The GOP establishment has been plotting to consign Donald Trump to the electoral scrap heap ever since he entered the race. The question we should ask is why.
One hopes his enemies would be motivated by disgust for his sexist and racist remarks. But Trump has articulated positions that, however crude, are squarely in the party’s mainstream. Marco Rubio opposes abortion even if a pregnancy is the result of incest or rape. Jeb Bush sees no reason for the federal government to allocate a half billion dollars to women’s health, and urges workers to work harder as a part of the cure for our economic malaise. Trump’s statements on immigration are just more bombastic versions of his opponents who want to seal the border with Mexico and deny undocumented immigrants a path to citizenship.
And it can’t be because Trump displays a libertarian strain. His main antagonist, Rand Paul, a staunch libertarian, is tolerated by the war-mongering Republican leadership, even though he has expressed disagreement with the Bush administration’s wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.
So why is Trump the enemy, really? The GOP will say it’s because he’s a clown, he has no experience, he can’t win, he’s more a celebrity than a politician. This might all be true. But there’s another big reason they’d rather not talk about.
At the debate and numerous public appearances, Trump has matter-of-factly stated that he is an equal opportunity donor to Republican and Democratic candidates—not for the purpose of civic duty or altruism, but in exchange for influence. He has openly deemed his gifts to politicians a business expense. He went so far as to declare, before 24 million viewers at the debate, that he uses his donations to obtain favors from legislators who are all too eager to bow to his requests. He not-so-subtly implies that politicians are bought and paid for by him and other financial moguls. And he expects a fair return for those dollars, measured in policy rewards like zoning adjustments, subsidies for building projects and long-term tax relief.
In short, he lets the cat out of the bag about something the political system has spent more than a century to disguise.
Representative democracy can only remain legitimate in the eyes of its citizens if they believe that those who seek and hold public office are independent actors. We have tolerated well-funded lobbying organizations, most of which get their money from rich donors and corporate investments. Hillary Clinton admits she receives huge contributions to her campaign from Wall Street titans. But she adamantly denies that these millions of dollars influence her political decisions.
It is an open secret that the overwhelming majority of U.S. senators and a substantial portion of members of the House of Representatives are rich. In some instances, like Trump, they enter politics as “independently wealthy” candidates. But in many if not most cases their money comes from high-end speakers fees from corporations and their non-profit foundations and institutions. Senators and Congresspeople often participate in insider trading, getting lucrative investment advice from Wall Streeters or congressional financial and economic staffers.
Many of us know all this. Yet we are still asked to hold up the myth that the government should be free of direct influence. Trump shatters this tacit agreement into a million pieces. This kind of honesty has no place in the political marketplace.
The Republicans have veered so far to the right that they will tolerate, even welcome, the ugly side effects of white American privilege. And with the help of the United States Supreme Court, they welcome unrestricted campaign contributions to candidates. But to nominate a figure who is frank about the intervention of big business in the political arena, who declares that money talks—that’s a gross violation of the illusion that propels government and politics, the presumption of political independence.
Of course, Trump’s blunt statements about the influence of money over politics are nothing new. Historians have amply documented the naked power of big business in the 19th and early 20th centuries. Figures like rail magnate Jay Gould, the energy king John D. Rockefeller and media mogul William Randolph Hearst were not shy about admitting their power over government. In the first decade of the 20th century, their power was challenged by populist and socialist movements and the fledgling labor movement. Congress and state governments passed laws to regulate business, and a significant minority of social reformers were elected to Congress. A scion of early American wealth, Franklin D. Roosevelt, joined the reformers during his first two White House terms.
But since the end of World War II, the reform impulse has ebbed, if not died. Beginning in the 1970s the Congresses and White Houses of both leading parties have watered down and even revoked business regulation. And politicians have lost the vestiges of independence they once wore proudly.
Trump’s remarks merely reflect a reality that has been with us for decades. Of course, there is still a tiny group of politicians—Vermont senators Patrick Leahy and Bernie Sanders, for instance, or Ohio’s progressive senator Sherrod Brown—who remain outside the money machine, but that group is shrinking. Even some of the most progressive candidates must rely on very rich donors if they expect to be elected; Elizabeth Warren, who has excoriated Wall Street and the government’s soft policies against flagrantly illegal bank shenanigans, had to accept big bucks from big donors to stay competitive during her victorious first election. The bare truth is that until we have mandatory public financing of political campaigns and rigorously prohibit private donations, democracy is likely to remain a utopian ideal. Even then, without aggressive enforcement, the old order is likely to return.
We should be grateful for Donald Trump, despite his silly, derogatory statements and obvious contempt for the process in which he has chosen to engage. He has opened the door to a new debate about what American democracy is actually about. His posture unintentionally parallels how Occupy Wall Street exposed the power of capital to rule our country.
In national elections, nearly half of registered voters stay home. The conventional explanation is apathy. But if people believe that politics is run by big money and have little faith that their vote can produce real change, they respond to someone who at least seems to be telling the truth. Trump is no saint, but we have to admit that he has tapped into a collective revulsion for politics as usual.
Stanley Aronowitz teaches sociology at CUNY Graduate Center. Author or editor of 27 books, the most recent is Death and Life of American Labor.