The 2016 election campaign is certainly a billionaire’s playground when it comes to “establishment candidates” like Hillary Clinton and Jeb Bush who cater to mega-donors and use their money to try to rally party bases. The only genuine exception to the rule this time around has been Bernie Sanders, who has built a solid grassroots following and funding machine, while shunning what he calls “the billionaire class” that fuels the Super PACs.
Donald Trump, like Ross Perot back in the 1992 and 1996 elections, has played quite a different trick on the money-saturated American political system. He has removed the billionaire as middleman between citizen plebeians and political elites, and created a true .00001 percent candidate, because he’s… well, a financial elite unto himself, however conveniently posed as the country’s straight-talking “everyman.”
Despite his I-can-buy-but-can’t-be-bought swagger, Trump’s persona has been carefully constructed to deflect even the most obvious questions of conflict of interest that his wealth and deal-making history should bring up. He claims that he would govern (or dictate) as he is—no apologies or bullshit. But would he?
The billionaire-as-president is a new prospect for America. The only faintly comparable situation in our history came before the Crash of 1929, when President Calvin Coolidge, who famously declared that “the business of America is business,” reappointed mogul Andrew Mellon as his treasury secretary, just as President Warren Harding had done before him. A walking conflict of interest, Mellon left Washington during Herbert Hoover’s administration to avoid Congressional scrutiny of his personal business endeavors. He was later investigated by the Department of Justice for falsifying tax information in his own business empire.
Trump is, by his own admission, a dealmaker who has, since the 1970s, utilized self-promotion and his own growing celebrity to make money. Nonetheless, he denies the importance of money itself. His quasi-autobiography, The Art of the Deal, opens with this now-familiar tall tale: “I don’t do it for the money. I’ve got enough, much more than I’ll ever need. I do it to do it. Deals are my art form.”
Today, he asserts that he is worth a cool $10 billion, having long been cagey about just how much he has. That figure, too, may be more scam than reality. Forbes pegs Trump’s fortune at $4 billion in its 2015 top billionaires list, where he places 405th in the world and 133rd in the United States. In his 92-page Federal Election Committee financial filing, which doesn’t require the disclosure of his total wealth, the value of his global enterprises, assets, debts, and income sources are listed in ranges, rather than exact figures. More than 20 items are characterized as worth “over $50 million.”