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I Supported Donald Trump and All I Got Were Pom-Poms

A journey through 2016 campaign merchandise shows that large donors speak with a louder voice than small ones.

October 20, 2015

My “It’s Not Brain Surgery” Ben Carson t-shirt was chafing. But at least Fluffy, my year-old Yorkie, was looking jaunty in his “We Need Somebody Who Can Do the Job” Carly Fiorina doggie onesie. Still he was tugging impatiently on his leash. Even Fluffy could tell we were getting hostile looks as we walked down these liberal Brooklyn streets. Hipster tolerance only goes so far. I’m pretty sure my Mike Huckabee baseball cap was the straw that broke the camel’s back.

It didn’t matter. It was time to go home and make dinner. My friend Tom—he’s a corporation, but a nice one—was coming over. Tom’s been dropping by a fair amount since he materialized after Hobby Lobby. Turns out getting First Amendment rights really upped his social game.

I had just pulled out my $75 plastic Jeb 2016 "Guaca Bowle" (the recipe, however, is a secret) to make appetizers when the doorbell rang.

Tom breezed in, took one look at my Rand Paul beer stein, and demanded a “nice red. And not that California swill you normally drink.” I served him a Côtes du Rhône in a Ted Cruz stemless wine glass.

“That’s a white wine glass!” Tom protested. Then he looked me up and down. Gazing at the “Grillary Clinton” apron I was wearing, he asked: “How much have you spent on all this crap?”

“Not much,” I replied. The “Grillary” apron has already been marked down from $20 to $15, I noted.

“I’ve converted my money into pure expression. I am literally wearing my $15 in speech on my chest,” I explained. “You should see the looks some people are shooting me.”

Then I laid a little Chief Justice John Roberts on him. My “contribution ‘serves as a general expression of support for the candidate and his views.’” This “crap,” as Tom calls it, is the holy grail, or guacamole bowl as the case may be, of the First Amendment.

Tom was having none of it. “First Amendment, First Shmamendment. Let me tell you how it’s really done,” Tom said.

Turns out I’ve been doing it all wrong. Sure I gave Marco Rubio $30 for a “Let Freedom Ring” phone case. Or I could have adopted a Rubio staffer for a day. And that staffer would have sent me an update from the road. (Originally, the price was $250; now it just says “Sale!”) Or for $500 I could have bought Rubio himself a plane ticket. Then I would get Twitter recognition and a postcard signed by Marco.

“What’s more American than buying someone a plane ticket?” Tom asked.

But, Tom told me, even $500 was penny ante. The CEO of Tom’s company has raised so much money for Rubio that he has his own password-protected phone app that gives him constant insider updates from the campaign. Even better, Marco texts him back every once in a while.

And after giving the Bush campaign some big bucks, the CEO now has a staffer who will talk to him whenever he wants. Apparently, he’s even got an ask in for Bush’s guacamole recipe,

Tom’s CEO really loved former candidate Scott Walker’s super-PAC because he knew what he was buying. For $1 million he could get: twice-a-year retreats, members-only briefings, weekly email updates, members-only conference calls, a dedicated staff contact, two private dinners with “VIP Special Guest(s),” inclusion in “all public/regional fundraising events,” and a special “Executive Board Member” pin.

“Walker may not have understood campaigns, but he understood deliverables and a good consumer experience,” Tom added.

I think it’s pretty clear now that though I may be “speaking” when I donate, many politicians are selling something. And they’re not really selling to me. Tom just shrugged his shoulders.

“We live in a free market society. That’s the way it works,” he told me. “You get what you pay for. And you got t-shirts.”

I was feeling a little outraged. I knew bigger donors got canapés and cocktails and not just a lousy phone case. But I was beginning to think there is a difference in kind rather than degree between my speech (ahem, money) and Tom’s. Big donors, it turns out, speak an entirely different language.

It makes me want to throw my Trump “Make America Great Again” Spirit Poms (“Let’s cheer Donald J. Trump all the way to the White House!”) in the garbage.

The views expressed are the author’s own and not necessarily those of the Brennan Center for Justice.

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