Trump has changed the rules about money in politics

Predicting the results of American politics was once quite simple: The candidate with the most money won almost all the time. The logic behind that was that running a political campaign, especially at the congressional and presidential level, cost a lot of money because of ad buys, consultants, staff, and the like and only those who could depend upon big money backers were the ones who could afford to do so. It was only if you had big money backing that the media treated you as a credible candidate and gave you respectful coverage while those who did not have money were ignored and marginalized or even ridiculed.

But the campaign of Donald Trump seems to violate that rule. He has not actually spent that much money and in fact has been vastly outspent by his rivals. This article looks at the megadonors who are backing Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio, and we know of course that Jeb Bush spent nearly $100 million on his campaign with hardly anything to show for it.

Jane Mayer of the New Yorker wonders whether the dominance of Trump is a sign of the end of big money in politics.

Has the power of big money in politics suddenly shrunk? There are many reasons to think so. Despite having spent surprisingly little on his Presidential campaign, and running in opposition to the Republican élite, Donald Trump is now the undisputed G.O.P. front-runner, after picking up seven more states on Super Tuesday. Jeb Bush, the Republican candidate with the best-funded Super PAC, was forced to drop out last month. By the time Bush suspended his campaign, the Super PAC Right to Rise had spent almost ninety million dollars on his behalf, with almost nothing to show for it. Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz, who both have their own roster of ultra-wealthy backers, appear to be in a struggle for the G.O.P. élite’s last leaky lifeboat.

Bill Moyers and Michael Winship write that the big money people are worried that they are losing control over this election and are calling for them to quickly rally and defeat Trump so that the establishment re-establishes control.

David Brooks is a worried man.

Like many establishment Republicans, the conservative columnist for The New York Times sees the barbarians pouring through the gates and fears for both his party and the republic. Hail, Trump! Hail, Cruz! It’s enough to send a sober centrist dashing through the Forum in search of a cudgel.

There was Brooks on a recent edition of the PBS NewsHour, his angst spilling out across the airwaves like fog from a nightmare: “I wish we had gray men in suits,” he told Judy Woodruff, conjuring in some nostalgia-minded the courtly cabal of well-heeled businessmen who drafted war hero Dwight D. Eisenhower to run for president as a Republican.

“We don’t have that,” Brooks continued. “But the donor class could do something.”

So let’s get this straight: One of the most prominent of Republican elites in the country, who has even been touted as President Obama’s “favorite pundit” (we’re not making this up!), is calling on the donor class to rescue the party from the rabble. Game’s over, voters: The oligarchs will decide this election.

For that’s what they are: a small, unbelievably wealthy group of the powerful and privileged who already have a tighter grip on our nation, its government, politics and economy than the rapacious robber barons of our first Gilded Age. Brooks and like-minded elites believe they must be trusted to do the right thing. Let them be the Deciderers.

What Trump has done is clarified the picture to say that it is not the actual spending of money that is the key but obtaining the credibility that you are a ‘serious’ candidate. Money still matters but perhaps not in the simple way I had thought. Money can buy you credibility but you do not have to actually spend a lot of it. As long as you give the perception that you have money and are willing to spend it, that alone buys you the credibility. If you then have the ability to grab the attention of the news media, then you become a serious candidate.

It may be that Trump is sui generis and his candidacy is of a kind that we will not see again. But the US has plenty of very wealthy people and it may well be that some are looking closely at Trump’s campaign and wondering if they could use it as a model for their own candidacy at a future date. The former mayor of New York, billionaire Michael Bloomberg, has money, even more than Trump, but does not have his gift for grabbing attention and hence cannot replicate his model.

But future elections may see a multiplicity of Trump-like candidates competing against each other.


  1. raven says

    . But the US has plenty of very wealthy people and it may well be that some are looking closely at Trump’s campaign and wondering if they could use it as a model for their own candidacy at a future date.

    This. This is what a lot of people are afraid of. Trump’s Fascism is a mass movement, from the bottom up. Trump is a symptom, not a cause.

    There are any number of Ivy league educated demagogues who could do what Trump does. Reflect the fear, anger, and hate of lower class whites back at them. Maybe even better. Trump is inexperienced at Fascism and has a lot of rough edges and a lot of past baggage. His appeal to the so called fundie xians is limited by the fact that he has been married three times and has negligible knowledge of the religion.

    Fascism, populism, and Nativism aren’t new and go in and out of fashion. The last time in the USA wasn’t even that long ago, George Wallace and the American party. I’m sure someone will try Trump’s model of Fascism and Nativism again and again.

  2. doublereed says

    No, this is just because it’s a presidential race. They have always been exceptional to such rules because of all the free media. There’s so much automatic press coverage that money in politics has less of an effect.

    It should be pointed out that Jeb Bush was a pathetically awful candidate in every way, and yet still became the governor of Florida. Money in Politics is still just as powerful as ever.

  3. Robert,+not+Bob says

    There may be no more elections, after the massacres we’re likely to see in November. (I mean real massacres, with bullets.)

  4. Dunc says

    It may be that Trump is sui generis and his candidacy is of a kind that we will not see again.

    I really wouldn’t bet on it. The grievances and resentments (both legitimate and illegitimate) he’s tapping into are very real, and they’re not going anywhere. A lot of people are no longer happy to be fobbed off with politics as usual. They’re mad as hell and they’re not going to take it anymore. If not Trump, then somebody else, and if not this time, then soon. Maybe even a *real* fascist, instead of this dime-store knock-off… The only way to prevent it is for someone sane to overthrow the dominance of the party elites and do something serious to address people’s legitimate grievances, and to be honest, I just don’t see that happening.

  5. raven says

    It may be that Trump is sui generis and his candidacy is of a kind that we will not see again.

    1. It will happen again when conditions favor it.

    2. We’ve seen it before. The last outbreak was George Wallace within my lifetime. It was similar including the rallies of wildly enthusiastic…racists.

    3. There was an outbreak of Trumpism in the pre-civil war USA. The know nothings of the American party. Few know about it because few know American history (including me, I just read about it in a recent book by Stephen Prothero). The driver there were German and Irish immigration and rabid anti-Catholicism which resulted in riots that killed hundreds. They even elected a president, Millard Fillmore, who no one remembers these days either.

    4. The enthusiasm which ends in violence isn’t a good indicator of support. Wallace had the same followers but didn’t do well in elections.

  6. lorn says

    The violence isn’t new, it has long been a part of the conservative message.

    Even when it wasn’t explicitly about beating people up, the violence was there. Freedom, meaning the freedom of people with money to do as they will with their money, usually meaning the ability of businesses to offshore industry and move their money to untaxed accounts in the Cayman Islands. Where is the violence you may ask. What do you think happens to the towns that lose those industrial jobs? Towns hollowed out, unemployment rampant, helplessness suicide and alcoholism epidemic. Towns that in a shockingly short amount of time look like they have been bombed. Yes, there was violence committed.

    It was easy enough to ignore at first. It was mostly black and brown and rural whites that suffered. Easy enough to turn it around and accuse them of being lazy. Welfare queens and young bucks buying lobster with food stamps. The morally weak indulging themselves with drugs and alcoholism. All they need do is “get a job”. The violence was indirect and focused on ‘those people’, not real Americans.

    Violence was always a political option. Gore lost, in part, because Democrats were unprepared to match the bully-boy tactics during the recount. For the Conservatives a willingness to cheat and resort to violence is just a test of loyalty and commitment.

    Torture and harsh treatment of the others is a sign of commitment.

    As demonstrated conservative violence is nothing new. In some ways the violence at Trump rallies is refreshing. Seeing it employed openly and without embarrassment or apology is just a matter of lifting the mask of civility and letting the face of the authoritarian conservative mind shine in all its red-fanged glory. I get the feeling they have always wanted to show their true face.

  7. lanir says

    As long as you give the perception that you have money and are willing to spend it, that alone buys you the credibility.

    That reminded me of this Mark Twain short story whose plot centered around the power of appearing to have money.

    The deep-seated problems that are generating interest in the Trump and Sanders campaigns are not likely to go away without being meaningfully addressed but I suspect later this year we’ll see Clinton elected and the oligarchy will think it has won again when the issues are no longer at the fore of the news cycles. People will forget this the same way they forgot Occupy Wallstreet. But it will continue to resurface. The political foundations of nativism are fed by money spent telling stories blaming powerless people for the consequences of predatory acts by those in power. The political foundations of this popular movement are sown by the active and continuing class warfare waged by the powerful against literally everyone else in the world. A redress of some sort is inevitable. At this point all one can hope for is reasonable terms. The complicating factor is that it appears as they push back to keep their current wealth safe, they show others of their class a weakness in the general populace that can be used to generate more wealth or power. Which they want to show up each other. But the popular movements are happening because a lot of people think they’ve been pushed too far. If too many of those people start to feel real desperation, I think this could get very, very ugly.

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