Club culture revives as “Winter White House” provides members an inside track on big deals and an elite window on breaking news. Early indications already show how much the chance to make the right connections is worth, even if it alienates the old money.
From the news flow coming out of Florida, it’s clear that Mar-a-Lago has graduated from the fringes of Palm Beach high society to full center of the universe status.
Even relatively newly initiated members get a front row seat in the dining room for diplomatic summits and the occasional missile crisis. Those with longer associations with the club are getting offers to help build the $20 billion border wall.
Suddenly this is the Gold Coast golden ticket. And while not every advisor will want to cough up the $200,000 to join, the lessons playing out here transfer everywhere the wealthy and powerful congregate.
Networking nexus or elite retreat?
Until the inauguration, most of the surface chatter around Mar-a-Lago came from people who wanted access to the membership as potential clients. For these luxury car dealers, high-end real estate agents and decorators, being in the same room with the Palm Beach elite was worth the initiation fee.
Plenty of wealth managers join social and country clubs for similar reasons. They may not really enjoy golf, but they know a lot of handshake deals happen on the course.
Figure one Ferrari sold to someone you met at the club every 14-15 years justifies the dues. In advisory terms, if your new contacts turn into $500,000 in new assets every year, the relationship becomes deeply profitable in a little over a decade.
But in the last few months, the math changed. The cachet of belonging to the president’s own social circle brought a stream of new applications, and then as it became clear that Trump himself would be flying down on weekends, the stream became a flood.
Suddenly Mar-a-Lago is a throwback to the exclusive club rooms of a previous century, when joining the group put you on the right side of a wall between the inside track and being completely frozen out.
Trump trusts his members. At least three have already received ambassadorial appointments while others serve as informal “advisors” on national construction projects.
Real estate tycoons Richard LeFrak and Bruce Toll belong to the club. They’ve talked to Trump about policy when they run into him on the grounds -- and now LeFrak is running the team that’s going to build his border wall.
So if you want the chance to sit in on high-level administration hiring decisions, the $200,000 membership makes it possible.
Again, this is really just club culture writ large. These institutions work because people share expertise and trade referrals across the network.
But this is a lot more than paying for introductions to the people who’ll buy your Ferraris. Higher stakes mean faster ROI on investment in the network.
Being first in line for ambassadorial appointments, for example, is worth at least $120,000 a year. It’s no wonder the roster has swelled to around 500 members for the first time in the club’s history.
Security versus grace
So far allowing paid access to what amounts to the presidential weekend home has been a delicate balancing act.
Since club culture depends on barriers to keep non-members out, the Secret Service checkpoints on the way in are really just an enhanced version of standard operating procedure.
While some members have groused about having to park farther away or grumbled about road closures and traffic, the thrill of seeing the administration on weekends has so far overcome the inconvenience.
Protesters on the fringes of the property have become an active headache. Reporters and other outsiders are also changing the mood inside the clubhouse.
If Mar-a-Lago was one of the old clubs that the Social Register recognizes, the membership might be in revolt by now. But this just isn’t that kind of institution.
Instead, the membership is abuzz with diplomat sightings and the occasional social media sensation of taking a picture with Secret Service agents in the field.
Repercussions for posting sensitive information have been informal as yet. The member who got the photo with the nuclear football became a target of Facebook criticism and since deleted his account.
Others have decided to eliminate their LinkedIn presence, which goes against the entire rationale for using club status as a networking tool. After all, if you want to promote yourself, secrecy is counterproductive.
It’s fairly clear that the protocols are evolving. The Secret Service may end up banning electronic devices within earshot of the presidential table or sequester Trump’s group entirely.
That retreat from club life would be an ambivalent proposition. On the one hand, getting chummy with the president is one of the top perks of membership and one of the key factors in the club’s recent renaissance.
But if security is a priority, that easy access may not be long for this world. After all, while country club applications can be harrowing, the process at Mar-a-Lago is still a far cry from what it takes to get a traditional security clearance.
Members have been screened for scandal but not to ensure that they won’t accidentally or intentionally betray national secrets they may overhear.
And they definitely haven’t been educated in where exactly the lines of conduct are. Normally that’s the job of the people who control the information barriers around the White House. In this situation, the only sane solution may be to recognize that club members will get inside the bubble and teach them what to do when it happens.
Theoretically, that’s simply an extension of traditional club culture, where member confidences remain confidential. If so, we may see Mar-a-Lago close ranks.
But in the meantime, the environment seems a little wider open than state secrets usually mandate. New members have been lining up to get close to Trump. Now that he’s established a pattern of hitting the club every weekend, Mar-a-Lago becomes a target for everyone with $200,000 and an urge to eavesdrop on the next spontaneous strategic briefing.
After all, it’s almost trivial to get a member directory now. Until that list gets locked up, the members will become targets themselves: targets of grifters if not active espionage.
We’ve seen how the public deals with Mar-a-Lago members who provide a window on presidential security arrangements. Actively unfriendly actors may play even harder ball to get what they want.
Ultimately the risks might outweigh the rewards of presidential access. But for now, it’s clear that Mar-a-Lago is the place to be.
And Trump owns it free and clear.