Why Donald Trump Didn't Run as a Democrat
Maria Konnikova is not someone Donald Trump would typically describe as “a loser.” Fluent in Russian and English, she writes authoritatively on psychology and culture. Her work has appeared in prestigious publications ranging from The Atlantic to Scientific American. After graduating magna cum laude from Harvard, she received her Ph.D. in psychology from Columbia University.
Four years ago, Konnikova wrote a piece for a publication called Big Think, postulating that Trump’s perpetual boorishness is attributable to mental illness, specifically a condition called narcissistic personality disorder.
History professor Jelani Cobb, writing in The New Yorker, focused on another facet of The Donald’s persona. “[I]n all the ways that matter, save actual performing, Donald Trump is not a politician—he’s a rapper,” Cobb postulated. “If elected, he’s less likely to represent George W. Bush’s third term than Kanye West’s first one.”
Assessing these explanations, Texas political writer Jonathan Tilove added one of his own this week: “Actually, listening to Trump’s comments over the weekend about John McCain at the Family Leadership Summit in Ames, Iowa,” Tilove wrote, “I also heard the rhythms and sensibility of a New York insult comedian, say Andrew Dice Clay.”
Those are all plausible explanations for the unsocialized behavior of a presidential candidate who calls successful men “losers,” routinely describes those more knowledgeable than himself as “stupid,” and whose latest display of tact was to disparage the military record of a genuine American war hero, despite having sought and received five deferments from the Vietnam draft himself.
The latest Trumpeting was aimed at John McCain, and it seems to have come just in time: Trump had surged to a nice lead in the polls, topping the 16-person GOP presidential field with 24 percent among likely Republican voters. This number nearly equaled the combined total of the next two candidates, Scott Walker and Jeb Bush.
Despite the hysteria this engendered in newsrooms coast to coast, name identification is really the name of the game. Trump’s real success, if you want to call it that, has been in lowering the quality of conversation to his level. He’s been dismissed as a “jackass” (Sen. Lindsey Graham); a “complete moron” (Karl Rove); an “imbecile” (Mexican journalist Joaquin Lopez-Doriga); and a “blowhard idiot” (Reason magazine). Rick Perry, whom Trump said should be required to take an IQ test before running, may have provided the most insightful criticism. “What Mr. Trump is offering,” said the former Texas governor, “is not conservatism, it is Trumpism—a toxic mix of demagoguery and nonsense.”
Democrats have gotten into the act, too, although with different motivations. Hillary Clinton called Trump “shameful” over the weekend. This morning Democratic Senate Leader Harry Reid called Trump’s comments on immigration “disgusting.” When emanating from that side of the aisle, however, this criticism has a partisan purpose. Reid and Clinton were regurgitating a Democratic Party talking point: namely, that Trump reflects the intolerant views of the conservative grassroots and hasn’t been repudiated by mainstream Republicans.
“Frankly I’m terribly disappointed that my Republican colleagues here in leadership positions in the Senate and those running for president have basically kept their mouth shut,” Reid told reporters on Wednesday.
Harry Reid wasn’t being “frank” so much as he was being disingenuous. In addition to Lindsey Graham, Marco Rubio, and Rick Perry, Jeb Bush, the man who has raised the most money in the Republican field has definitely spoken out. The former Florida governor called Trump’s views on immigration “extraordinarily ugly” and “way out of the mainstream of what Republicans think.”
Let’s go further, however, and point out that this guy has never really been on the GOP team.
Certainly, there are thrice-married Republicans in this country. There are also Republicans who consider Bill Clinton a successful president, just as there are Republicans who believe George W. Bush was “the worst president in history.” Some Republicans care so little about abortion that they can’t explain if they are pro-life or pro-choice. There are also Republicans who have said that all 11 million illegal immigrants in this county deserve “a path” to citizenship—and there are other Republicans who have called for an impenetrable wall between the United States and Mexico. There are even a few Republicans who have donated money to Democratic Sens. Chuck Schumer and Harry Reid.
But there are no Republicans about whom you can accurately say all those things—unless you count Donald Trump. In a recent interview, Ari Fleischer, who was White House press secretary under George W. Bush, said it was clear that Trump was “no conservative.” The real issue is more basic: there’s not much evidence he’s even a Republican.
Americans can change their political orientation over time—Ronald Reagan did it—but you’d be hard-pressed to find a Republican who during the last 28 years has variously listed his voter registration as Republican, Independence Party, Democrat, Republican again, and (as recently as 2012) registered himself in New York as “decline to state.” In the midst of that orgy of fickleness, Trump ran briefly for president—as a Reform Party candidate.
The money is the tipoff, as it often is with the man who never tires of boasting about his wealth. He has given money to both major political parties over the years, but until four years ago, when he toyed with running in the Republican contest eventually won by Mitt Romney, Trump had given significantly more money to Democrats.
These weren’t centrist or conservative Democrats, either. The recipients of Trump’s largesse, as The Washington Post noted in 2011, made a veritable “Republican enemies list.” Besides Reid and Schumer, it included John Kerry, Charles Rangel, Edward M. Kennedy, and Hillary Clinton.
Trump gave over $100,000 to the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, and to its Democratic counterpart over in the House. All during this time, he gave to Republicans, too—just not as much. According to F.E.C. records, Trump donated $1.3 million between 1989 and 2011, 54 percent of it going to Democrats. Since 2012, however, federal records show that Trump has given $463,450 to Republicans and only $3,500 to Democrats. Why the change in orientation? Trump himself is incoherent on this question, but a few theories spring to mind.
The first one can be called the Rachel Dolezal school of political identity: Trump is a Republican because, well, he just feels like being one for a while. This explanation is belied by how much affinity he expresses for Democrats. Trump donated $50,000 to Rahm Emanuel’s mayoral campaign, and as recently as three weeks ago he fawned over the mayor and one of his brothers, film actor—and Democratic Party fundraiser—Ari Emanuel.
“I gave him a contribution because his brother is a great friend of mine,” Trump said. “Ari, king of Hollywood. I love Ari. And Ari asked me to give him a contribution. I like Rahm very much.”
A second possibility is that switching political parties for convenience is just something New York billionaires feel entitled to do. Michael Bloomberg could not have been nominated as a Democrat when he ran for mayor in 2001—even though he was a Democrat—so Bloomberg just ran in the primaries of the moribund New York City Republican primary, overwhelming the opposition with money. Trump can’t do that in a presidential race, but the 24 percent he’s getting in early polling in a 16-person GOP primary wouldn’t put him within sight of Hillary Clinton if he were running as a Democrat.
Speaking of the Democratic Party’s 2016 front-runner, some Republicans are starting to wonder whether Trump is really a stalking horse for Clinton—that he’s running to sabotage the GOP’s chances of beating her. That seems less likely, but it is a fact that besides donating money to Hillary Clinton, she was a guest at Trump’s most recent wedding.
Judging by his petulance on the 2016 campaign trail, the easiest explanation is that Trump broke with the Democrats because he was peeved at the titular head of the Democratic Party. His pattern of donations changed markedly during Barack Obama’s second term as president. This change actually began a year earlier and it coincides with the 2011 White House Correspondents’ Association dinner. Trump was a guest, and listened as the president made fun of Trump’s hair, his supposedly garish architectural taste, and his fixation with Obama’s birth certificate.
The Donald kept up a tight smile as this roasting went on, but his expression froze in pique when the entertainer who followed Obama kept piling on. “Donald Trump often talks about running as a Republican, which is surprising," said comedian Seth Meyers. “I just assumed he was running as a joke.”
Four years later a lot of Republicans appear to be thinking the same thing.