The president who campaigned as an independent outsider, beholden to no one, asks deep-pocketed contributors for their support.
Would it be worth it for America to elect a president who lacked experience and moral character if he could also promise unusual independence from moneyed elites?
Under Donald Trump, we won’t get an answer.
During the 2016 campaign, Trump told voters that he was self-funding his campaign, in contrast to other politicians who’d be beholden to wealthy interests. “You know a lot of times you see these really dumb deals,” he told Iowa voters in one characteristic pitch. “And you’ll say that’s dumb. It doesn’t make sense. But then when you think, it does make sense because these politicians are representing interests, whether it’s a country or a company, where doing the stupid deals actually makes sense only for that politician and for that company or country.”
Trump’s campaign did not honor the promise implicit in his words—it relied on spending from allied groups, backed by donors who went on to play influential roles in the transition and administration. As USA Today noted, for example, “billionaire Peter Thiel, who is playing a key role in Trump’s transition, donated $1 million in late October to Make America Number 1, a pro-Trump super PAC aligned with New York hedge-fund billionaire Robert Mercer and his daughter Rebekah.”
And Trump is now governing in a manner that underscores the falseness of his pretenses. The latest example is unfolding in Southern California, which Trump is visiting in order to spend time accommodating extremely rich people in exchange for big donations. The Los Angeles Times published an advertisement for the event, which is being held Tuesday in Beverly Hills and co-hosted with the Republican National Committee. The price of admission: $35,000 per person for dinner with no perks.
A photo with the president costs $100,000 per couple.
This sort of event is no different from many that former President Barack Obama attended over his eight years in office—or those that Hillary Clinton would be attending had she been elected. The difference is that Trump represented himself as someone who would “drain the swamp,” explicitly critiqued other pols who took money from elites, and presented himself as rich enough to be an alternative who wouldn’t be similarly beholden.
It would have been nice for the country if Trump’s flaws and inexperience were at least offset by unusual independence from moneyed interests, as some of his supporters expected. But those supporters ought to know that it hasn’t turned out that way.
Trump talked enough about the Rust Belt and coal country to win votes there. But his bread is still buttered in Beverly Hills, 90210, with people so fantastically wealthy that they can afford to drop six figures on a photo “opportunity” with a politician.
Trump’s presidency carries all the risks of empowering an inexperienced outsider, but isn’t yielding attendant rewards, because his selling point of independence was a con.