portray ourselves as advisors looking out for the students’ best interests and ensuring they were a good fit for the school. This fake interview would allow the representative to ask students questions to uncover a student’s motivators and pain points—their hopes, fears, and insecurities—all of which would later be used to pressure a student to enroll,” Pruyn testified.
The for-profit schools industry targeted people of color, poor people, and veterans because they more likely to be eligible for public financial aid like Pell Grants. This much-parodied Everest College commercial should be very familiar with anyone who watches daytime television.
Students of color ended up forming the backbone of the industry’s explosive growth in the early and mid-2000s. In the 2010–11 school year, just as the Obama administration’s regulatory hammer started to fall on the industry, the for-profit system University of Phoenix was the nation’s top producer of new black undergrad graduates. The nation’s second-highest producer of new black baccalaureates that year was Ashford University, also a for-profit college.
When the industry’s comeuppance came, it was devastating. In lawsuit after lawsuit, universities were accused of fleecing students of their federal student-aid money and saddling them with debt they couldn’t repay, and leaving students with an education and credits that weren’t transferrable or recognized as valid by other educational institutions. In December 2015, after multiple settlements in various lawsuits, Westwood College—where former admissions recruiter Pruyn worked—agreed not to enroll any more students.
After suffering a barrage of these kinds of lawsuits and increased regulation from the Obama administration, the for-profit schools industry is now in the tank these days. Enrollment is down; many have been maligned for the shady businesses that they were, including Trump University.
Hours after Trump brought Judge Curiel into his campaign theater last week, Curiel unsealed documents related to his case, at the request of The Washington Post. Those documents detail the aggressive marketing and recruitment playbook that Trump University sales staffers worked from. The playbook urged sales members to not let prospective customers be deterred by their own lack of money (“If they believe in you and your product, they will find the money”), and to guide consumers through “the roller coaster of emotions,” so as to encourage students to cough up cash. The guides urged sales members to home in on people’s vulnerabilities for maximum effect “during closing time.” (“For example: are they a single parent of three children that may need money for food?”)
These tactics, Trump would rather not discuss. Always easier, after all, to pivot to the most base of appeals—racial and ethnic antagonism—and the cheapest of tactics—bullying others and calling it self-defense.