By Rick Wilson
First, major donors in the GOP have something in common with the Never Trump movement, the Lincoln Project, and 65% of America.
They hate Donald Trump with the fire of a billion suns.
I mean, they really, really, really hate him in every conceivable dimension. They hate his vulgarity. They hate his drooling avarice, his crude and obvious lust for attention, his casual racism, and his blistering ignorance. He’s the type of man they’d never admit to their homes without hiding the silver or to their country clubs without fear of an embarrassing cheating scandal on the links. Their contempt for his tasteless Idiot’s Guide to Pretending To Be A Billionaire lifestyle is beyond belief.
They’ve always hated him, with a tiny handful of exceptions.
For all that, GOP donors are herd animals, standing near but not too near the watering hole. Is that ripple in the water a crocodile? Does that hint of something on the wind mean food or hungry predators? No one wants to be the first to drink or to flee, but when the herd starts moving, they all move at once.
This was the pattern in 2016 that will play out again in 2024. Men and women worth billions of dollars who gave to Trump in 2016 did so reluctantly at first, then joined the amen chorus welcoming the Red Hat Mafia to the White House.
They still thought he was a crude, japing buffoon, but now he was a crude, japing buffoon who could deregulate their industries, slash their taxes, and name them to an ambassadorship in one of the Good Countries.
Republican megadonors are more liberal, worldly, and sophisticated by several orders of magnitude than Donald Trump, but damn, do they love a plaint government at their beck and call. Some got rich by building amazing companies. Some got it from Mummy and Daddy, the old-fashioned way. More and more, however, exist in a world where regulatory capture, preferable tax treatment, and the government very much picking winners and losers (and in their case, the choice 99.999% of the time goes in favor of their bottom lines) guarantees the acceleration of their wealth.
I’m going to speak capitalist for a moment; this class of billionaire donors are not free-market capitalists who feature in the dreams of the gauzy Reaganesque past; they’re part of an American financial transformation driving inequality at levels that make the Gilded Age’s mega-rich look like medieval farmers scraping in a field for one last potato before winter arrives.
This class of donors gambled this year on Ron DeSantis, an investment that paid off as predicted; from the golden child of the money class to a single-digit afterthought, he’s the junk bond of the 2024 campaign. A few have flirted with Nikki Haley and Tim Scott. Fewer still have backed Chris Christie’s doomed campaign.
Money mattered in the GOP politics of the past; the ability to raise it from wealthy supporters was often decisive. Donald Trump upended that model in 2016, and the donor class showed him the one thing you never show a bully: fear. They needed him more than he needed them, and they bent the knee.
As the primary continues the long slide into irrelevance and noise, these donors will drift away from DeSantis and the rest of the second tier. Right now, they’re burning up the phone lines of Glenn Youngkin, not because he can win, but because he has all the same tribal signifiers of their cozy world of private equity; he’s wealthy, he’s credentialed, and he rocks one hell of a sweater vest.
Youngkin is already flirting with certain Never Trump activists, hoping to bring them back into the fold. No amount of money, no focus group, and no speech will solve the cultural problem of the MAGA base with Youngkin.
He was fine for Virginia, a bluish state that took a bit of finessing, and he’s thrown the red meat the base demands as the minimum tribute, but Youngkin is exactly what the MAGA base loathes most in a candidate: smart, educated, rich, and corporate. Tell me how Trump’s base will react to a man who once led a company that does business with the Chinese Communist government, embraces diversity, equity, and inclusion policies, and is described as a “kinder, gentler Trumpist.”
“Kind” and “gentle” are not notably desirable characteristics in the MAGA world. They want all the crazy, straight-up. Youngkin’s allies are road-testing an argument Ron DeSantis made to zero effect: electability. Witness 2018, 2020, and 2022 as MAGA primary voters picked people they knew were doomed to lose.
My very Southern grandmother would occasionally declare someone to be, “Not our kind, dear,” in the most honeyed tone that simultaneously made her contempt vividly clear. If there’s a MAGA poster child for NOKD, it’s Glenn Youngkin.
For a moment, the donors will grumble and complain from the sidelines, but one by one, step by step, humiliation by humiliation, they’ll go back to Trump, funding his campaign machine (and by that, of course, I mean “paying his legal bills,” but I digress) and pretending Joe Biden is the second coming of Vladimir Lenin.
In the eternal sunshine of the GOP megadonors’ minds, there’s always an alternative Trump. You know, someone like them. There’s always a way where a million more here or there, or the right words from the right focus group will solve the problem of his enduring hold over the MAGA base, but it’s an illusion.
They won’t ever love Trump, but they will bend the knee and cut the checks the second it’s clear the others have no path to victory (e.g., right after South Carolina), no matter what it costs either their own bottom lines or the nation.