This week, the Fox News Poll put Donald Trump way out front in the Republican contest with 25% of the sample of registered voters. In second place is Johns Hopkins University neurosurgeon Ben Carson at 12%. Then, sliding into first place among actual politicians running for the Republican nomination for President, is Texas Senator Ted Cruz with 10%. The poll had several notable results. First, the continued stammering performance of the presumptive nominee, Jeb Bush, whose numbers fell from 15% to 9%. Second--though "notable" might be an overstatement--was Marco Rubio leading the pack in the race for "who would be your second choice" with 13%.
There are reasons that people like Donald Trump. Listen to him when he calls into Morning Joe or some other political gabfest, and he will really tell you what is on his mind. Listen to Scott Walker--who has probably suffered the greatest decline from borderline frontrunner status to where he is on the brink of being lapped by Carly Fiorina and John Kasich--drone on about how he won three races in four years (really, Scott, do you realize that just makes you an average Congressman) or Jeb stumble over exactly why it is he wants his brother to be his foreign policy advisor, and the Donald seems in contrast to be straightforward, confident and unscripted. Given the contrast with his cautious and highly scripted peers, it is no wonder that his supporters forgive the highly flexible nature of his positions on most any issue.
Whether you love him or hate him, or are just along for the entertainment value, Trump speaks with a clarity that is not typically part of our political discourse. At the first Republican debate, he startled people when he pointed to his fellow candidates on stage and commented not just that he had made political contributions to several of them, but that as a businessperson when he made those contributions he fully expected to receive something back in return--comments about campaign finance that the trendy news website Vox.com declared to be "shockingly insightful:"
"I will tell you that our system is broken. I gave to many people. Before this, before two months ago, I was a businessman. I give to everybody. When they call, I give. And you know what? When I need something from them, two years later, three years later, I call them. They are there for me. And that's a broken system."
Speaking to a crowd at the Iowa State Fair over the weekend, Trump expounded on how the system works:
"Many of the people that gave to Jeb, and to Hillary, and to everybody else, they're friends of mine, or enemies of mine, but they're people I know. These are not people that are doing it because they like the color of his hair, believe me. These are highly sophisticated killers. And when they give $5 million or $2 million or a $1 million to Jeb, they have him just like a puppet. He'll do whatever they want. He is their puppet. Believe me. And with me, I had yesterday a lobbyist call me up, it's a friend of mine, good guy, smart as hell. He's for his client. I don't blame him. He said, 'Donald, I want to put $5 million into your campaign.' I said, I don't need it, I don't want it. He said, 'No, no, I want to put five million in.' I said 'I don't want it. Because when you come back to me in two years and you want help for a company that you're representing or a country that you're representing, I'm going to do the right thing for the people of the United States. And I don't want to have to insult you.'"
Trump has upended the traditionally cautious political debate. In a campaign with well over a dozen candidates--many, if not all, with credible resumes boasting years of service as governors and senators, plus two prominent figures from industry and medicine--it is the reality show celebrity, birther and huckster extraordinaire who is leading the pack. But more than just leading the pack, Donald Trump has proven his ability to do what each of the others can only dream of: he can tap into the zeitgeist of a disenfranchised electorate and thumb his nose at big money fat cats--all while standing in front of a Butter Cow and giving kids helicopter rides at the Iowa State Fair. In a year where political money has been a driving narrative of the race--Jeb's $100 million war chest vs. Sheldon Adelson backing Marco Rubio vs. the Koch brothers picking Scott Walker vs. the Clinton money machine--Trump has asserted a scathing critique of our entire campaign finance system in words that everyone can understand.
Over the past several decades, the magnitude of spending on federal elections and lobbying has grown dramatically. Built upon the words of the First Amendment protecting freedom of speech and the right to petition the Government, a series of federal court decisions--including the Supreme Court decision in Citizens United--now provide the legal infrastructure supporting what Trump suggests is a massive influence peddling industry. The root of the problem has been the Supreme Court fixation on corruption as a function of quid pro quo relationships, while the art of lobbying and contributions in our nation's capital is not about quid pro quo contributions for official acts, but instead is about relationships that keep the quid and the pro quo separated in time but still deliver the goods.
Our corruption is deeper, more complex, and far more damaging. As the Donald observed--while the Butter Cow stood by in rapt attention--once you take the money, "they have him just like a puppet." And the money in question is huge. According to OpenSecrets.org, the finance industry alone paid out $507.3 million to federal candidates and parties in the 2014 campaign cycle, and that was an off year. The largest single recipient was New Jersey Democratic Senator Cory Booker, who received just over $4.1 million, with Republican leaders Mitch McConnell and John Boehner close behind at $3.7 million and $3.3 million, respectively. And that is just contributions from one industry.
The simple fact is that none of this money is contributed without a purpose. A lot of money is contributed because in Washington, DC, a lot is at stake, whether in legislation, in regulatory rulings or in other ways. As noted on OpenSecrets, the money that industries, companies, unions and issue groups spend on lobbying is often just a drop in the bucket compared to what they can reap in return if their lobbyists are successful.
The notion that access and influence are part of an economic relationship between donors and public officials that is comparable in its long-term effect to quid pro quo corruption--as OpenSecrets and Trump each suggest--is the theory that was specifically rejected by Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy in his majority opinion in Citizen's United. While Kennedy rejects explicit quid pro quo relationships as bribery, he embraces the notion that a natural alignment exists between elected officials and their contributors where "It is well understood that a substantial and legitimate reason, if not the only reason, to cast a vote for, or to make a contribution to, one candidate over another is that the candidate will respond by producing those political outcomes the supporter favors."
From where Anthony Kennedy sits, the politician who delivers the goods is being appropriately responsive to the interests of contributors, while to Donald Trump that politician is a puppet. Trump's casual allegory of sophisticated killers and puppet-masters poses a challenge to Kennedy's central conclusion in Citizen's United that "The appearance of influence or access... will not cause the electorate to lose faith in our democracy."
Many have argued for years that political money is a destructive force, but perhaps when Trump says it--and says it as a candidate speaking in plain English to an adoring crowd from the base of the Republican Party--people will begin to pay attention. If Trumps words are "shockingly insightful" it is only because people have not been paying attention. The shocking part is that a majority of Supreme Court justices still seems to be unwilling to acknowledge that our nation's capital is plagued by a systemic corruption that is rooted in money.
When Donald Trump's moment ultimately fades--which it must--and the Republican primary season returns to script, we will see whether his comments about political money have any lasting impact. One might imagine that when the mega-donors reassert their control over the process, people will demand to know exactly what those donors expect to get for their money. Or perhaps Anthony Kennedy is correct, and while people may claim to be shocked they nonetheless accept that money is an eternal fact of life in our democracy.