How I Upset Donald Trump and a Few Other Powerful Billionaires

Or, what happens when you write a book about the political sway of wealthy donors

Thomas Galvez/Flickr

I was sitting in my office when the phone rang with the caller ID of “Trump Org.” “Oh no,” I thought. “It can’t be.” Ever since my book Billionaires: Reflections on the Upper Crust came out in September, weird things had happened. But hearing from Donald Trump’s organization was among the most bizarre.

In my book, I had recounted an amusing interaction with the New York billionaire. In 2012, I had been asked for a press comment about Trump speaking at the GOP convention. Tongue in cheek, I had replied that Republicans should send him on an all-expenses-paid trip around the world because if he spoke at the convention, he would bring the party nothing but trouble. The morning my quote was published, I got a phone call from Trump’s assistant. She asked for my email address, and after I gave it to her, she sent me a missive from the billionaire himself. He had pasted my comment about him into the body of the email and written in big, black, bold letters, “Darrell, You are a ‘fool’. Best wishes, Donald J. Trump.”

When the book came out, it generated no immediate response from the New York billionaire. But after I published a Political Power Index at that ranked Trump No. 23 on the list of wealthy individuals who had influenced the 2014 elections, his top executive called, complaining that his boss deserved a much better rating. How was the list devised, he asked? What criteria went into its compilation? As I explained that the rating was based on campaign contributions, issue advocacy, grassroots funding, and endorsements, among other things, this individual argued that my ranking of his CEO was way too low.

Other than the Koch brothers, who had spent hundreds of millions of dollars to elect a Republican Congress, who had more influence in 2014, he asked. According to him, Trump was the key person in this year’s GOP triumph, much more so than nearly all of the other people on the list. Trump had done endorsements and appearances, and recorded calls on behalf of a number of Republican candidates. I asked him how he thought Trump had swung the election. He pointed to robocalls and claimed Trump had turned around several close races. Indeed, the executive noted that according to their information, call recipients had listened to Trump’s robocall messages in their entirety as opposed to the average length of 8 to 10 seconds for other callers. That was impact, this man claimed, and evidence why Trump had been short-changed in my power index.

This unhappy response was not unusual. When I wrote Billionaires, I did not anticipate the outpouring of emotion it would generate from the super-wealthy themselves, despite the fact that I had seen the difficulties other writers had encountered when tackling the contentious topic of wealth in America. For example, Jane Mayer of The New Yorker wrote a critical article about conservative billionaires Charles and David Koch and became the object of a smear campaign of unknown origins that questioned her professionalism and personal integrity.

Following the publication of his best-selling book, Capital in the 21st Century, economist Thomas Piketty was accused of being leftist for noting that the value of capital was rising faster than wages and therefore exacerbating inequality. It didn’t matter that multi-billionaire Bill Gates agreed with Piketty, writing that inequality was a problem and governments could play an important role in offsetting the negative ramifications of inequity.

Others have detailed the legal and personal risks of criticizing the super-wealthy. In his book about the Koch family, Sons of Wichita, author Daniel Schulman documents family members’ uses of private detectives, legal threats, and press campaigns to deal with adversaries.

Based on these and other examples, it is clear that many billionaires are sensitive about their public portrayals—and have the resources to act on their discontent. Billionaires are a confident lot, I concluded. When they see things they don’t like, they go right to the source and demand action. These individuals didn’t make a billion dollars by being meek or timid.

More ominous than the Trump call was a long letter from North Carolina magnate Art Pope that arrived the week before the book was published. In legalistic language, he complained about inaccuracies and asked Brookings to “stop the distribution of Darrell West’s book until the false material is deleted or corrected.” In our original Political Power Index and the book, I had written that he had provided three-quarters of the funding to independent groups seeking to elect Republicans in North Carolina. This was not true, he wrote. He and his company had contributed $200,000 to a group called REAL Jobs NC.

In the book, I had footnoted this claim to a 2011 Jane Mayer article in The New Yorker, in which she wrote that “three quarters of the spending by independent groups in North Carolina’s 2010 state races came from accounts linked to Pope. The total amount that Pope, his family, and groups backed by him spent on the twenty two races was $2.2 million.”

The distinction between funding from Pope himself and groups affiliated with him was important in the new world of campaign finance. Mayer’s article was one of the earliest exposés on the world of “dark money,” where wealthy individuals fund activities both directly and through nonprofit organizations that seek to influence the public. Worried that he would sue to stop the book over this distinction, Brookings agreed to put a paper insert in the book changing the wording “came from Pope” to “were associated with Pope.” That slight change allowed us to go forward with the publication, but the episode was a sobering reminder that rich people are vigilant about their press clippings and not afraid to pursue authors.

The day after publication, a different problem arose when The Wall Street Journal printed a review by billionaire venture capitalist Tom Perkins. It struck me as odd that the paper would choose a billionaire to review a book critical of billionaires, but Perkins had an even more glaring conflict of interest: My book specifically condemns an outrageous letter to the editor he wrote in the Journal in January, comparing criticism of the top 1 percent to Nazi attacks on Jews during Kristallnacht. (One commenter on the Journal’s site said having Perkins review my book was like having the wolf assess Little Red Riding Hood.)

Perkins’s review was filled with inaccuracies. In comparing my book to Piketty’s, he gave the wrong title for the latter, calling it Capital in the Twentieth Century. He also erroneously attributed support for a wealth tax to me, even though I don’t find the idea practical, nor do I see it as likely to be adopted any time soon. Most dismaying was his accusation that I used a “red-tinted magnifying glass” in my analysis. Having studied the Joseph McCarthy era, I knew what the choice of color meant.

But not all the reactions were hostile—balancing them was a poignant response from Jennifer Pritzker, whom I had highlighted as the first known transgender billionaire and whose leadership on transgender issues I applauded. She wrote that she understood why I had highlighted that aspect of her background and said she planned to buy copies of the book for her friends and family members. Yet something bothered her. I had described her as a lieutenant in the U.S. military, but she had been promoted to lieutenant colonel, a position of greater responsibility. She noted that she believed she was the only American billionaire who had spent most of her professional career in the military. I told her I did not want to short-change her life accomplishments, especially given the personal adversity she had encountered, and would recommend that the next printing of the book include the elevated title. With all the condemnation of their political activities, individual billionaires deserve credit for the public service they do.