What surprises me these days is that even staunch liberals like Bill Maher seem to fall for Trump’s claim that he is an independent candidate, using his own money. Instead of ignoring these arguments, they buy into his logic and actually check whether his claims are true. Of course, Trump exaggerates: he also uses other people’s money, he is not as rich as he claims to be etc. But this is beside the point. Liberals agree with Donald Trump’s idea that there is too much money in politics, and that the influence of corporations needs to be reduced. This makes them vulnerable. By making liberals discuss these details Trump already has won: he has framed them into a trap.
As a matter of fact, Trump’s rhetoric illustrates the powerful role of frames in political debates. If this is what liberals want, then they need to agree with him on this point, at least in matters of principle. They know that this is wrong, but they are trapped. So what happens? Let me illustrate this just using one speech of his (16th of June, 2015), the one in which declares his candidacy.
This speech contains all Trump stands for: populism, vile anti-immigration and anti-China rhetoric, him making fun of other candidates etc. Let’s look at the main type of arguments that appear in his speech. I will differentiate between five different types: ‘bashing others’, ‘the poor (state of the) economy’, ‘my own strengths’, ‘dangerous foreign policy’, ‘domestic issues’. I hand-coded these arguments on basis of natural sentences (for a more thorough investigation one could, for instance, check whether other coders would get similar results, but I want keep it simple here). Overall there are some 640 statements (sentences) in his speech.
Let’s look at the first graph. It shows the frequency of each of the main arguments. It’s visible with the bare eye that Trump is all about ‘me, me, me’. In almost a third of all sentences he talks about himself. Topic number two is foreign policy (mainly immigration and terrorism). Domestic issues other than the economy get little attention. So far this only tells you, he is a narcissist, so let’s dissect these categories further. The second graph shows the results.
We see that Trump is obsessed with making America great again (whatever that means. I interpreted this mainly as in relationship to other countries, but this might be debatable). Followed by scaremongering about terrorism and ‘our poor troops’. More interesting, to me, is that number three is a familiar frame: ‘I am an independent candidate/ (because) I am rich’. This is more important than all his other strengths combined (my astute business practices, my great family, my network…). All other issues, although clearly vitriolic at times (e.g. immigration), have less (numeric) salience for him.
And this is the issue: The only positive messages Trump sends are (unsurprisingly) about himself, and more importantly him being a successful and hence independent business man. He does not take money from others, so he is not corrupt. It’s a frame, in the sense that it is an idea so powerful that nobody even observes its manipulative power. Critics might dispute his de facto independence, but they operate already in his terrain.
To see this let’s go back to basics: as a political economist I am, ironically, not so much concerned about the fact that there is money in politics. I am concerned about the consequences of money in politics, about the fact that money gives rich people preferential access to politics. This is important: In modern mass democracies, campaigning always costs money. The problem is that the rich (aka capitalists) have more money and get better access to politics than the poor. That’s the real issue, and it matters relatively little, whether the rich directly run for presidency (Trump), or whether they give money through PACs to candidates (Cruz, Rubio) who represent their wishes. In that sense, there is little difference between Trump and the others.
Hence, this is where Trumps argument becomes a farce. In what sense is it good to be independent of other people’s money (which he arguably is not to the degree he claims)? He is a representative of the very problem: giving unfair access to rich people. When only rich people can put up a candidacy, that’s the real issue, not who among the rich gets access, or how they do it.
This is also why liberals need to break the spell of the frame: they need to tackle the real issue (unfair influence of rich people) rather than the vehicles (PACs, corporations, donations). Of course, a reform of campaign finance should include curtailing the excessive influence of PACs, super-PACs etc. But it would be naïve to assume that this would lead to a level playing field. Instead, there must be other instruments to guarantee that the poorer parts of society get their equal voice. Just as an example, in European democracies parties often receive substantive state-subsidized campaign finances to achieve a minimum level of level-playing-field.
Hence, liberals would need to change their game. Rather than focusing on independence from money, then need to invoke frames of inequality, fairness etc. And they need to set positive frames. But this is a problem for liberals, because they get nailed to the very concept of liberty. It’s in their name. Conservatives can always exploit the weakness of the notion of liberty. So, liberal solutions are not enough. After all, paying parties for campaigning is hardly compatible with naïve pluralism and a lean notion of liberty. But what can replace it? Unfortunately, some radical liberals overshoot by demanding socialism. This is, in my view, a terrible strategy. Decades of anti-communist scare and Reaganomics have made this frame antagonistic: it will rather mobilize the opponents than swing them in your favor. Socialism is even a controversial frame in Europe (ask most Danes, Bernie Sanders ‘go- to-people’), so forget using it in the US context. Liberals should rather aim for something conceptually different such as social democracy and make sure that this is not the same as socialism. This is what mainstream left parties in Europe have done for more than 150 years. It’s time for left leaders in the U.S. to brush up their European politics 101.