Cui bono, Donald Trump edition


I am a Donald Trump profiteer.  His baffling rise to high office sold a lot of copies of my book, The Revolt of the Public.  People were desperate for explanations, and I, as always, had several in hand.  Mind you, I never mentioned Trump in the book, which was published in 2014.  I wrote about information, the public, and the collapse of authority.  I described the forces that Trump was about to ride to the top.  At least, a few smart writers have said so – and who am I to quibble?

My position as profiteer naturally inclined me to wonder:  who else has benefited from Trump?  I know that’s a tricky question, if only because our political life at the moment resembles the food fight in Animal House.  If you utter the monosyllable “Trump,” someone is sure to squirt catsup into your eyeballs.

But I ask the question in all analytic innocence.  Who benefits?

The anti-Trump side of the food fight has a ready answer:  Trump benefits, bigtime.  Why else would a man who rides a golden elevator get into politics, except to make more money?  “Donald Trump is absolutely going to use the presidency to make money,” we are told by Alex Shephard at The New Republic.  “How much will Trump profit from the presidency?  It could easily be in the billions,” reckons Ray Fisman at Slate.  “Trump’s effort to profit from the presidency gets underway in earnest,” reports Aaron Rupar at ThinkProgress.  What is being hinted at here, with understatement typical of our times, is a felonious conflict of interest leading to an impeachment that will hurl the high-flying Trump, like Icarus, into the muck.

That may well happen.  Trump’s personal finances are an incomprehensible morass to most Americans – certainly, to me – and we may all wake up tomorrow to that political End of Days so devoutly prayed for by his opponents.  Yet such a happy catastrophe, while possible, at present lies over the horizon of events.

The same applies to future winners in the New Budget Lotto – outfits that will be awarded hundreds of billions in contracts under rubrics like “defense” and “infrastructure.”  That money hasn’t been allocated yet, much less spent.

But there are groups with distinct political perspectives that are benefiting from Trump’s election now, even as I type these words – and they are not the ones you might guess at.

ACLU, for example, is benefiting a lot.  The organization, nominally nonpartisan, published an open letter on November 11, warning “Dear President-elect Trump” that if he persisted in his “unlawful and unconstitutional” proposals, he would “contend with the full firepower of the ACLU.”  That firepower will be purchased with new-found wealth.  In five days, 120,000 individual donors dropped $7.2 million into ACLU’s coffers – “the greatest outpouring of support…in our nearly 100-year history,” according to the group’s executive director.

By comparison, the same five-day period following the 2012 elections produced 354 donations totaling less than $28,000.  For the ACLU, President Trump is the equivalent of a golden elevator, while President Obama was a financial disaster.

Planned Parenthood is benefiting.  Threatened with de-funding by the new administration, the group has received “an unprecedented outpouring of support.”  Less than a week after the election, some 80,000 individual donors had written checks to PP.

The Sierra Club is benefiting.  Its executive director believes that President Trump “threatens fundamental freedoms, protections, human rights, and environmental safeguards for millions of people.”  That’s the kind of talk that brings in money:  according to one source, Sierra Club “nearly quadrupled” its previous monthly donation record.

I could multiply at will examples of anti-Trump nonprofits that seem to be profiting mightily from Trump.  The Muslim political advocacy group CAIR, for one, has received a “simply unprecedented” number of volunteer applications.  The Center for Reproductive Rights tweeted shortly after the elections that 500 new supporters had offered to pay monthly donations.  Not surprisingly, new entities and websites have sprung up to share in the bounty.

Anti-Trumpism might be described as capitalism with an angry face.  It has already worked an astounding economic miracle by making the desert that is the news business bloom again.

For his media punching-bags, President Trump favors the New York Times and CNN.  Both were doing poorly before his election – both have been thriving since.  The president delights in characterizing the “failing” NYT as a purveyor of “fake news.”  But behold:  every presidential insult makes failure less likely.  True, the newspaper’s advertisement revenues remain on a downward path, but paid subscriptions – particularly online subscriptions – are “wildly” up.  The reason is the man in the White House, at least according to the paper’s executive editor.  “Trump,” he maintains, “is the best thing to have happened to the Times’ subscription strategy.”

CNN has earned the proud designation of “very fake news” from the president.  He added:  “I want to turn in CNN for not doing a good job.”  Trump has said many other uncomplimentary things about the network – which, as we should expect by now, has ignited a ratings boom.  CNN’s audience is up 51 percent over last year among adults between 24 and 54 years old.  To be fair, this is part of a post-election great leap upward by cable news.  Fox is up 50 percent.  Even the anemic MSNBC – the Fox of the left – is up by 30 percent.  If anti-Trump is a potent economic force, Trump tout court, to media friend and foe, has been the tonic to rejuvenate an aging and outmoded industry.

Those are the facts.  If you look for those who, like me, have profiteered from the rise of Trump, you will find included in that number his fiercest opponents in the nonprofit advocacy world and the news media.  I don’t pretend to know the higher meaning of this, though I will say that it seems curious, and no doubt adds to the feeling, endured daily by many Americans since the election, that we have slipped into a looking-glass world.

I do have a few observations.

If I am a young professional working for Planned Parenthood or the Sierra Club, I face a dilemma.  My principles inform me that Donald Trump is the Great Satan, to be wiped off the face of the earth.  However, my career – my hopes for a raise, a promotion, an eco-touristic vacation to the rain forests of Costa Rica – depends on the continuation and intensification of Trump.  The longer he stays, the eviler he gets, the better I do.

Is there a name for this type of dilemma?  I believe there is.  It’s called “conflict of interest.”

The situation is compounded for the news media.  With regard to Donald Trump, what does the New York Times really want?  If, as conservative critics insist, the newspaper is driven primarily by ideological concerns, then it should aim to cover the next Watergate, and so be rid of this meddlesome president.  But if the NYT is a business like any other, with a bottom line and a need to show a profit, then its stake-holders might wish for a long, long ride on the Trump gravy train.

Which is it?  Again, I have no idea.  But with a dash of Machiavelli thrown in, the two options need not be mutually exclusive.

The fact that established institutions have felt compelled to berate a newly-elected president, and benefited materially from it, shows how deeply the way of the web has penetrated the real world.  Aggression garners online attention.  Persistent and outrageous aggression will build a following.  Every incentive pulls you toward the promotion of outrageous antagonists as worthy objects of aggression.  The ideal is perpetual combat with the most extreme opponents, aggression on aggression, outrage against outrage.  To a casual glance, this will resemble the behavior of two scorpions in a bottle.  A closer look will reveal a finely-tuned symbiotic relationship, in which both players benefit so long as they continue to move ever farther out, to opposite extremes.

President Trump, of course, is the undisputed champion of this game.  He built a national following by berating the likes of the New York Times and CNN.  He benefits politically, if not materially, every time the news media, or ACLU, or the Sierra Club, attack him – and the more outrageous the attack, the bigger the political payoff.  He makes sure, therefore, to poke the beast regularly, and keep those attacks coming.

So here is my story in a nutshell.  The president’s attackers, who have profited enormously from the attacks, helped to raise him through these same attacks to the highest pinnacle of political power.

In our looking-glass universe, if you squint a bit, it all makes perfect sense.

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4 Responses to Cui bono, Donald Trump edition

  1. Great observations.

    Hypothetical means of aligning interests of anti-Trump donors and anti-Trump organizations are social policy bonds

    On the more general issue of news organizations benefiting from crisis, endowment funding, probably in partnership with universities, is a potential solution. This has to come along with the destruction of advertising and subscription revenue so that endowment is the only option, as advertising and subscription are aligned with crisis.

  2. Larry Levis says:

    Incisive, witty, wonderful analysis.

  3. Pingback: Martin Gurri on President Trump and His Opponents | askblog

  4. Hannah says:

    This is a pretty short-sighted argument. You makes a fatal, and perhaps Trumpian, error of assuming that “benefit” equates with “more money.”

    Sierra Club has more money than ever, sure, but I suspect that they’d prefer to have less money and not have to spend the next four years defending the Endangered Species Act and conserved land. I work at an environmental non-profit, and we are miserable every day as we try to figure out how to counter the avalanche of Trump’s anti-environment policies. I’d much prefer a world where we have less money but more ability to make progress instead of slipping backwards into loss. Once we lose a species, there’s no getting it back.

    Which leads to my next point: Most people who work for the ACLU, or the news business, or Sierra Club do it because they care, not because they’re angling for the next big promotion. I don’t work for for that sweet ecotourism vacation; that is not part of our meager benefits package. And anyone who works at a non-profit knows that more money does not mean better pay or promotions for workers.

    So, I get the argument, and it’s definitely interesting to consider, but I don’t think it’s as compelling when examined up close.

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