This past weekend, a few millionaires and more billionaires — leading tech CEOs, GOP fundraisers, political heavyweights — converged on a remote private island off the coast of Georgia for the American Enterprise Institute’s annual World Forum.
Attendees included leading figures in the tech world such as Apple CEO Tim Cook, Google’s Larry Page, and Tesla Motors and SpaceX’s Elon Musk. Prominent members from the GOP included Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, strategist Karl Rove, and House Speaker Paul Ryan, among others.
They were brought together by the candidacy of Donald J. Trump. Or rather, by the question of how to stop it.
In an email from the conference, founder and editor of The Weekly Standard Bill Kristol wrote that “A specter was haunting the World Forum — the specter of Donald Trump … There was much unhappiness about his emergence, a good deal of talk, some of it insightful and thoughtful, about why he’s done so well, and many expressions of hope that he would be defeated.”
Sure, Democrats and moderate Republicans despise Donald Trump and his insurgent takeover of the Republican Party. (Well, a few irresponsible Democrats are cheering him on.)
But the GOP’s network of high-dollar donors may hold him in even lower esteem than anyone. And they’re on a mission to stop him, whatever the cost.
But if there’s any lesson of this campaign season, it’s that Donald Trump is appealing because other billionaires hate him. The efforts to spend billions against him — most notably through ad buys in Florida and Ohio — has the potential to make Trump even stronger, ratcheting up the fervor in his base and making him appear all the more authentic.
Let’s take a step back and examine the range of organizations that have trained their spending arsenal on the prospect of stopping Trump.
Conservative Solutions, a super PAC supporting Marco Rubio, has raised about $20 million recently to spend on campaign ads targeting Donald Trump, according to Politico. The group also says the cash will power a full-frontal assault on Trump, focusing specifically on delegate-rich states voting in March. Though Conservative Solutions’ stated interest is electing Marco Rubio, they’re just as interested in stopping Trump, especially as their own candidate has rapidly lost steam these past few weeks.
One major donor is hedge fund billionaire Paul Singer, a free market enthusiast and conservative financier for the GOP who Fortune described as “a passionate defender of the 1 percent.”
Our Principles PAC, founded to stop Trump’s rise, has spent spent millions to air ads across the country highlighting Trump’s role in the almost-certainly-fraudulent Trump University.
According to Katie Packer, the Republican operative guiding the PAC, “This guy isn’t a conservative. He probably isn’t even a Republican. He is a con man who is incredibly vulnerable in the general election once Democrats get their hands on him.” The PAC was initially funded with $3 million from Marlene Ricketts, a major Republican donor and the wife of TD Ameritrade founder Joe Ricketts. Trump’s populism takes square aim at these people — the .01 percent of millionaires and billionaires who have “bought up” party mechanisms and tried to mold the GOP base into some kind of unanimity on the sanctity of free trade and low corporate taxes, among other things.
Even Mitt Romney, whose net worth stands at around $250 million, gave a speech recently during which he told his audience that that Trump’s “proposed 35 percent tariff-like penalties would instigate a trade war and that would raise prices for consumers, kill our export jobs and lead entrepreneurs and businesses of all stripes to flee America.”
He even called on Republicans to engage in strategic voting, and perhaps strategic fundraising by stating “If the other candidates can find some common ground, I believe we can nominate a person who can win the general election and who will represent the values and policies of conservatism. Given the current delegate selection process, that means that I’d vote for Marco Rubio in Florida and for John Kasich in Ohio and for Ted Cruz or whichever one of the other two contenders has the best chance of beating Mr. Trump in a given state.”
Because if anything works to persuade voters to turn against a demagogue, it’s telling them that they’re too stupid to know how to stop him on their own.
One notable exception to these groups is the Koch brothers-backed group Americans for Prosperity, which has chosen not to use their extensive funds to block Trump’s path to the nomination.
If there is one campaign trick that the GOP’s billionaires have watched work again and again, it’s buying enough TV time and running enough attack ads to drill their message down to the base.
Unfortunately, this plays right into some of the strongest appeals of the Trump campaign. In many ways, Trump can and does spin these efforts as paid for by the same people responsible for the state of economic vulnerability in the U.S., who he says are taking aim at him because he won’t let them continue to profit at his voters’ expense.
The negative television commercials about me, paid for by the politicians bosses, are a total #Mediafraud. When you watch, remember!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) March 8, 2016
Remember, I am the only one who is self-funding my campaign. All of the other candidates are bought and paid for by special interests!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) March 8, 2016
The actions of the GOP establishment only reinforce Trump as an anti-establishment candidate and speaker for the “silent majority”.
So it’s worth asking: Does all the spending against Trump only make him stronger? And if so, when will the GOP’s billionaires realize that they are the problem, not the solution?
Photo: Paul Singer, founder, CEO, and co-chief investment officer for Elliott Management Corporation, attends the Skybridge Alternatives (SALT) Conference in Las Vegas, Nevada May 9, 2012. REUTERS/Steve Marcus