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The following is presented as part of The Columbian’s Opinion content, which offers a point of view in order to provoke thought and debate of civic issues. Opinions represent the viewpoint of the author. Unsigned editorials represent the consensus opinion of The Columbian’s editorial board, which operates independently of the news department.
News / Opinion / Columns

Westneat: ‘We intend to keep at it’: The more Trump gets in trouble, the more money his fans donate

By Danny Westneat
Published: February 12, 2024, 6:01am

There’s a school custodian in SeaTac who donated to Donald Trump 172 times last year. She sent Trump some money just about every other day.

There’s a retiree in Pullman who gave Trump’s fundraising operation between $4 and $44 so often — 165 times — that by the end of 2023, it added up to nearly $4,000.

And there’s a self-employed handyman in Shoreline who started pushing the Trump donate button so hard beginning in July — sometimes giving 40 times in a month — that by year’s end, he had sent $2,253.

Of all the unusual aspects of the Donald Trump phenomenon, the one I find the most perplexing is the zeal with which his supporters continue to send him money. Federal campaign finance reports, released last week for the second half of 2023, show that they’re often working-class or retired folks who engage in what amounts to a near-daily Trump tithing, often in $5 or $10 increments.

In the past six months, the reports show, “Small-dollar Don” got more than 39,000 donations from Washington residents. That’s more than triple the number of the incumbent Democratic president, Joe Biden. Trump raised $1.34 million in Washington — which pencils out to just $34 per donation.

Trump has wealthy donors, too, but overall it’s a recasting of the stereotypical roles, where Republicans supposedly mined the fat cash and Democrats were the party of the people. Biden raised $4.9 million from Washingtonians in the second half of 2023 (from both his regular campaign kitty and his Biden Victory Fund joint fundraising PAC). His average donation here was $502 — 15 times higher than Trump’s.

“This is not America!” headlined one of Trump’s daily fundraising appeals, this one after a New York jury said he owed $83 million to an author he was found to have sexually abused and defamed.

The pitch closed: “Remember, your support is the only thing standing between us and TOTAL TYRANNY!”

These appeals really work, even as they become more untethered from reality. Trump’s various PACs and committees raised nearly $200 million last year, with earlier estimates that 80 percent of it came from people giving less than $200 at a time.

The problem is that huge amounts of Trump’s campaign accounts are being spent on legal fees (nearly 50 different law firms got paid), as well as ludicrous expenditures like an $18,000-per-month retainer for Melania Trump’s clothing stylist.

As I’ve confessed before, I simply don’t get it. It’s one thing to vote for Trump. But I can’t grasp why anyone would send him money, given the track record. Remember when 45,000 Washingtonians helped him finance an “Election Defense Fund” that, it turned out, didn’t exist? That these are $10, $20, $30 donations from working people and retirees is just sad.

One of the Trump donors is a man I’ve corresponded with, a retired bank employee from Seattle. I called him and asked: Did you see that Trump spent $55 million of his campaign money on lawyers? Does that trouble you?

“Not at all, it doesn’t bother me,” he said. “I don’t know anything about how he’s actually using the money. I do know that everybody’s attacking him with whatever weapons they have. If he’s defending himself with my money, then that’s more than fine with me.”

But Trump keeps losing in court, I said. Do you start to wonder?

“He predicted he wouldn’t get a fair trial, and he didn’t,” he said. “They get maligned for everything they do. There are millions of us out here who are ready to step up and do whatever we can to assist.”

An analysis published Friday by the news site Politico found that Trump’s biggest money spikes came on the days he got indicted. Trump then channels the grievance for fundraising leverage.

“It’s not like I’m spending money I would otherwise spend on food,” the Seattle donor objected to me. I sure hope that’s true of these other 39,000.

Given how much of it is funneled into Trump’s lifestyle and lawyers who don’t seem to know what they’re doing, it’s plain we’ve long since departed the realm of politics. It’s a mass confidence game.

My Seattle donor acquaintance chose another term for it: democracy.

“There are many indications that Trump is the rightful president, today,” he pushed back. “If you look at it from that side, this is fighting to restore democracy.

“The main thing I can impart to you, and thank you for calling, is that no matter what, we intend to keep at it.”