This could be how Trump's momentum ends: Why his flip-flop on self-funding undercuts his appeal

Trump has been pledging to self-fund his campaign. Even for a figure of his MASSIVE WEALTH, that's not easy

Published August 25, 2015 9:59AM (EDT)

  (Reuters/Nancy Wiechec)
(Reuters/Nancy Wiechec)

Like most people who own stock, Donald Trump's net worth has suffered in recent days. The Washington Post's rough back-of-the-envelope calculation shows that Trump has lost up to $4.5 million in the market during its current dip. It's not like that's going send him crawling into the poor house anytime soon. And the candidate himself is dealing with the dreary financial news the same way deals with everything: by trying to pick a fistfight with China, the very large country, "and Asia."

Despite having a very large net worth -- perhaps TEN BILLION DOLLARS, perhaps $2.9 billion -- much of Trump's worth, given that he's a real estate developer, rests in buildings and other illiquid assets. He claims that he's willing to spend over a billion dollars of his own money to self-fund his own campaign, but doing so could require him to cut deeper into his wealth than he might be comfortable with.

It's much nicer when other people just donate money to you or your super PAC while you keep all of your own money. Trump is beginning to recognize this. It was reported over the weekend that in mid-July, Trump attended and briefly spoke at a fundraiser for the Make America Great Again PAC. (Three guesses whose candidacy that super PAC is intended to support.) Politico reports that "about 200 people packed into a private residence in Manhattan" to hear Trump speak and then, for whatever reason, pledge high-dollar donations to make him the most powerful human on earth. This in addition to the recent online fundraising drive he launched to fund his official campaign, in which he promised to match donor contributions.

Trump has confirmed that he's accepting donations large and small. "I would even take big contributors, as long as they don’t expect anything," is how he put it to "Face the Nation" host John Dickerson. On Monday's "Fox & Friends," he said that he will accept big fat-cat donations "only if there’s no strings whatsoever attached. The only strings attached is I wanna make America great again." Who doesn't wanna Make America Great Again? The problem is that some of these big donors think the best way to Make America Great Again is to carve out a loophole in the tax code, for each of them, personally.

Trump's best pitch against the systemic corruption dominating both parties is that he can't be bought, because he just has so, so, so much money. He knows how these crook donors work, he's been one of them, and so he's the best to weed it out by self-funding his own campaign. Trump's at his best when he's delivering this speil: admitting that he knows how to buy political favors, knows how to play the game, and knows how to end it. "Billionaires should run because they're the only ones that can't be bought" isn't the best direction for campaign finance reformers to look, but for the meantime, well, maybe.

What Trump may be recognizing, now that he's beginning to think he might be able to win this thing, is that it would be prohibitively expensive to self-fund a primary and general election presidential campaign. The Democratic nominee and her (his?) backers will spend $1-2 billion dollars to win the presidency. Same with the Republican nominee. This is just what it costs now, and it's a lot of liquid assets for any one man. And if Trump were to win the nomination, he'd basically have to start doing any number of joint fundraisers with local, state, and national Republican parties. Anyone who says they won't be bought by large corporations, whether that's Trump or Bernie Sanders or whoever, hasn't competed in a modern presidential general election before as the representative of a major political party that expects to win. And if he won, he would need to run for reelection. How would he even fund that? Would he sell Trump Tower, America's Greatest Building?

Even a political figure of such massive, bigly wealth such as Donald Trump can be, and would need to be, bought. That could blunt Trump's sharp message against the special interests and turn him into "any other politician."

By Jim Newell

Jim Newell covers politics and media for Salon.

MORE FROM Jim Newell

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