Trump tests the intelligence of populists

It’s well documented that until fairly recently Donald Trump was a Democrat and that he took mostly liberal positions on major issues. But Kevin Williamson deepens our understanding of Trump’s non-conservatism — as well as his deep cynicism — by looking at how the tycoon has tried to influence American politics through money.

Williamson makes his point by comparing Trump to others who, as Donald likes to say, are “really rich.”

There are many modes of leadership available to the adventurous billionaire: Sheldon Adelson, the casino magnate who is the less famous and more competent version of Trump, is directly involved in campaigns, while Charles and David Koch have engaged in electoral politics and done the long-term (and probably more consequential) work of nurturing a stable of institutions dedicated to advancing the cause of liberty, and Bill Gates has put his billions behind his priorities.

Trump has made some political donations — to Herself, to Harry Reid, to Nancy Pelosi, to Schumer — and his defense is that these were purely self-serving acts of influence-purchasing rather than expressions of genuine principle. There is no corpus of Trump work on any issue of any significance; on his keystone issue, illegal immigration, he has not even managed to deliver a substantive speech. . . .

Donald Trump, who inherited a real-estate empire worth hundreds of millions of dollars from his father, has had every opportunity to involve himself in the consequential questions of his time. He has been a very public figure for decades, with a great deal of time, money, celebrity, business connections, and other resources to put in the service of something that matters. Seventy years in, and his curriculum vitae is remarkably light on public issues for a man who would be president.

One would think that a life spent in public might inspire at least a smidgen of concern about the wide world. He might have had any sort of life he chose, and Trump chose a clown’s life. There is no shortage of opportunities for engagement, but there is only one thing that matters to Trump, and his presidential campaign, like everything else he has done in his seven decades, serves only that end.

As Williamson says, Trump defends his contributions to liberals like Harry Reid and Nancy Pelosi on the grounds that he’s a businessman seeking influence. He tries to turn these contributions in his favor, as evidence of the corruption of the system he now attacks. Never mind his participation in, and massive enrichment through, that corruption.

Trump wants populists to believe that members of the “ruling class” who purchase vastly inordinate influence from other members of that class aren’t culpable for the corruption and, in fact, have special standing to be the legitimate champion of those who are angry about the unfairness and oppression (as they see it) that this system produces.

I understand why Trump puts out this line. What else can he say about his generous funding of liberal Democrats?

What’s more difficult to grasp is that a significant portion of the GOP electorate, presumably mostly populists, seems so far to be buying it.