Donald Trump deserves some credit for extending the debate on campaign finance reform beyond the confines of Democratic talking points. When not insulting McCain’s war record or defaming immigrants, Trump has gleefully revealed his opponents’ dependence on influential donors, one of whom, of course, is the Donald himself.
Trump’s diatribes against campaign donations present a bizarre blend of honesty and hypocrisy, as he simultaneously lambasts his opponents for seeking donations while trumpeting his own disproportionate influence over their decisions.
“I hire the lobbyists, I know these guys,” Trump boasted as he decried the broken state of campaign finance at a picnic in Iowa, to the hoots and hollers of his supporters. “A guy like Bush, a guy like Walker, all of these people are controlled by the people who give them the money.”
Yes, this is a classic case of Trump-aggrandizement, whereby the real estate magnate asserts ownership over everything from Trump Towers to Jeb and Hillary. However, Trump’s admonitions on campaign finance come as a welcome breath of hot air to Americans of both parties, fed up with pandering politicians and seemingly sinister sugar daddies.
While Trump’s rally cries may come off as substance-free accusations of political corruption, his past writings on campaign finance paint a more nuanced picture of his policy preferences than his antics may suggest. In his 2000 book on policy, The America We Deserve, Trump called for Congress to pass three reforms to improve the state of American elections:
- A ban on “soft money,” i.e., donations funneled to candidates indirectly through third parties,
- An end to limits on personal contributions as a natural and “untouchable” entailment of personal freedom, and
- The embrace of complete transparency in the donor process, so that there is legally mandated “full and fast disclosure” of all contributions.
Trump’s first suggested reform, limiting soft money in politics, was effectively implemented by McCain-Feingold in 2002, only to be annulled by the Supreme Court in Citizens United v. FEC and the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals in Speechnow.org v. FEC.
The second reform, ending limits to personal contributions, has been effectively accomplished through the creation of super PACs which provide a political outlet for unlimited individual contributions, albeit not directly to a candidate or political party.
However, Trump’s final reform, full transparency, has been frustrated by loopholes that allow 501(c)4s to donate to PACs without disclosing donors, while Congress has repeatedly blocked efforts to close these gaps.
Should Trump choose to return to these principles, he will find support among the 76 percent of Republicans that support his goal of full public disclosure, but will have to explain himself to the vast majority of Republicans (and everybody else) who disagree with his support for unlimited contributions.
In light of these survey results, the Donald might benefit from proposing 1) legislation to shorten the mandatory disclosure time for PACs and super PACs following donations, or more radically, 2) an Amendment to reimpose a ban on soft money, which his donation-seeking opponents will likely oppose, directly bolstering his portrayal that they are corrupt. If Trump strategically pushes a call for such reforms, he might even directly threaten their financial lifelines and grab the ostensible moral high ground with undecided voters — at least on this issue.
Trump’s seemingly paradoxical position of, at once ridiculing candidates who seek donations, while supporting unlimited personal contributions, actually gives him an advantage over his Republican counterparts. Trump can continue to bankroll his own campaign while continuing to discredit his opponents as corrupt dependents. Trump may as well print out a list of each candidate’s major donors, and read them to America during any of the upcoming political debates — a particularly plausible scenario given Trump’s knack for reading opponents’ numbers.
So long as Republicans lack an effective response to Trump’s allegations, such as a call for limits on political contributions, Trump will maintain the upper hand in the discussion of money in politics as his opponents remain silent. As long as that’s the case, Trump may be able to delude some Americans into thinking that only the Donald, with his fabled horde of negotiators, businessmen, and salespeople, can ride into DC to purge the city of its dirty money.
Aaron Zelinger, a senior studying symbolic systems, is the former international editor of Stanford Political Journal.