One of the reasons that the rise of Ted Cruz and Donald Trump surprises the political media so much is there's this persistent myth that there's a stark ideological divide behind the "donor class" that controls the Republican Party and the base voters. The basic narrative goes like this: Wealthy Republicans are solely interested in cutting taxes and slashing social spending and issues like abortion and gay rights are just distractions they feed the gullible base to keep them voting against their own self-interest. It's a deeply cynical but popular view, one that assumes that the rich are brilliant puppet masters and the middle class conservative base a bunch of rubes.
But, as a piece in Monday's New York Times laid out, this narrative is getting challenged by the Ted Cruz and Donald Trump campaigns. If you believe the myth of the wise-but-cynical donor base vs. the gullible-culture-warrior base, it would seem that both these men would be riding high on a lot of votes but not a lot of money.
In reality, however, both Cruz and Trump are doing better, money-wise, than Marco Rubio, who is commonly understood to be the establishment pick, as the primary season picks up.
Mr. Cruz is the best financed candidate in the Republican race, beginning February with $13.6 million in cash on hand. Mr. Trump, a billionaire, has raised millions of dollars from small donors and lent himself millions more, including nearly $5 million in January. He paid out more than $11.5 million that month, the most sustained spending of his presidential bid so far.
To be clear, the fact that Cruz and Trump have so much money is hardly the killing blow for the theory that the donor class has different priorities than the base. As Nicholas Confessore and Sarah Cohen lay out in The New York Times piece, candidates considered establishment-friendly did do well on fundraising last year, with Jeb Bush leading the pack. It's just that the establishment money disappeared, "spent on a shootout among its favored candidates." The "establishment" candidates still have more fund-raising power behind them, even if they've outspent campaigns with more grassroots appeal.
But still, the sheer size of the Cruz/Trump war chests should give anyone who buys into the donor/base dichotomy pause. Trump's is easy enough to explain away; while he does take donations, a lot of the money is just his own. But the fact that Cruz has almost twice as much money as Rubio and Kasich put together shows that someone with deep wallets is willing to give to a candidate whose only appeal is that he's a right wing nut with a penchant for Bible-thumping, due to the fact that he has effectively alienated himself from the rest of the politicians in the Republican Party by being too loathsome for even Republicans to accept.
But Cruz's war ches t— and the sheer amount of Super PAC money being dumped on his campaign, which dramatically exceeds that of any other Republican in the race — is a stern reminder that there are a lot of rich Republicans that don't fit the mold of cynical rich people who are just using all this God-and-guns talk to dupe the rubes into voting for lower taxes on the rich. (Though those people do exist, with the Koch brothers being the most prominent example.) A lot of wealthy Republicans are true believers, just like the base, and they give money based on issues like opposing gay marriage and reproductive rights just as much, if not more, than based on buying off politicians they believe will give them tax cuts.
The only argument for preferring Cruz over Rubio is that Cruz is more convincing as a true believer, with his nutty preacher father and his long history of standing up for extremist causes. And sure enough, one of the biggest sources of money for Cruz, particularly in the Super PAC arena, is the Wilks brothers, Farris and Dan, two hardline religious fanatics who became billionaires off natural gas in Texas.
The Wilks love spreading money around to push their enthusiasm for a more theocratic America, where their version of Christianity — Farris is a minister at the Assembly of Yahweh, 7th Day church that his parents helped found — is imposed on the rest of the country by fiat.
"Like any number of Religious Right leaders, [Farris Willks] saw Barack Obama’s re-election as a harbinger of the End Times and he believes God will punish America for embracing homosexuality," Peter Montgomery of the American Prospect wrote in a profile of the billionaire brothers in 2014. "Unlike all of them, he’s on the list of the world’s richest people."
Wilks has a special obsession with forcing women to live by his fundamentalist views, where women are unsubtly viewed as an inferior sex whose main purpose, one they should not be allowed to decline, is child-bearing.Wilks spreads a lot of money around on right wing causes, but pays special attention to attacks on women's rights.
RH Reality Check reports that Wilks has given a huge amount of money to PragerU, an organization created by Dennis Prager that packages right wing propaganda as if it's educational materials, in an effort to get their hardcore fundamentalist views into schools. One of their "educational" videos explains that all of women's gains in the modern world are not hard-won, but simply granted upon them by men.
"It is easy for feminists to forget this, but it was men who gave up their monopoly on political power and gave women the right to vote," the host lectures, ignoring the century of woman-led activism that led to this. "Men who invented birth control, the refrigerator, the washing machine, and so many other devices that liberated women.” The implication, that men "let" you out of the house and so you owe them or they will put you back, is not particularly subtle.
Wilks spends a lot of money on anti-choice causes, giving heavily to Life Dynamics, an organization that runs euphemistically named "crisis pregnancy centers". These places masquerade as women's clinics, to lure in unsuspecting women seeking abortion or contraception, in order to deluge them with sex-shaming, guilt, and lies in order to discourage the use of both.
As Right Wing Watch reports, the Wilks-funded Life Dynamics has been heavily involved in promoting the hoax that Planned Parenthood "sells" fetal body parts, a myth erected to justify cutting funds to the organization that are used for contraception and other non-abortion health services. This willingness to lie and cheat in order to deprive women of contraception isn't a big surprise. The group argues that legal contraception "increases sexual activity", which they strongly oppose, arguing that sex for pleasure instead of procreation works to "isolate morality from sex," and that even letting teenagers know that contraception exists will "neutralize the abstinence message".
The brothers and their wives had donated over $15 million to Ted Cruz's campaign, through a Super Pac, making them the biggest known donors in this campaign cycle. They have used their fundraising and political muscle to help push Cruz's message out in religious right circles, encourage more of the God-botherers to give the man money.
As the Wilks example shows, it's a fallacy to see the "donor class" of Republicans as disinterested money people who are only exploiting culture war issues like abortion and gay rights in order to work up the gullible masses. The scary truth is a lot of the money people are themselves true believers. Looking to money people to rein the kooks in isn't going to work when some of the richest money people out there are kooks themselves.