Trump’s Worst Argument
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Is it better to represent the agenda of one rich guy or 1,000 rich guys?
Donald Trump continues to lead the GOP presidential field in the polls, which means it’s time to start taking his ideas more seriously. One place to start is his argument that because he’s a billionaire who doesn’t depend on contributions from others, he’s somehow superior because he’s immune from political influence.
The casino magnate refers to his competitors who accept political donations as “puppets” who are “totally controlled by special interests, lobbyists and donors.” In contrast, he says, “I don’t need anybody’s money. I don’t want anybody’s money.” It is a consistent part of his pitch to voters—that he’s “very rich” and therefore cannot be induced to indulge a narrow special interest.
The argument plays into the current political frustration with Washington, but it is as self-serving as it is dangerous to democracy. What he’s really saying is that nobody who isn’t wealthy should be able to run for President because only the superrich can be untainted by political corruption.
But most politicians aren’t rich, which means they have to raise money from others. This has the benefit of testing the level of their support as well as forcing them to build political coalitions. The broader their support, the less likely any single donor or constituency would have inordinate influence.
Campaign money also increases political competition. Without donations, politicians who aren’t wealthy or well known would never be able to wage a competitive campaign for the White House. A major reason this year’s Republican field is so wide and deep is because candidates have access to more donations via super PACs. Americans should want a system in which middle-class candidates like Marco Rubio or Scott Walker have a chance to be President.
“I know how the system works better than anybody,” Mr. Trump also says, explaining that accepting a large donation creates an obligation to return the favor. Favors to campaign donors happen every day in Washington, but politicians also often disappoint their campaign supporters once in office. Politics attracts many despicable characters, but some of the people drawn to government service are there because they are animated by a cause.
Still, let’s assume in Trumpian fashion that his rivals will, if elected, merely pursue the agenda of their high-dollar contributors. Jeb Bush and Hillary Clinton raise a lot of money from the financial industry. Mrs. Clinton also has a well-heeled constituency in Hollywood, the plaintiffs bar, government unions and elite universities. Mr. Bush’s biggest donors are in various industries including energy, health care and manufacturing.
This is public information that voters should consider. Let’s assume for the moment that Mrs. Clinton would set out to please coastal liberals while Mr. Bush would want to please the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.
The stolen base in the Trump argument is that if elected the other candidates would have agendas but he wouldn’t. The truth is that even if he never takes a nickel from a lobbyist, Mr. Trump will still be influenced by his largest campaign donor—himself. To say the least, he’s never been shy about pursuing his interests.
Then again, Mr. Trump is new to the presidential campaign and on Sunday he said he also is open to taking contributions, large and small, as long as there are “no strings attached.” Like any other politician.
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