If you follow the news media, and a gaggle of prominent Republican politicians, Donald Trump is an ugly eye sore in the face of the body politic and especially the Republican Party. He insults women, calls undocumented Mexican immigrants rapists and criminals and has nothing but contempt for most of his presidential Republican rivals. And the national GOP establishment is plotting, even as I write, to consign Trump to the electoral scrap heap. Needless to say, their plans are constantly thwarted by his persistent high poll numbers. Despite his blunt talk he remains at the top of the unwieldy pack because a fifth of potential primary voters love his brash, uncompromising presence.
Are his enemies motivated by respect for women and immigrants? Are they reacting to his sexism and racist remarks? If this were true, why is Marco Rubio, who has stated that he opposes abortion even if pregnancy is the result of incest or rape considered a promising contender? Or why is Jeb Bush the preferred candidate of the party’s establishment even as he 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? Or, the statements of a score of his primary opponents who want to seal the border with Mexico, and deny undocumented immigrants a path to citizenship? In fact, Trump has articulated positions that, however crude, are squarely in the party’s mainstream. If he betrays a libertarian strain, his main antagonist, Rand Paul, a staunch libertarian, is tolerated by the war-mongering Republican leadership, even though he is has expressed disagreement with the Bush, administration’s wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.
As the recent TV debate among the top ten candidates in the polls shows the Republican field is dominated by troglodytes who have not hesitated to repeat the mantra of reactionary politics: oppose the Iran nuclear deal, refuse to bend at all on issues of abortion and immigration, are resolutely anti-labor, and consciously avoid addressing of racial discrimination and police brutality. Why Trump, why now?
Letting the Cat Out of the Bag
At the debate and numerous public appearances he flaunts his wealth, defends his campaign contributions to Democratic as well as Republican national, state and local candidates, and openly declares that his gifts to politicians is a business expense. He went so far, before 24 million viewers at the debate, to declare that he uses his donations to obtain favors from eager legislators who are all too prepared to bow to his requests. In the traditional vernacular he implies that politicians are ‘bought and paid for’ by him and other financial moguls. In short, he lets the cat out of the bag, a stance that 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, at minimum, independent actors. We have tolerated well-funded lobbying organizations, most of which derive their money from rich donors and corporate investments. Hillary Clinton, the Democratic presidential front-runner 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. And it is an open secret that the overwhelming majority of US senators and a substantial portion of members of the House of Representatives are rich. In some instances, like Trump, they enter politics as 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. Another unpublicized source of Congressional wealth is insider trading. Senators and Congress people often get lucrative investment advice. The Clintons are personally flush from the largesse of six figure speeches, millions in book advances and their foundation is awash in dollars. Yet, we are asked to hold our government and its institutions free of direct influence, based on various forms of corruption, not all of which are directly caused by the exchange of money for policy decisions. During his presidency Bill Clinton was a loyal supplicant of conservatives who wanted to end welfare “as we know it” and weaken corporate regulation.
Yet here is Trump, in matter-of-fact tones, stating that he is an equal opportunity donor and not for the purpose of civic duty or altruism. He expects a fair return for his dollars and these are measured in policy rewards, mostly in the form of zoning adjustments, subsidies for building projects and long-term tax relief. Can one of the major parties field a presidential candidate who boasts that he gets what he pays for? For the major party establishments this kind of honesty has no place in the political marketplace. The Republicans have veered so far to the Right that the will tolerate, even welcome sexism, racism in the form of white American privilege. And with the help of the United States Supreme Court they welcome unrestricted campaign contributions to candidates, via the Super-PACs that literally run the two parties. But to nominate a figure who is frank about the intervention of big business in the political arena, who declares that money talks and bullshit walks is a gross violation of the illusion that propels government and politics, the presumption of political independence.
Back to the Future
Now, recall that Trump’s statements are not new as a practice of American politics. Historians have amply documented the naked power of big business in the 19th and early 20th centuries, the so-called Gilded Age. Figures like Jay Gould, the rail magnate, the energy king John D. Rockefeller and William Randolph Hearst, the first great media magnate, were not shy to admit their power over government. In the first decade of the 20th century, their arrogant power was challenged by powerful 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 and 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 Two, the reform impulse has ebbed, if not died. Beginning in the 1970s Congress 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. In short, Trump’s remarks merely reflect a reality that has been with us for decades. Of course, there are still a tiny corps of politicians who remain outside the money machine, but they are shrinking. Even some of the most progressive must rely on very rich donors if they expect to be elected. 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 own silly, derogatory statements and obvious contempt for the process his has chosen to engage. Taken correctly, he has opened the door to a new searching debate about what American democracy is actually about. His posture is, although unintentionally, a tribute to the ongoing subterranean influence of Occupy Wall Street, which dramatically conveyed the power of capital to rule our country. That is what roils the powers that be, not his outlandish remarks.
Stanley Aronowitz teaches sociology at CUNY Graduate Center. Author or editor of 27 books, the most recent is Death and Life of American Labor. An earlier version on this article appeared at Talking Points Memo.
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