Maybe Money Is Speech After All: How Donald Trump’s Finances Measure His Legitimacy as a Candidate

The disastrous finances of Donald Trump’s campaign has gotten a lot of attention these past two days. The Times reports:

Donald J. Trump enters the general election campaign laboring under the worst financial and organizational disadvantage of any major party nominee in recent history, placing both his candidacy and his party in political peril.

Mr. Trump began June with just $1.3 million in cash on hand, a figure more typical for a campaign for the House of Representatives than the White House. He trailed Hillary Clinton, who raised more than $28 million in May, by more than $41 million, according to reports filed late Monday night with the Federal Election Commission.

I’ve noticed throughout this election season—it actually long predates this election—just how much a campaign’s finances are taken to be a proxy for its legitimacy. During the early months of the year, Bernie Sanders was consistently raising more money, on a monthly basis, than Hillary Clinton was. This was often taken by some in the media to be a sign of his greater support among the voters, even, at times, his greater legitimacy as a candidate. Now the same argument is being leveraged against Trump.

But, people may respond, these articles aren’t really commenting on Trump’s (or, before that, Sanders’s) legitimacy; they’re talking about his political viability, his competence as a manager of a campaign.

As someone noted on Facebook, though, that kind of managerial competence is not unrelated to our sense of democratic legitimacy: we assume that a badly managed campaign somehow signals a bad candidate which signals an illegitimate candidate.

But more important, I don’t think that argument quite gets at just how much our media equates robust fundraising skills with a candidate’s political credentials and democratic legitimacy.

Consider this representative passage from a piece in yesterday’s Washington Post:

Trump hasn’t raised much money yet, and he doesn’t seem inclined to do so; according to one report, after telling Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus that he’d call 20 large donors to make a pitch, he gave up after three. Fundraising is the least pleasant part of running for office, but unlike most candidates who suck it up and do what they have to, Trump may not be willing to spend the time dialing for dollars. Instead, he’s convinced that he can duplicate what he did in the primaries and run a low-budget campaign based on having rallies and doing TV interviews. As he told NBC’s Hallie Jackson, “I don’t think I need that money, frankly. I mean, look what we’re doing right now. This is like a commercial, right, except it’s tougher than a normal commercial.” It’s not like a commercial, because in interviews Trump gets challenged, and usually says something that makes him look foolish or dangerous. But he seems convinced that his ability to get limitless media coverage, no matter how critical that coverage is, will translate to an increase in support.

I take it as a given that Trump is a con man and a grifter, who is more than likely in this just for the money (never underestimate the grifter’s appetite for the buck.) But notice what he is saying: I don’t need money to speak. I can communicate directly with the media. Not just communicate, but have an actual back and forth, where reporters get to ask me questions and I get to answer them.

And notice this journalist’s response to that claim: That kind of communication with the media is not the mark of a serious candidate in a democratic election because those back and forth discussions with the media make that candidate look foolish. The real mark of a serious candidate in a democratic election is his willingness to raise large pots of money so that he can fund television aids where he gets to spread his soundbites unchallenged. The real mark of a serious candidate in a democratic election is the fact that he has raised large pots of money.

We hear a lot of complaints from liberals and Democrats about the Supreme Court conservatives who have turned money into speech worthy of First Amendment protection.

But here is our media essentially proffering a version of the same argument, measuring a candidate’s political seriousness by how willing he is to raise money and his democratic legitimacy by how much money he raises.


  1. John Maher June 21, 2016 at 9:19 pm | #

    I will invert Corey’s post and say that, paraphrasing the old western cinema trope concerning Apache saying, a man must be measured by the amount of his enemies on a more is better basis. By that logic Trump caused Hillary’s campaign fund raising level because middle of the road liberals are rightly scared on a visceral level of an extremist as ridiculous as Trump. As Prince Henry said after Agincourt, I would not have wanted more men to do battle with the French because the quality of stouthearted archers and knights was righteous and true and lesser mortals would have clogged the Champs des Mars.With a Trump victory, the reordered playing field starts to resemble Lebanese Phalanges circa 1975. Trump needs not the funds, he needs only the whipsawed emotional response of an American public who have displayed a flat affect since the crash of 2008 and who despair of no economic recovery. That and the October surprise someone is sure to whip out in early fall. My theory: there may be more than one.

    I commend Corey for the confessional nature of the writer;s bloc element and encourage him to snap out of it, possibly by discussing the dismissive hostility of establishment politics and liberals alike to Clarence Thomas.

  2. Joel in Oakland June 21, 2016 at 9:50 pm | #

    Money doesn’t talk, it swears – R. Zimmerman

  3. ronp June 22, 2016 at 12:47 am | #

    Great post. Media makes huge profits from political ads, so to play up the importance of it is self interest.

    Although you need funds for the “ground game” and GOTV too.

  4. Theo June 22, 2016 at 8:11 am | #

    Very interesting points. Then too the Washington Post is a Hillary supporter. The media are right in sync with the Gospel of the Supreme Court and the Republican Party: Money and the more the better and it doesn’t matter how you get it (if you are one of those who count) and those who have the most are the most worthy.

  5. louisproyect June 22, 2016 at 8:30 am | #

    Connecting the dots in class terms, Donald Trump has no significant support from any important sector of the American ruling class. All of the hysteria about a fascist takeover was missing the all-important question of how and why billionaires would want to see someone like him in the White House. They resented him for his faux leftist positions and much preferred someone like Jeb Bush whose shitty pro-big business stance alienated a large part of the Republican Party’s voting base because they are hurting. Trump is and was an outlier. We are not in danger of a fascist takeover but more of the same that dates back to the Carter administration: accommodation to banking and core manufacturing interests with a foreign policy anxious to do all sorts of evil but only as long as American casualties are kept to a minimum.

  6. Joe Lamport June 22, 2016 at 9:44 am | #

    Interesting post and interesting reflection on the media’s interest and self-interest when it comes to politics. I spoke to a friend the other day who publishes a high-visibility publication in Washington. I was surprised when he told me how poor business has been this year despite all the political turmoil and the general public fascination with the present train wreck/election. As he explained – web site traffic has been terrific but still ad income is off because the big advertisers and sponsors are staying on the sidelines, as evidenced by Apple’s recent decision to forego the Republican convention. And if sponsors stay away from the Republican convention then they will stay away from the Democratic convention well, because that’s just how our democracy works. The point of this is that it’s not surprising that the fourth estate would tend to view fundraising ability as a valid proxy for political seriousness since that reflects nothing so much as their self-interest.

  7. zenner41 June 22, 2016 at 4:52 pm | #

    I may be misinterpreting the point in this Post article, but it seems to me that the writer is saying that interviews with Trump are not the mark of a serious candidate because *in the case of this particular candidate* the more he opens his mouth the more foolish or dangerous he looks. I don’t think the writer is making a general point about all candidates.

    And of course interviews with DJT are certainly not actual backs and forths, because they’re just more opportunities for him to spit out words from his mouth that make him look more foolish or dangerous. Politicians in this country frequently waste lots of time saying things that really don’t increase the total amount of human knowledge much, but DJT is really a record-setter in this regard.

    However, your general point that raising lots of money (especially in a Presidential race) is usually taken as a sign of a serious candidate is true, of course. I think that part of the reason for this is that it does, in fact, take a lot of money for most candidates, because they buy a lot of TV ads and run an extensive “ground game” (which means hiring people to go out and convince other people to vote for the candidate).

    The fact that DJT seems to be thinking that he can continue to run a campaign based on mostly tweets and rallies, as he did in the primaries, is generally taken by the journalistic world as an indication that he’s kidding us about wanting to become President. I can see why journalists (outside of the far right crazy ones) think that, and I largely agree with him. After the Lewandowski firing, he may be trying to become a more conventional sort of candidate, but we’ll have to see whether he can actually pull that off. I’m very dubious that he can.

  8. Evan Neely June 24, 2016 at 2:40 pm | #

    I chalk a good deal of this up to people being happy about any evidence at all that suggests the Trump campaign is a complete joke. Even people like me, who don’t have a nationalist bone in their body and don’t fundamentally care about “the survival of America” or whatever, don’t want to think that there are tens of millions of people out there who will willingly vote for a complete fraud and racist. So we take any solace we can in signs that these people and their candidate are ineffectual.

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