By James H. Nolt
Everybody knows the old joke, often told about lawyers or politicians: “How do you know if a politician is lying? See if their mouth is moving.” It is, as jokes often are, hyperbole, but true enough often enough to make us laugh uneasily. Is it ever possible to cut through all the hoopla and grasp what a candidate really intends to do? There is a simple rule of thumb toward greater truth: follow the money.
The admonition to “follow the money” is based on the proposition that people who give money to candidates are more likely to know what politicians really intend and to hold them accountable. As a graduate student, I learned a sophisticated version of “follow the money” from political scientist Thomas Ferguson and several of his students. The study of campaign finance records is an important part of this method. I apply the concept to issues of foreign policy in my own work. The campaign controversies over Hillary Clinton’s highly paid speeches on Wall Street and Donald Trump’s tax returns are also part of the “follow the money” quest.
If Clinton’s private speeches are revealed, they might better indicate what she is telling big money donors about which part of her economic program she seriously intends to implement and which part is mere pandering to voter sentiment. Business people understand the need for pandering, after all, as advertisers. They are willing to overlook a great deal of absurd promise-mongering as part of the price of getting elected, as long as they believe a candidate intends to satisfy core business interests when in office. Presumably, Clinton gave plenty of reassurance in her closed-door, off-the-record speeches. Such reassurances to business interests are also reflected in her record of public service to date.
Trump may be more perplexing. First of all, he has no record in public office. Second, the very fact that he has so far relied mostly on his own resources to run his campaign means that he has needed fewer off-the-record meetings with donors compared with the somewhat less wealthy Clinton. Both leading “anti-establishment” candidates, Trump and Bernie Sanders, gain credibility from voters precisely because they are less reliant on big-money donors than more traditional politicians like Clinton.
Even Trump’s flouting of the rules of “political correctness” sends potent signals to voters that his corporate ties are not so binding. Although conservatives like to blame liberals and the federal government for “political correctness,” in fact much of the impetus for it comes from the very same corporate interests that so often back the Republican Party establishment. Many corporations, in the interest of harmonious workplaces and inclusive hiring, are ahead of government and even liberal politicians in their efforts to appear welcoming to minorities, LGBT individuals, and immigrants. Trash-talking Trump reassures conservative heterosexual white men and others who feel put upon by corporate multiculturalism and internationalism. Yet is this real or just a pose?
Wishful thinkers on the left have often believed that everything bad in the culture could be blamed on corporate power. It is true that most of what passes for culture these days is a product of corporate media, advertising, public relations, and philanthropy. It is not easy to find any pristine popular culture, untouched by overwhelming corporate control. Therefore, one of the great appeals of Trump is that he does seem to come from outside the system. Clinton cannot fake such a pose nearly as well as Trump can.
But I do believe Trump is faking with coded signals no less than Clinton. This is one reason his tax returns are a sore point. They would expose some of his actual business interests for anyone motivated to probe them. Trump’s fakery is also exposed as the national conventions and the general election approach, since he will need more than even his own considerable personal resources to win a general election. He needs not just money from big donors—he needs their confidence.
Businesses signal their confidence in candidates in various ways. One I have already mentioned: they contribute to campaigns. But as important as money is for running a political campaign, the amounts spent are actually pretty small in relation to the economy as a whole. Much more important business behavior is tied to confidence than just willingness to donate money.
First of all, most public knowledge of candidates comes not from their paid political advertising, but from the constant barrage of coverage they receive on corporate media including “news” programs, sponsored blogs, newspapers, talk radio, and, yes, even comedy shows. This massive chatter, although ostensibly “independent,” is overwhelmingly corporate programming not just to satisfy, but also to influence, media consumers. Trump’s public feud with Rupert Murdoch’s Fox network may be an example of a deep rift between Trump and key elements of corporate media, or it may be a publicity stunt in the self-interest of both sides. Understanding the difference also requires following the money.
Corporations have even more important ways of signaling their confidence in a candidate . . . or lack thereof. In many developing countries and occasionally even in the richest ones, candidates who approach or wield power without the confidence of significant segments of the business elite may evoke strong protests in the form of disinvestments. Capital flees unstable or inhospitable environments.
This fact shows the lie behind the conservative conceit that “big government” liberals are anti-corporate whereas “fiscal conservative” Republicans are pro-growth and pro-business. If this were really true, it would show up in data. That is, victories by Democrats and liberal candidates in other countries should be followed by stock market crashes and capital flight. This rarely happens. Capitalists understand more clearly than does the general public that both political parties are amicable to their core business needs and interests. The rhetoric of political branding is mostly meaningless eyewash.
At a gut level, many voters know this too. That is why “anti-establishment” candidates like Trump and Sanders have gained so much traction during the 2016 election. Despite the overwhelming corporate dominance of public culture, ordinary voters are frustrated that the message is always cheery and sounds better than what happens after elections are over and the colorful balloons pop and deflate. No matter which party dominates, most people’s interests get left behind. It is the same frustration that comes from discovering that Coca Cola’s bubbly sweetness and happy jingles lead to diabetes and chronic obesity.
Trump evokes excitement because something does feel different in this year’s presidential election. Indeed something is different. Beyond mere rhetoric, Trump is divisive and anti-establishment in ways no Republican candidate has been during my lifetime, with the possible exception of Senator Barry Goldwater in 1964. But amid all the name-calling and personal attacks that reverberate all over the corporate media, it may not be easy to discern the true basis of Trump’s originality and the real threat he poses to core interests of the Republican establishment. I will explore more on that next week.
James H. Nolt is a senior fellow at World Policy Institute and an adjunct associate professor at New York University.
[Photo courtesy of Gage Skidmore]