How Trump Gets Away With Promising to Make the Rich Richer

Illustration: Alicia Tatone

One of the few advantages Joe Biden’s campaign possessed at the outset of the year was money. The president had built a fundraising base as an incumbent, and many wealthy Republicans were estranged from Donald Trump over his coup attempt and their support for his ill-fated primary rivals. This spring, even though the battle lines of the presidential campaign have barely budged on the surface, that financial advantage has melted away as conservative billionaires have flocked to Trump’s side.

When describing their reasoning, several of the donors have offered up the peculiar rationale that left-wing protesters have gone so far in their attacks against Biden’s support for Israel that they somehow feel compelled to also oppose the president. “Due to a dramatic change in circumstances,” said financier Eric Levine in March, describing progressive protests against Biden, “I have decided I will vote for Trump in November.” Recently, Blackstone CEO Stephen Schwarzman explained his reversal in similar terms: “The dramatic rise of antisemitism has led me to focus on the consequences of upcoming elections with greater urgency.”

The eagerness of billionaires to support a candidate who is also a billionaire and is promising to extend tax cuts for billionaires isn’t exactly dramatic. What is notable is how brazenly this alliance has been consummated without dispelling Trump’s image as the enemy of the well-to-do and champion of the common man.

Over the past two decades, and especially since the Trump era, voters with college degrees have moved toward the Democrats, while those without have moved toward Republicans. This ongoing shift has had all sorts of consequences, including making it easier for Republicans to cast themselves as populists and facilitating an erosion of working-class Black and Latino support for Democrats. The endless procession of reporters staking out diners and psychoanalyzing liberal elites has come to define the parties in the public mind.

The level of attention paid to the fast-changing composition of the two parties’ voting bases, however, has obscured the largely static character of their policy agendas. Democrats remain devoted, as they have for generations, to a more generous social safety net and higher taxes on the rich. Republicans likewise remain devoted to the opposite.

Trump’s billionaire surge has several causes. First, and most predictably, the end of the Republican primary terminated hopes wealthy Republicans harbored that they could return their party to power without sullying themselves with an attachment to a post-insurrection Trump. Second, Trump’s strong showing in the polls and his penchant for graft increased the incentive to make nice. Trump’s first term made it clear that he has no compunction about favoring business leaders who support him and ruthlessly punishing those who don’t.

Third, apart from the obvious self-interest at play, wealthy conservatives hold moral beliefs about taxation that are difficult for most Americans to fathom. The American right has long regarded the fact that a majority of normal Americans can vote to tax money from a small minority of very rich ones for whatever purpose they see fit as the most outrageous feature of a democratic system. Schwarzman himself once said plans by President Obama to raise taxes on private-equity firms were “like when Hitler invaded Poland in 1939.”

Schwarzman is hardly alone in seeing proposals to raise tax rates at the top as Hitlerian. A decade ago, the late venture capitalist Tom Perkins wrote, “I would call attention to the parallels of fascist Nazi Germany to its war on its ‘one percent,’ namely its Jews, to the progressive war on the American one percent, namely the ‘rich.’ ” Conservative financier Ken Langone once said of Democrats’ populist rhetoric, “If you go back to 1933, with different words, this is what Hitler was saying in Germany. You don’t survive as a society if you encourage and thrive on envy or jealousy.”

That billionaires would throw their support behind a would-be authoritarian who is promising to line their pockets may seem like simple corruption. But in the mind of the wealthy conservative, the election is a choice between two offenses against liberty: one candidate who might abuse power or disregard election results against another who will unleash unruly mobs to stick grubby hands in their pockets and tax them, Hitler style. Seen in this light, the upholding-the-Republic question is close, perhaps a draw. So why not pick the candidate who leans toward their self-interest?

This incentive looms especially large when you consider the fourth and last factor driving the billionaire surge: the unusually huge amount of money at stake.

When Republicans passed the Trump tax cuts six years ago, they set much of it to expire in 2025. (This was a budget gimmick to mask the cost in lost revenue.) This has set up the winner of the 2024 elections to have enormous influence over the direction of fiscal policy. Biden pledges to let the portion of the Trump tax cuts benefiting households earning more than $450,000 a year expire. Republicans vow to extend those tax cuts and possibly pile more on top.

Trump has repeatedly enticed donors with promises of lavish tax cuts, and this is one promise he can make credibly. Republicans in Congress are already drawing up plans for a legislative lightning strike if the elections give them full control of government. Congress’s bizarre rule structure allows changes in taxes to circumvent the filibuster, which is one reason Republicans have little interest in ending it: Their main legislative pastimes, cutting taxes and confirming judges, are already exempt.

Elon Musk told Trump he had been hosting “gatherings of powerful business leaders across the country” to try to “convince them not to support President Biden’s reelection campaign,” The Wall Street Journal reports. “The discussion at times centered on how attendees could give money to Trump outside of public view.”

But discretion is hardly even necessary. There’s an old saying: “Give a man a reputation as an early riser and he can sleep till noon.” Trump has the luxury of coasting on his reputation as a populist rogue. His defenders have spent nearly a decade building him up as a tribune of the people — “Robin Hood taking over the empire,” as former Trump aide Sebastian Gorka once called him.

Meanwhile, the Democratic Party has increasingly adopted the priorities and language of its college-educated wing, making it easier for Trump to posture as an enemy of the cultural elite, when in reality he represents a different wing of the elite. The proliferation of commentary on Democrats’ struggles to retain working-class support has had the side effect of helping Trump — every instance of liberal hand-wringing about Trump’s hold on the working class sends the subconscious message that he is a genuine voice of the people.

And so Trump has been able to fill his empty coffers by undertaking one of the most nakedly transactional fundraising tours in the history of presidential campaigns, promising his well-heeled benefactors a generous return on their investment.

Pseudo-populism has always been integral to Trump’s shtick: his outer-borough accent, tacky hairstyle, garish tastes, and periodic overt racism all function as class markers. But Trump doesn’t actually hate the rich. He admires them. And the common people with whom he supposedly has developed some deep bond of fellowship were never intended to be the beneficiaries. They were, and remain, the suckers he is using.

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