Donald Trump Is Selling Out

His supporters don’t care, but independent voters might.

Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump gives a speech during a rally at the the Northwest Washington Fair and Event Center on Saturday in Lynden, Washington.
Donald Trump gives a speech during a rally at the the Northwest Washington Fair and Event Center on Saturday in Lynden, Washington.

Matt Mills McKnight/Getty Images

Donald Trump, as predicted, has begun to distance himself from some of the positions and postures that catapulted him to the Republican presidential nomination. This is always to be expected of general election candidates once they’ve clinched the nomination, but Trump’s shifts are special because the original stances were so far outside the norm of politics as usual—often for ill.

Despite issuing a tax plan that’s largely a giveaway to the rich, Trump had at least once or twice entertained the idea of closing a tax loophole or two that certain wealthy people exploit. He has now brought on two supply-side celebrities, Larry Kudlow and Stephen Moore, to scrub the plan of anything not ludicrously beneficial to the wealthiest people on Earth. To preserve all of those preferential tax treatments, alas, it looks like Social Security and Medicare will have to get all chopped up after all. That Muslim ban that roughly 7 in 10 Republican primary voters loved? Eh, just a “suggestion.” He’s having Rudy Giuliani take a look at it along with his border security plan.  

Then there’s the meta-issue that undergirded his ability to take all of those unorthodox positions in the first place: the self-funding—well, self-loaning—of his candidacy, which will now cease because of the demands of funding a general election campaign.

What we are seeing in Trump’s new solicitation of big bucks—and his new positioning—is a validation of what he was saying about how politicians are bought and paid for by wealthy interests. In the primary, Trump was able to entertain both the light side of populism (preserving large social insurance programs, raising a tax or two on the wealthy) and the dark side (nativism) because he did not rely on contributions from elite Republican donors. Those heresies will have to be reined in now that he needs some scratch. “By self-funding my campaign,” Trump said in a typical line last September, “I am not controlled by my donors, special interests or lobbyists. I am only working for the people of the U.S.!” That Donald Trump would look at nominee Donald Trump as a proto–Jeb Bush. His own transition is testament to the truth of his original message.

Now: Does any of this mean he will lose the core supporters who gravitated to his original message? No! That would be a violation of the simple rule that Trump does not lose his core supporters over anything. At this point he and those supporters are bonded on an emotional level, which is how the whole personality cult thing works. They just like the guy: like how he speaks, like who he is, like how he irritates and threatens people they don’t like.

Reuters, for example, asked 40 Trump supporters if they cared that Trump would now follow a traditional fundraising model, and all but four said they “were not concerned.” This makes sense to anyone who has ever presented any uncomfortable fact to Trump supporters and found that they “were not concerned.” Plus, Trump supporters have a legitimate justification for allowing him to slide on this: They hate Hillary Clinton, who is going to spend north of $1 billion trying to defeat Trump. “You gotta fight fire with fire,” a cattle rancher from North Dakota tells Reuters. “Bring it on.”

The opportunity to beat up on Clinton has closed some chasmic rifts within the Republican coalition over the last 25 years. The question for Trump’s campaign is whether he has the ability to add voters to his coalition. That was never going to be easy, but he had at least settled on potent branding for his new opponent: “Crooked Hillary.” Not clever, but perfect, tying together the FBI investigation over Clinton’s email server, her connections to special interests, and the general societal impression that she is a fraud.

That’s where Trump’s turn to fundraising is most damaging: It blunts the effectiveness of his strongest message against Clinton in terms of appealing to swayable voters who hate politics as usual. He won’t lose the voters he’s had all along, but it’s going to be harder to convince new ones that she’s just another donor-owned crook now that he, too, will be a donor-owned crook. It will be less potent when he calls Clinton a stooge of Goldman Sachs—a powerful and not-untrue accusation!—if she can respond that he, too, accepts money from the same or similar institutions. Trump’s turn to fundraising sticks him in a box of conventionality, when unconventionality was both the greatest risk for his candidacy and what made him so fresh to begin with.  

Read more Slate coverage of the Republican primary.