Nomi Prins / TomDispatch
This piece first appeared at TomDispatch. Read Tom Engelhardt’s introduction here.
“Establishment: A group in a society exercising power and influence over matters of policy, opinion, or taste, and seen as resisting change.” — Oxford Dictionary
Early on in his presidential bid, Donald Trump began touting his anti-establishment credentials. When it worked, he ran with it. It was a posture that proved pure gold in the Republican primaries, and was even, in one sense, true. After all, he’d never been part of the political establishment nor held public office, nor had any of his family members or wives.
His actual relationship to the establishment is, however, complex in an opportunistic way. He’s regularly tweeted his disdain for it. (“I wish good luck to all of the Republican candidates that traveled to California to beg for money etc. from the Koch Brothers. Puppets?”) And yet, he clearly considered himself part of it and has, at times, yearned for it. As he said early on in his run for the presidency, “I want the establishment — look, I was part of the establishment. Let me explain. I was the establishment two months ago. I was like the fair-haired boy. I was a giver, a big giver. Once I decided to run, all of a sudden I’m sort of semi-anti-establishment.”
An outsider looking to shake up the government status quo? An insider looking to leverage that establishment for his own benefit? What was he? He may not himself have known.
He once rejected the idea of taking establishment (or Super PAC) money, only — more recently — to seek it; he rebuffed certain prominent establishment players, only to hire others to help him (and fire yet more of them). He’s railed against the establishment, then tried to rally it to his side (even as he denounced it yet again). Now, with the general election only four months away, it turns out that he’s going to need that establishment if he is to have a hope in hell of raising the money and organizing the troops effectively enough to be elected. There, however, is the rub: power brokers don’t suffer the slings and arrows of “outsider” scorn lightly.
As a result, if he now needs the establishment more than he’d publicly admit, it may not matter. He may find himself ostracized by the very party he’s set to represent.
Once upon a time not so long ago, making America great again involved a bankroll untainted by the Republican political establishment and its billionaire backers. There would, The Donald swore, be no favors to repay after he was elected, no one to tell him what to do or how to do it just because they had chipped in a few million bucks. But for a man who prides himself on executing only “the best” of deals (trust him) this election has become too expensive to leave to self-reliance.
One thing is guaranteed: Donald Trump will not pony up a few hundred million dollars from his own stash. As a result, despite claims that he would never do so, he’s finally taken a Super PAC or two on board and is now pursuing more financial aid even from people who don’t like him. Robert Mercer and his daughter Rebekah, erstwhile influential billionaire backers of Ted Cruz, have, for instance, decided to turn their Make America Number 1 Super PAC into an anti-Hillary source of funds — this evidently at the encouragement of Ivanka Trump.
In the big money context of post-Citizens United presidential politics, however, these are modest developments indeed (particularly compared to Hillary’s campaign). To grasp what Trump has failed to do when it comes to funding his presidential run, note that the Our Principles Super PAC, supported in part by Chicago Cubs owners Marlene Ricketts and her husband, billionaire T.D. Ameritrade founder J. Joe Ricketts, has already raised more than $18.4 million for anti-Trump TV ads, meetings, and fundraising activities. (On the other hand, their son, Pete, Republican Governor of Nebraska, has given stump speeches supporting Trump.)
To put this in context, that $18.4 million is more than the approximately $17 million that all of Trump’s individual supporters, the “little people,” have contributed to his campaign. (He is no Bernie Sanders who raised $220 million from individuals in the 2016 campaign season.) Even with all his wealth, Trump is in a funding nightmare, lacking the confidence of the Republican party and its most generous loyalists.
To be sure, other establishment billionaires have expressed support for Trump, like funding kingpin Sheldon Adelson who said he’d fork over $100 million to the Trump cause. It’s just that he hasn’t done that yet. Chris Christie is similarly trying to help raise funds for the campaign. But the man-who-would-be-veep hasn’t had much luck. So far, at least, Trump’s biggest establishment supporters have been more talk than action.
The Trump Team
In addition to the usual money not flowing in from the usual crowd, there’s the issue of actually preparing to staff a future administration with the usual people, not to speak of the seasoned set of advisers that normally surround presidential candidates. Increasingly, it seems that they may not be available or have already left the proverbial building — and that’s a problem.
Trump has vowed to fill his administration with “the best people.” (In a perfect world, they would, of course, be his clones.) Yet so far, he’s been pursuing what he has characterized as a “lean” strategy, which means that few are yet on board and it’s getting late in the game to fake it.
Usually by this time in the election cycle, nominees have pulled together their inner circle, mostly from well-known or rising establishment players, including policy wonks by the bucketful. He hasn’t. According to Vin Weber, a D.C.-based partner at Mercury, which bills itself as a global, high-stakes public strategy firm, who crafted Mitt Romney’s “policy shop” in 2012, the lack of infrastructure is unprecedented. Romney’s policy shop was first formed 18 months before the 2012 election and fine-tuned in January 2012. We’re in July 2016 and from Trump on this score — nothing. Nada. “Nobody in Washington that I know of,” Weber says, “is assembling a staff for an incoming Trump administration.”