Donald Trump and the Rise of Plutocracy

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Donald Trump in Portsmouth, New Hampshire on Wednesday. April 27, 2011. Mark Peterson / Redux

Of the things Donald Trump has said since he began hinting at a presidential candidacy, the one that most requires challenging is his assertion that people keep asking him to run. Journalists are vigilant defenders of truth when the subject is President Obama's birthplace or OPEC prices. They are credulous when it comes to explaining populist movements. They assume the impetus always comes from the demand side. People are "fed up"! There is an "anti-incumbent sentiment" in the air!

Such demand-side sentiments can explain a lot—but not why certain members of the public might wish to be governed by a billionaire yahoo. For that, it is just as important to look at the supply side. Trump's candidacy comes from a sociological fact—the steady rise of plutocracy over the last quarter century—as well as a public sentiment. The truth is not universally enough acknowledged that a man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of political influence. Diversifying one's portfolio to include clout as well as money makes sense. Bill Gates does it through charity and lobbying. Other billionaires, like Trump, run for president. Logic and megalomania counsel the same course.

The psychology of independent candidacies is much the same as when the data mogul H. Ross Perot ran in 1992. Perot had mulled running for years, possibly in tandem with Chrysler executive Lee Iacocca, as Iacocca later revealed. Despite an erratic performance, Perot led the whole field for a while and ended up beating Bush in Maine, winning a quarter of the votes in Massachusetts, and taking a fifth of them in the country as a whole.

The difference between then and now is that the plutocratic universe has expanded enormously. There were 71 billionaires on the Forbes 400 list when Perot declared, and Perot was among the very richest—he had been one of 13 billionaires on the original list in 1982. Today there are more American billionaires than one can even fit on a list 400 names long. Trump, with a fortune estimated at $2.4 billion to $2.7 billion, is merely the 153rd-richest American, and the roll of potentially self-financing candidates is longer than that. In 1996, when publisher Steve Forbes ran for president, his wealth—$430 million—caused jaws to drop. Today there are rappers worth more than that. (Say, Jay-Z at $450 million.) There are comedians worth more. (Say, Jerry Seinfeld at $800 million.)

Like many a rich man before him, Perot met his downfall by deluding himself that what was special about him was something other than his money. In Mad as Hell, Jack W. Germond and Jules Witcover's history of the campaign, consultant Ed Rollins recalls asking for a national budget for yard signs. "Ten million dollars for yard signs?" Perot asked. "Can't they make their own yard signs?"

There are stylistic similarities between the Perot and Trump campaigns. Both candidates, as businessmen, had ties to the establishment that they now diagnose as corrupt. (Trump gave $50,000 to Rahm Emanuel's campaign for Chicago mayor, which ended just weeks ago.) Both are stubbornly vague. Where Perot believed America's problems could be solved by "looking under the hood" of the economy, Trump promises to tell those who take advantage of America, from Chinese currency manipulators to Arabian oil cartelists, "Fellows, you've had your fun."

Say what you will about Perot, his focus was on the American people. On the Larry King Live appearance where he first hinted at a run, he said: "The first thing I'd like for you to do, all of you, is look in the mirror … We own this place. The guys in Washington work for us." Trump's appeal is more about Trump than it is about America. Leaning on reality-TV stardom won on The Apprentice over the past seven years, he is summoning Americans to a very different kind of followership than Perot did, addressing them not as citizens but as fans.

What does he expect them to be fans of? Here the demand side of public discontent is as important as the supply side of billionaire ego. Whatever one's opinion of the Iraq War, Trump's description of it ("We go fight a war for 10 years, 12 years, lose thousands of people, spend $1.5 trillion, and then we hand the keys over to people that hate us on some council.") hits home. Whether one favors legalized abortion or not, there is no denying that—as compared with other advanced countries, which have an abortion law of one kind or another—our system of relying on a right of privacy established in a Supreme Court decision is a "pretty strange way of getting to pro-life." (Trump appears to mean "pro-choice.")

And yet Trump's performance mixes these home truths with conspiratorial falsehoods. Trump, notoriously, has cast doubt on whether President Obama was born in Hawaii, despite official and press records that show conclusively that he was. An alarming New York Times poll shows that a bare majority (57 percent) of Americans believe Barack Obama was born in the U.S. and is therefore constitutionally entitled to be their president. It will be interesting to see whether the White House's release of the president's "long form" birth certificate changes this belief. But "believe" is probably the wrong verb to apply here. The St. Petersburg Times quoted a Tea Party member whose views capture something specific about Trump's appeal: "The birther issue definitely isn't part of our core values," the man said, "but what Donald Trump is doing is questioning things and saying, 'Why do we have to just accept everything?'?" If this view is the general one, then denial of Obama's U.S. birth is not really a judgment about a fact. It is not even a metaphorical way of voicing a genuine concern over Obama's multilateralism or cosmopolitanism, as "death panels" were a symbol of unease about bureaucracies making health decisions.

To hold the birther view is to affiliate oneself with an attitude, not a truth claim. This may give it more appeal, not less. A longstanding bipartisan, eat-drink-and-be-merry, head-in-the-sand consensus has landed the United States in a position of dependency and decline. Very smart thinkers, from the Boston University economist Laurence Kotlikoff to the former Nixon official and investor Pete Peterson, laid out in their books exactly how the United States would wind up facing bankruptcy just about now. Leaders of both major parties ignored—and sometimes mocked—such warnings. Your average Trump supporter may think that the proper attitude to have toward America's politicians is contempt.

Trump is wrong that President Obama was born outside the United States. At some level his supporters may see that he is wrong. But they may also see his "birther" assertions as the mark of a laudable cynicism toward those in power. If so, then a terrible trap has been laid: the more absurd the untruth, the more politically trustworthy the one who peddles it.

Caldwell is a senior editor at The Weekly Standard and the author of Reflections on the Revolution in Europe.