Amid the bellicose racist and anti-immigrant rhetoric that has garnered attention for Donald Trump’s campaign for the 2016 Republican Party presidential nomination lie questions about the role of money in politics and, more particularly, why the rich think they should rule — and why so many Americans apparently agree.
Trump has made his major claim to qualification for the presidency his business acumen. His purported reason for running an ostensibly mostly self-financed campaign: to maintain his independence from the undue sway of “special interests.” But all this shields his real base contention: that the rich should rule.
Especially in the early months of his candidacy, Trump repeatedly bragged about rejecting offers of financial support from large contributors and in the process both proclaimed his independence from the influence that such donors expect and simultaneously swiped at his opponents for their dependence on such contributions.
When asked about the campaign contributions he himself has made in the past, Trump readily admits that he willingly contributed to candidates in both major parties. Such donations, he says, buy access to politicians and other policy makers.
“I give to everybody,” Trump has proclaimed. “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. That’s a broken system.”
His candor about such matters has undoubtedly made a number of people squirm. But, quite notably, Trump has not supported any campaign finance reform, either through the imposition of contribution or spending limits or via free television airtime, as a way to address the influence that money can buy.
Instead, Trump’s campaign expects us to presume that his wealth stands as evidence of his intelligence, that his financial position leaves him unfettered to special interests. This “independence,” in turn, makes it possible for him to rule for the larger public good and qualifies him for the presidency, despite a lack of political experience, vague policy proposals, and a combative personality that effectively plays on people’s fears.
Assertions about the political wisdom of the wealthy have deep historical roots in the United States. Right from the early years of the republic, declarations about the special capacity of the rich to rule have abounded. As with Trump, those arguments rested on several interrelated elements:
1) that economic independence guarantees that those in decision-making positions will be driven by virtue rather than self-interest and will, accordingly, exercise judgment in the best interests of the country.
2) that financial autonomy emancipates a candidate from the compunction to please those on whom others may be dependent.
3) that the possession of wealth that makes such independence possible demonstrates certain character traits that qualify an individual to rule, among them a level of reason and virtue that reveal the capacity to identify and promote the common good.
This line of argument obscures the adherence of wealthy people like Trump to economic policies that will only further expand the chasm between the 1 and the 99 percent.
Historically, the assertion that the rich should rule has meant that those considered financially dependent — women, slaves, apprentices, and those who did not own land — have not been considered qualified to rule nor, for many years, qualified to even vote.
Long battles over many years successfully eliminated property qualifications for voting and extended the franchise to women and African Americans, though the fight certainly continues. But despite these efforts to diffuse political power, the notion that the wealthy are uniquely capable of governing persists. And this notion persists in part because people are drawn to the idea of rulers acting out of altruism and for the social good, in part because they accept the idea that the holding of great wealth signals great wisdom and in part because they aspire to be rich themselves.
Claire Goldstene has taught United States history at the University of Maryland, the University of North Florida, and American University. The author of The Struggle for America’s Promise: Equal Opportunity at the Dawn of Corporate Capital (2014), she can be reached at email@example.com.