According to filings made public over the weekend, former President Donald Trump is the most successful fundraiser in his party this year, having closed out the first six months of 2021 with over $100 million in his war chest.
For a politician out of office and banned from mainstream social media, that’s an astonishing amount. But perhaps even more remarkable than the sheer amount is the reminder that Trump is once again excelling at his career-long tradition of making money off of lying to people.
Unfortunately, the former president’s latest bid to use deception for profit is a uniquely dangerous one. The more money he makes from convincing people that the election was rigged, the more power he has to pressure the Republican Party to embrace and replicate that lie. With more cash, he can intervene more aggressively in next year’s campaigns and lobby more effectively for the political priorities he cares about most. Ultimately, he has the capacity to reshape the party to conform with his latest heist.
Unsurprisingly, Trump’s aides exaggerated how much he raised from January to June — some of the money came from transfers from other accounts that raised money last year — but still, he dwarfed the amount raised by any other politician in his party, the closest of whom was Sen. Tim Scott of South Carolina (he raised $7.8 million online). Trump even pulled in more cash than “each of the three main fund-raising arms of the Republican Party itself,” according to The New York Times.
There are plenty of reasons Trump’s massive haul is striking. It shows how enthusiastically he’s flouting the modern post-presidential tradition of stepping away from politics after leaving the White House. It also illustrates how he remains exceptionally popular within the party despite having left the White House mired in scandal and after having incited a ragtag insurrection at the U.S. Capitol and botched the American response to the coronavirus pandemic. But his unique and brazen use of outright deception to pull it off remains perhaps the most impressive one of all.
Trump’s premier fundraising tool is to hammer home the lie that the election was rigged against him. As The New York Times notes, Trump’s fundraising numbers correspond with his direct engagement with the public, such as through speeches and his ill-fated blog. And those interactions have been centered, to the point of obsession, on the idea that the election was stolen from him.
In his handful of campaign-style public appearances since he left the White House, Trump has showered adulating supporters with conspiracy theories about irregularities in the voting process and impressed upon them the notion that he would have beaten President Joe Biden if some shadowy network of outsiders hadn’t intervened on Biden’s behalf.
A plurality of Trump’s messages on his blog and elsewhere were focused on lies about the election. He also regularly sends out fundraising emails based on false claims of “new evidence” of voter fraud, giving his supporters the illusion that their donations are helping fund some kind of long-term investigative operation.
Trump himself is open about the centrality of the “big lie” to his political focus for all of 2021: “On behalf of the millions of men and women who share my outrage and want me to continue to fight for the truth, I am grateful for your support,” he said in his statement about his fundraising this year.
And embedded within this fraud is another potential fraud. In 2020, the Trump campaign deployed a scheme of using donation forms that used distracting visuals and fine print to opt donors in to recurring donations unwittingly. Consumer advocates condemned the fundraising scheme, and the campaign eventually refunded tens of millions of dollars in response to fraud complaints, but monthly donations and fraud complaints continued into 2021 and may account for some of the money he’s raised this year.
Trump is a seasoned veteran of making money off of deception, fraud and corruption. His career in real estate was marked by illicit business practices, including the refusal to make mandatory disclosures of purchases to the Federal Trade Commission, the failure to pay people and small businesses the money they were owed and discrimination against Black tenants by lying about vacancies. Trump illegally siphoned off money from his charity to help his 2016 presidential campaign. Trump University was a brazen scam. And Trump used the White House to enrich himself and his family.
The trouble with Trump’s latest scam is that it’s not just about accumulating money at other people’s expense. He’s using lies to convince a huge proportion of the American public that they’ve been scammed and giving them more reason to become hostile to the possibility of functioning democracy.