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Campaign Finance Restrictions Help Trump

Campaign finance reformers worry a lot about the influence of money in politics. But big money was not decisive this season. Jeb Bush had over $100 million in his campaign chest and associated Super PAC but went nowhere, at a cost of over $500 per voter. Ben Carson was well-funded and flopped. Over in the Democratic primary race, the less flush candidate came near to pulling off an upset against a powerful legacy candidate.

But even more importantly, this campaign season shows that celebrity can count for more than money. Donald Trump may be a billionaire, but he spent very little money up to this point compared to the other major candidates. What fueled his candidacy was celebrity. He had one of the most ubiquitous names in real estate for decades and one of the most watched reality shows on American television.

He was able to leverage that celebrity to secure vastly more free media exposure than any other candidate. With a savvy born of years in the New York media market, he knew exactly how to spin the Fourth Estate. The media was more than happy to return the favor. Trump makes great copy. And not only that, at least some in the largely liberal press corps were happy to see him split the Republican Party.

The more abstract point is that restricting money in campaigns, far from being a safeguard, increases the political power of celebrity.

Increased political returns to celebrity will not benefit the nation. Even in an age of ubiquitous info-tainment and Twitter accounts for all, celebrity remains harder to acquire than money. Enjoyed by the few, it is a greater axis of inequality than money. Moreover, there is even less reason to think that celebrity is correlated with political wisdom than money is, given that there is more randomness in the path to fame than to an earned fortune.

And now campaign finance restrictions make it harder for Republican candidates to defeat the celebrity front-runner, despite his manifest flaws as a general election candidate and prospective President. Because of campaign finance restrictions, his opponents cannot take quick, large donations for their campaigns from the many wealthy people who are, like many of the less wealthy, appalled by Trump. It will be very difficult to knock down Trump’s established brand and the free media he receives without the ability of the campaigns themselves to use paid advertising to expose his many defects. To be sure, such substantial expenditures are not a sufficient condition for success on the part of his opponents—the other candidates need to show more ability to take the fight to Trump than they have. But a lot of money is likely a necessary condition.

Thus, campaign finance restrictions are one of the reasons Trump may become the GOP nominee. Further restrictions of the kind that Democrats (and Trump) favor enhance even more celebrities’ ability to cross over to politics, even if they know nothing of policy and have substantial character flaws. We live in a celebrity culture and campaign finance limitations make politics more a part of it.

Reader Discussion

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on March 03, 2016 at 10:30:12 am

Yup, there are some limits on campaign financing. And how much less money is being spent on politics this year compared with prior presidential years?

Here at least we have a question we can hope to quantify – unlike the following:

The more abstract point is that restricting money in campaigns increases the political power of celebrity. Increased political returns to celebrity will not benefit the nation. Celebrity is less easy to acquire than money and less widely enjoyed and thus is a greater axis of inequality than money. Moreover, there is even less reason to think that celebrity is correlated with political wisdom than money, given that there is more randomness in the path to fame than to an earned fortune.

I sense there’s a nugget of truth in this text, but I’d challenge McGinnis (and everyone else) to articulate it with greater rigor.

I share the view that wealth and celebrity are in some senses substitutes, and that in a competitive environment, limiting the power of one will enhance the power of the other.

Moreover, I share the view that wealth correlates with merit to some extent. I also hold the view that celebrity correlates with merit to some extent. But this is mush until we identify some measurable definitions of “wealth” (or “earned fortune”), “celebrity,” and “merit.” Similarly, McGinnis’s assertion that “Celebrity is less easy to acquire than money and less widely enjoyed and thus is a greater axis of inequality than money” looks like pure mush.
In short, I agree that celebrity may well be bestowed among the populace in a manner that correlates weakly with merit – but I might also say that about wealth. That is, I expect there’s some correlation, but a weak one.
Moreover, we must consider self-interest and the problems that arise therefrom. After all, in any courtroom the person who knows the least about the case is the judge. Society grants power to judges not because of their subject matter expertise, but because we think dispassion and disinterest are important factors in promoting the public welfare as well.

Arguably, Arnold Schwarzenegger and Jesse Ventura gained their governorships through their celebrity. And once in office, they abused their newfound powers to promote their self-interest – how? Maybe Schwarzenegger did things to promote the film industry in California – but pretty much all California governors do. In short, celebrity may be meritless, but it is also mostly harmless. In contrast, people with large financial interests would seem to pose a greater threat to engage in self-dealing. This is the great anxiety about money in politics.

I don’t have that same anxiety about celebrity in politics. From time to time, movie stars testify before Congress regarding bills about which the stars would not seem to have much subject matter expertise – and it’s not clear that this does much to alter a bill’s chance of passage or defeat. But again, this is mush. Can we articulate any testable hypotheses here?

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nobody.really
on March 03, 2016 at 10:31:29 am

"But it will be very difficult to knock down Trump’s established brand and the free media he receives..."

Yep! CBS's Les Moonves "splains it all at:

http://www.nationalreview.com/article/432258/donald-trump-media-they-use-him-make-money-help-hillary

"It may not be good for the US but it IS good for CBS."

don't ya just luv it?

And speaking of celebrity - ever consider that the presidential Campaigns have become a somewhat over-extended version of the Academy Awards; they are loaded with witless celebrity pronouncements, they drag on forever, and one is left wishing the damn thing never appeared on your TV screen in the first place.

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gabe
on March 03, 2016 at 15:00:52 pm

A lot of celebrity is created with the use of archetypes in the popular media. The media likes to create characters who look like popular people and use their story characters to denigrate or promote the famous person.

The rage today in shows is to have a strong white female lead, often with a strong associations with the health care or child care, with a black man in a supporting role. Shows that have strong white male leads are getting their characters pushed into the background. Villains are generally white men. This is being done on purpose with forethought and design to promote Hillary Clinton. The white female leads will be made up to look more and more like Hillary. The producers of these shows are aware of the power of archetypes in influencing the minds of the general public.

Before the current political race the archetypes promoted a black man. That was done to promote Obama. I suggest that's what tipped the political balance and put him into office twice. Once before anyone knew who he was, and again after everyone found out what kind of guy he was.

From now through the election and beyond expect to see more shows with a strong white female lead, a receding or one-off supporting black male character, and vile, weird and corrupt white male characters. Shows with strong male leads will continue having their male characters pushed into the background or redefined as vile, weird and corrupt. This will usually happen with the shows that are the most popular. When a show becomes popular, moneyed propagandists will involve themselves in the financial backing of the show, and then the change in archetypes will happen. New, well produced shows with good actors and writers will not need to be transformed archetypally because they will be archetyped from the beginning. You can safely predict it will happen.

The archetypes are presented in films, TV series', commercial advertising, and presentations in organized community meetings as is occurring with companies having to do with the requirements of Obamacare.

That is another example of the power celebrity. Not through actual people but through symbolic proxies.

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Scott Amorian
on March 03, 2016 at 17:19:30 pm

Yes, and isn't Madam Secretary just such a historically "accurate" portrayal of our blonde female Secretary who brought us Benghazi, Libya, Iran nuclear negotiations (her main guy was heavily involved) AND, clever genius that she is - her own e-mail system!!!!

Hey, it is all myth - Hollywood, that is - so why not create myths of their own liking.
The dopes in flyover country will believe it, now won't they?

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gabe
on March 03, 2016 at 20:00:36 pm

Then again, this could be the reason I just love the yuuuge show, Ancient Aliens. I suppose it is because the "Ancient Astronaut Theorists" on the show do have somewhat greater plausibility / credibility - plus their hair is even wackier than The Trumpster's.

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gabe
on March 04, 2016 at 12:24:41 pm

[…] John McGinnis makes that interesting claim at the libertylawsite blog: […]

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“Campaign Finance Restrictions Help Trump” | The Locker Room
on March 06, 2016 at 09:12:51 am

This means the Kardashian kandidate is our next major threat to the nation behind global climate change!

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terry seale

Law & Liberty welcomes civil and lively discussion of its articles. Abusive comments will not be tolerated. We reserve the right to delete comments - or ban users - without notification or explanation.