Okay, for the record, I don't think Trump is really serious about a presidential run. I think Trump has masterfully played the media game, drawing all of the press coverage to further some end goal. Raising his profile? Setting up a bigger media payday than the Celebrity Apprentice? Perpetuating an elaborate Colbert-like hoax? None of these outcomes would surprise me. I think we are watching an elaborate piece of marketing/experimental theater.
But let's pretend for a minute that Trump is a serious candidate who really believes the views (you can't really call them policies, because he has offered little of actual actionable substance) he espouses on the campaign trail. His xenophobic, racist, unrealistic statements on immigration are getting all the attention, but I think another of his go-to themes is also acting as a major draw for supporters: His argument that he is not beholden to donors.
When Trump pretended to be a puppeteer making politicians dance on strings, he tapped into anger felt by many on the right and most on the left about the influence of money in politics, although the two sides view and apply the problem very differently. Trump's message is, on the surface, appealing. Few aside from business conservatives want government run by those with the power to buy access.
However, therein lies the problem with Trump's message. He's right, of course, that politicians beholden to money interests is a bad thing. But for Donald Trump to be making that argument completely misses the point. It undercuts the main premise of why money in politics is problematic.
After all, the argument usually goes like this: When businesses and wealthy individuals buy political influence, they are overriding the wishes of the citizenry expressed through elections and thus are subverting democracy. Trump is not defending the will of the people. He is advocating that his will, as a wealthy businessman who can afford to finance his own campaign, should win out over the will of the people. In other words, he is saying vote for him because donors won't tell him what to do (he won't be a puppet on strings) like they would Jeb Bush and Hillary Clinton. Due to his wealth, Trump says, he will tell himself what to do. He is not arguing that you, the American people, will tell him what to do. Big difference.
I have seen an argument made that Trump's attempts to exert corporate power on government is actually the first step to a fascist government. I tend to reject alarmist thinking like that. The thing is, though, you don't have to go nearly that far to find a problem with a billionaire arguing that the people should vote for him because he can't be bought. The problem is that the billionaire is asking for permission to buy the presidency himself. That's not any better, especially when the billionaire shares the point of view of the ones usually doing the buying.
And while we really have no idea how a President Trump would govern (I am not convinced he would maintain many of the far-right-wing-friendly positions he has staked out on the campaign trail, especially on social issues and, yes, immigration), the one thing that seems clear is that the Trump White House (aside from being the classiest executive mansion ever created on earth ...) would be business-friendly, putting what is best for corporations above what is best for the middle and working classes. So in that sense, there is no effective difference between a president beholden to corporate lobbyists and a Trump presidency beholden to himself.
Put another way, Donald Trump as the poster child for getting money out of politics would be like Mike Huckabee running as a protector of women's rights, or Jeb Bush running as an outsider opposing dynastic power in Washington. It's silly on its face.
Trump is right that money controlling politics is wrong. But he is really wrong in how that principle plays out as part of a self-financed Donald Trump candidacy for president. If getting money out of politics is your defining issue in the 2016 presidential election, there is a candidate actually making that argument a lot more credibly.
A President Trump might not be anyone's puppet, but he would be like-minded with the people pulling the strings on Jeb Bush. His distinction lacks a difference.