Donald Trump turns the GOP into a protection racket — and demands Republican candidates pay up

To "be seen favorably," the Trump campaign threatens, Republicans must give 5 percent — or more — to the boss

By Amanda Marcotte

Senior Writer

Published April 19, 2024 6:00AM (EDT)

Donald Trump | RNC logo (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)
Donald Trump | RNC logo (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)

For someone who frequently proclaims his innocence, Donald Trump sure loves to act like a two-bit gangster. The perpetual defendant should be focused on staying out of prison and running for president as the first of his four criminal trials kicks off. Instead, he is still focused on his lifelong obsession with making money while avoiding honest work. And the latest marks for this elderly grifter are other Republican candidates running in state or local races. 

"[T]he Trump campaign is asking for down-ballot candidates who use his name, image and likeness in fundraising appeals to give at least 5 percent," Politico reported late Wednesday. The campaign's, uh, "outreach" took a nice shop you got there, shame if something would happen to it tone. "Any split that is higher than 5% will be seen favorably by the RNC and President Trump’s campaign and is routinely reported to the highest levels of leadership within both organizations," read the letter sent to Republican fundraisers this week.

Not that anyone should feel pity for these Republicans. They're copycats using Trump's most basic grift: Slapping his name all over your fundraising appeals, with the implicit promise to MAGA followers that sending them money will make liberals cry.

One would think the "or else" was already implied by this language, but Trump's campaign committee clearly worries Republican politicians struggle to understand subtlety. So the threat was made explicit: "Any vendor whose clients ignore the guidelines mentioned above will be held responsible for their clients’ actions," including having the Trump campaign cut them off. 

It's been long established that Trump sees his supporters, first and foremost, as open wallets to pick. But his interest in separating fools from their money has escalated in recent months, as his legal fees and court judgments are mounting. Despite routinely declaring himself to be a "billionaire," Trump has done everything in his power to avoid paying what he owes. Instead, he's resorting to tricks of all sorts, including his longstanding favorite: Swindle some schmuck into paying it for him. 

Despite getting his nearly half-billion bond reduced to $175 million after losing his fraud case in New York, the money Trump allegedly secured is starting to smell quite fishy. Simply put, Attorney General Letitia James seems concerned that the guy offering to secure the bond does not actually have the money to pay it.

"Billionaire" Trump also seems to be digging through the metaphorical couch cushions to pay his lawyers. One reason President Joe Biden's war chest is much bigger than Trump's is because Trump donors are being directed to a PAC that pays his legal bills, not traditional campaign activities like ads and organizing. The Trump takeover of the Republican National Committee appears to be financially motivated, at least in part. As soon as Trump installed loyalist leaders, including his daughter-in-law, the RNC restructured its cash flow system so that Trump's legal bills get priority over traditional campaign expenses. 

Now, they're shaking down people running for state legislatures and comptroller offices, with the implication that saying no means Trump will publicly put that candidate on blast, derailing their career. Not that anyone should feel pity for these Republicans. They're copycats using Trump's most basic grift: Slapping his name all over your fundraising appeals, with the implicit promise to MAGA followers that sending them money will make liberals cry. Still, it is especially churlish of Trump to begrudge the little guys a piece of his hustle. Republicans had to give away whatever dignity they had left by praising Trump publicly, so of course they want a little payola in return. 

No doubt Trump thinks he's a super-genius for being able to con so many people, but really, it's the same thing over and over, from hawking Trump sneakers to tricking MAGA granny into becoming a recurring donor. It's a legal or semi-legal form of what the Security and Exchange Commission calls "affinity fraud": Where fraudsters target "members of identifiable groups" by being a member of that group or enlisting "respected community or religious leaders from within the group" to convince members "that a fraudulent investment is legitimate and worthwhile."

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A classic example would be people in a pyramid scheme targeting fellow members of their church. Multilevel marketing scams that spread through Facebook groups are another example. It is why so many hucksters sell survivalist kits, supplements and overpriced gold through right-wing media networks. It's how people end up spending $60 for a suspiciously lightweight Trump-branded "Bible," even though a real Bible with all the words in it is available for cheap or even free

Over the weekend, the Washington Post offered up a delicious slice of schadenfreude to liberal readers, in the form of interviews with Trump voters who bought stocks in Truth Social. Because of the affinity for Trump with some folks, the price of the stock, which was traded under his initials DJT, soared to many times what financial experts estimated it was worth. Then, as predicted, the price started to crater. The folks interviewed bought the stock at prices ranging from $65-$90 a share. Then it fell to the mid-twenties and now Biden's out there cracking jokes about it: "if Trump’s stock in the Truth Social, his company, drops any lower, he might do better under my tax plan than his."

Usually, when people make bad investments, they can chalk it up to poor information or a temporary lapse in judgment. But to admit this was foolish, for these folks, would cast doubts about what they've been doing with the past few years of their lives be remaining devoted to Trump worship. They've just put in too many pennies not to waste all their pounds. So instead they spin a face-saving story about how they're sure he's got an ace up his sleeve and the stock will bounce back. 

The down-ballot Republican candidates suddenly facing a Trump-imposed fee are in a similar situation. Having built their political identities around being Trump sycophants, they can't just back out now. That is why Trump feels free to shake them down. Turns out that betting your political career on someone who models himself after a mafioso is not a great long-term plan for security. I'm genuinely surprised the protection fees were set at a modest 5% minimum. It's likely just an opening gambit. If they pay that — and I'm sure many will be fearful enough to do so — watch for the fee to keep Trump from badmouthing them in public to rise. 

By Amanda Marcotte

Amanda Marcotte is a senior politics writer at Salon and the author of "Troll Nation: How The Right Became Trump-Worshipping Monsters Set On Rat-F*cking Liberals, America, and Truth Itself." Follow her on Twitter @AmandaMarcotte and sign up for her biweekly politics newsletter, Standing Room Only.

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