Establishment to Trump: You Can’t Afford to Run For President

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Holman Jenkins at the Wall Street Journal took a look at Donald Trump’s finances over the weekend, and suggested the outspoken billionaire might not be able to afford to keep a serious national campaign going past the first few states:

None of his offenses against propriety seem to have dinged the support that, in a crowded race, keeps Donald Trump atop the GOP primary polls.

Republicans are now talking about a brokered convention, which could be a disaster for the country, and for the GOP, and quite possibly hand the election to Hillary Clinton without a real contest or even critique of her agenda.

So goes the fear. But unless we miss our guess, our long national nightmare-cum-sketch comedy show actually has a termination date. It will end the moment campaigning begins to threaten Mr. Trump’s finances and business interests.

Actually, as Jenkins notes further in his piece, Trump’s campaign already has already damaged his business interests:

In any case, his comments have become an opening. Already Mr. Trump’s Middle Eastern business interests are under assault. He lost a few U.S. deals early on due to his slurs on Mexican-Americans. Now a handful of Silicon Valley biggies—the CEOs of Apple, Facebook and Google—have ventured criticism without mustering quite the courage to mention him by name.

What happens when important business partners start letting Mr. Trump know, publicly and noisily, they think he’s doing serious damage to the country? By Mr. Trump’s own inflated reckoning, most of his net worth resides in the value of his name.

Our guess is that Mr. Trump has always planned on being satisfied with making a splash and ventilating his high opinion of himself. He will rightly be able to claim that he gave neglected voters a voice and transformed the debate. Notice that he manages to maintain his jolly equanimity even when being vilified. He is not grimly “on a mission” as so many candidates are whose self-image is wrapped up in electoral success.

As a direct result of his presidential campaign, Trump ended up in a $10 million lawsuit with chef Jose Andres, who was supposed to be a part of the Trump International Hotel project in Washington; lost a battle against a wind farm in Scotland; lost a merchandising relationship with Macy’s department stores; and might end up losing business at some of his properties, although the actual damage from loudly-declared boycotts is open to debate.

Jenkins makes some shrewd observations about the realities of campaign financing, especially the need to win the support of big donors.  A network of deep-pocketed special interests will shower Hillary Clinton with the kind of cash Trump simply cannot provide by tapping into his own assets.

Also, the many political assets the Republican Party would bring to the table for most other nominees won’t be there for Trump if the Establishment makes good on its threats to sit out in 2016, dumping the nation into Clinton’s claws, if Trump is the standard-bearer.  The old fear was that a frustrated Trump would run third-party and dynamite the race after failing to secure the nomination; now we’ve got Trump cheerfully assuring Republican voters in the last debate that he’ll keep his promise to stay with the party no matter what, and it’s Jeb Bush talking about signing up with Team Clinton as an unofficial junior partner if Trump’s the GOP nominee.

The enormous national polling success Trump has achieved through earned media – summoning a swarm of microphones and cameras every time he feels like making a statement – will go down in the political history books, but once primary voting begins in earnest, targeted paid advertising will matter more than the kind of media pandemonium that keeps Trump on top of national polls.

Of course, the conventional wisdom about the limits of earned media could be wrong, just as every other confident prediction about Trump has been wrong so far.

Articles like the WSJ post on Trump’s finances could be one more attempt to apply conventional political analysis to a campaign that routinely defies it… or it might be taken as a shot across the bow, a warning to Trump that he ought to deliver what Jenkins envisions as “a glorious ‘I’ve got better things to do than hang around with you losers’ exit” before he suffers the kind of financial loss he can’t recover from.

The Wall Street Journal analysis backs into an aspect of Trump’s success that our political culture has a hard time accepting: his supporters think he’s immune to the corruption sickening D.C., the Big Government corruption that Hillary Clinton is the living, breathing, influence-peddling avatar of.  At this point, everyone gets the idea that Trump is taking a serious financial hit from this campaign – they hear all the stories about boycotts and busted business deals, and it only reinforces their sense of Trump’s sincerity.

They grasp that it’s not very likely he is running for President to pad his pockets, and when they hear other billionaires are furious with Trump and scrambling to fund his competitors, it reinforces their sense that whatever else the outrageous Trump might be planning to do with the Oval Office, he won’t be using government power to enrich a network of cronies the way Obama did, and Clinton absolutely would.

Democrats are, of course, institutionally oblivious to rising public anger at corruption – they think they can manage it by spending ad money on lavish campaigns to convince their gullible voters that each new socialist figurehead is motivated by nothing but compassion.  A few Republicans understand that corruption is a ripe issue – it’s been a major theme for Ted Cruz – but perhaps even fewer understand just how incandescently angry taxpayers have become.

It’s easy to scoff at Donald Trump as an unlikely crusader against corruption – he was downright cheerful when he reminisced about buying influence in the first GOP debate, and never quite got around to explaining why it’s a bad thing that he needed to grease the right palms to get what he wanted.  But there is a real sense among his supporters that, whether his ideas are right or wrong, he’s enduring great personal expense to stay in the race and express them.  Just about every candidate talks about being a “fighter,” but Trump has real bruises.  Political analysts seem to be underestimating how much credit people give him for staying in the race when it’s obviously hurting him.

As for whether it will be prohibitively expensive for Trump to run a full-boat campaign, the Wall Street Journal figures he might have as little as $70 million in liquid assets, which is “less than what several candidates in the race (Bush, Clinton, Cruz) and their super PACs already have raised.”  But how much does that $70 million count for, when it’s mixed with Trump’s proven ability to hold the media spotlight?

If, as some have suggested, the transition to local political organizations and likely primary voters prevents Trump from winning any of the early primary states, it’s doubtful any amount of campaign cash would be enough to turn an implosion narrative around.  But if he does score some strategic early victories and keep his frontrunner narrative alive, he might be able to stretch a dollar further than anyone ever has.  Meanwhile, the Democrats stash their candidates in Saturday-night cellars to keep voters from getting a good look at them.