Most Republican politicians don’t lament how wealthy donors have corrupted the political system through big campaign contributions. But Donald Trump is not like most Republican politicians.
Accepting the party’s presidential nomination on Thursday night, Trump returned to an argument that’s at least superficially similar to one routinely made by the left: that the money sloshing through US politics privileges special interests.
Here’s Trump on Thursday night attacking Hillary Clinton as a "puppet" of her wealthy donors:
A number of these reforms that I will outline tonight will be opposed by some of our nation’s most powerful special interests.
That is because these interests have rigged our political and economic system for their exclusive benefit.
Big business, elite media, and major donors are lining up behind the campaign of my opponent because they know she will keep our rigged system in place. They are throwing money at her because they have total control over everything she does. She is their puppet, and they pull the strings.
That is why Hillary Clinton’s message is that things will never change.
This is a line Trump frequently deployed against his Republican rivals in the primary, calling both Marco Rubio and Jeb Bush "puppets" of their big donors. Trump promised to self-fund his campaign instead, arguing that doing so would give him the freedom to act on behalf of the public.
The concept has worked brilliantly as a campaign strategy. One MSNBC report found it was the single biggest reason voters thrilled to Trump’s candidacy. It’s also the issue on which Trump consistently beats Clinton in polling:
But it also raises a real policy question. Trump may be a white nationalist with dangerously authoritarian tendencies. But isn’t it also theoretically possible that a Trump administration would be better at taking on special interests and lobbyists? Given that Trump is a billionaire who largely self-financed his own primary, isn’t it at least conceivable that he’d be less indebted to big donors than Clinton?
Donald Trump has courted the very big dollar donors he claims to fight against
I’ve thought a lot about this question and interviewed the leading campaign finance experts over the last several months. But my conclusion is ultimately pretty simple: No, Trump wouldn’t do more to help reduce the role of big money in politics. And he’d actually probably make things a good deal worse.
There are a few explanations for why, but the most important thing to recognize may be that Trump actually hasn’t kept his distance from the big donors he claims to despise. On a literal level, there’s really very little daylight between his campaign fundraising operation and Clinton’s.
Here’s a brief accounting of just how much Trump has courted the very donors and special interests he claims have corrupted his opponent:
- The embrace of Super PACs: Trump once called Super PACs "total scams" that are "very unfair" and allow lobbyists to buy off politicians.
But according to the Center for Public Integrity, Trump has now dived headlong into using them himself. At least three Super PACs — with tens of millions of dollars in the bank — are now acting on his behalf to spend money.
Now, Super PACs are working on Clinton's behalf as well, and she has maintained that she also wants to do away with them. But Trump’s theory has long been that you can’t both have a Super PAC working in your favor and then claim to govern free of their influence. By his own standard, he’s bought and paid for.
- Actively courting big donors for six-figure checks: But Trump isn’t just getting fundraising help from Super PACs.
In early May, Trump's team also announced that he would create a fundraising apparatus that would actively seek six-figure checks from the wealthiest donors in America. (The RNC and DNC have created a workaround to election spending limits called a "Joint Fundraising Committee," something I explained here.)
Trump has since raised over $32 million by going to these megawealthy donors, according to NPR. About 60 people gave over $100,000 each.
"He's done a complete 180," Josh Stewart, a spokesperson for the Sunlight Foundation, which tracks money in politics, told me.
- Cozying up to lobbyists, the Koch Brothers: Since winning the primary, Trump began "cozying up to professional government influencers" and asking "top defense industry lobbyists" to personally brief him, according to the Center for Public Integrity.
Moreover, after criticizing his primary rivals for wantonly "begging" the Koch Brothers for money, Trump began asking the Koch organization for help, according to USA Today.
- Trump eagerly sought big money for the primary: In a report for BuzzFeed on Monday, McKay Coppins revealed that Trump aggressively asked top Republican donors for their contributions, sending them personal messages and signed photos as direct appeals to the financial bigwigs.
"[Former Trump aide Sam] Nunberg later confessed to me that Trump’s principled stand against the corrupt donor class was little more than lucky spin," Coppins reported. "The truth is, he would have raised money if he could have … Donald never had any intention of self-financing."
According to Coppins, Trump came to reject money in politics because big donors wouldn’t fork over their dough to him — not because of any principled stand.
What Trump gets so wrong about our campaign finance system
But there’s another, more philosophical reason Trump fundamentally misunderstands the way big money influences our political system — and why he doesn’t offer anything remotely resembling a solution to fix it.
Trump’s conception of how money influences politics is clear: Like many Americans, he essentially imagines that Clinton — and his Republican rivals before her — engage in a quid pro quo in which donors are transactionally rewarded for their campaign contributions. This idea posits a direct line of influence from lobbyist to politician, and then back the other way for the return back-scratch.
Here’s Trump back during the debates:
"Their lobbyists, their special interests and their donors will start calling President Bush, President Clinton. And they’ll say: ‘You have to do it. They gave you a million dollars to your campaign."
There’s just one problem with this criticism: it’s wrong. According to most campaign finance experts I’ve interviewed, the real problem with our campaign finance system is not that donors are transactionally rewarded for their gifts. Instead, what happens is that politicians’ dependence on special interest money generally elevates the priorities of the wealthy across the board.
That itself is a massive problem with corrosive implications for democratic outcomes. In having to raise huge sums of money, politicians end up spending far more time with the superrich than they do with the poor and middle class. That makes them far more attuned to the priorities of elites and the megawealthy.
This is what makes Trump's response so off. He's a billionaire notorious for partying it up with the rich and famous. (Several literal billionaires spoke at the RNC convention.) Since he's ordinarily part of elite social circles, he'll be keenly attuned to their issues.
Trump has already demonstrated that his presidency would advance policies that favor the wealthy. His tax policy calls for unprecedented tax cuts for the superrich. His family would get a $7 billion windfall from his estate tax plan. He has no plans to raise the minimum wage or make college more affordable. His health care policy would screw millions of poor people.
"You can say that if you're spending your own money, you're free to do what you think and not be obligated to donors," Fred Wertheimer, founder and president of Democracy 21, a nonprofit that focuses on government transparency and campaign finance, told me in March. "But the other side of that coin is to say, 'We don't want really wealthy people to buy elections and have a system only run by the superrich.' And Trump doesn't say that."
Trump may look like a quick fix to Americans fed up with the big role money plays in our government. He's not.