Trump's Freedom to Pander

He doesn't need to cater to big donors, so the billionaire candidate is able to tell Republican voters exactly what they want to hear.

Seth Wenig / AP

Donald Trump’s stunning success has been attributed by some voters to his independence, made possible by his massive wealth (and ego). The previous billionaire phenom, Ross Perot, conditioned us to think that one advantage of wealth is the freedom to say unpopular things. But Trump’s success shows the opposite: His wealth makes him free to say popular things.

Well, you might think, do candidates actually have to be “really rich” to follow the polls? Isn’t that just what politicians do from the moment they emerge, grinning, from the womb?

Actually, no. They chase polls sometimes—but  a lot of the time they chase money. And post-Citizens United that means they spend tremendous time courting a small number of big donors, who often espouse views at odds with those of the rank-and-file Republican voters.

Trump’s total lack of concern for the Republican donor class has freed him to take positions that actually line up well with the views of the primary electorate.

The Republican business establishment supports more immigration, not less. Trump has ignored the Chamber of Commerce position. The Republican donor class wants more trade, not less. Trump has railed against the Trans-Pacific Partnership and other trade deals.

The Koch brothers—and Republican elites in general—support entitlement reform, which is actually unpopular among many Republican voters. Trump promises to protect Social Security from cuts.

He talks a great deal about infrastructure improvements, which has just not been an issue for most Republican pols, pickled as they are in a general anti-government philosophy. Indeed Trump’s whole approach to government—I can do it better—just fundamentally cuts against the privatize-everything spirit on display at Republican donor retreats or Heritage Foundation conferences.

And one cannot help but wonder if Trump would have said that we’d be better off with Saddam Hussein in power if he’d been spending time sucking up to Sheldon Adelson. In the case of foreign policy, the Republican donor class tends to be neoconservative. Trump can afford to be eclectic.

Voters have always cottoned to the idea that rich politicians could be free to pursue the public interest. And certainly most of the Trump supporters interviewed cite his “truth telling.” But he isn’t using his financial independence to confront voters with hard truths or to take unpopular stands. He is, instead, exercising his freedom to truthfully tell voters what they already wanted to hear.