This election cycle, both Montanans and the nation may be asked to vote for billionaires potentially able to fund their own campaigns without outside help. Both Donald Trump and Greg Gianforte, like Mark O’Keefe before them, have the cash to make substantial contributions to their own campaigns. There is a certain (perhaps uniquely Anglophonic) attraction to the idea of the independently wealthy hero: a sort of Batman/Scarlet Pimpernel character whose immense wealth lets them make an end run around the limitations that constrain (and corrupt) mere mortals. The idea that such individuals can ‘speak their minds’ or ‘owe no one’ is an appealing one, but such candidates are at least as troubling as traditional ones, funded from outside.
For one thing, even if self-funding grants candidates a certain degree of latitude, that freedom is only as good as the people wielding it. It makes little difference who candidates do or don’t answer to if their personal opinions are abhorrent, as Trump and Gianforte’s surely are.
There’s also the matter of honesty – self-funded candidates are able to create the impression that they are more honest than other candidates, because they don’t have to speak out of both sides of their mouths (one to donors, another to voters). But there’s really no reason to believe that this means the line fed to voters is any more honest – indeed, it just means the candidate can focus all of their lies on the voters, and not worry about any embarrassing 47% moments when addressing donors.
And what might such candidates believe? Well, we know that there’s a huge difference between people at Trump/Gianforte levels of wealth and the rest of Americans on important issues like protecting Social Security or funding public schools. Regardless of their carefully crafted populist images, such candidates are likely to associate with social circles far removed from the majority of Americans in both their real interests and personal opinions. Moreover, the salary of a president or governor pales in comparison to what these candidates already have, and are guaranteed to have when they leave office – meaning that for a very wealthy candidate to pursue the sorts of policies we need to restore the American middle class and provide a safety net for the working class, he or she must actively sabotage his or her own future wealth-creating potential.
This is not to say there haven’t been great candidates who have come from wealthy, ‘one-percenter’ backgrounds – icons like Franklin Roosevelt come to mind. But the idea that a self-funded independently wealthy politician is the antidote to money in politics, the key to ‘Make America Great’ (or whatever nonsense slogan Gianforte is about to unveil) is merely a romantic fantasy.