It was an unsettling week for some of President Donald Trump’s political contributors.
On Tuesday, it was revealed that Stephen Ross, the billionaire real estate developer whose firm owns SoulCycle and Equinox gym, was hosting a big-money fundraiser in support of Trump’s reelection campaign and the Republican National Committee on Friday, with ticket prices running as high as $250,000. This news did not sit well with many patrons of Equinox and SoulCycle, who took to social media to call for a boycott.
Lower down the donor ladder, 44 residents of San Antonio who had contributed the maximum legal amount to Trump’s reelection campaign found themselves in the spotlight, after their names were tweeted out Monday by Rep. Joaquin Castro, D-Texas, who declared himself “Sad to see so many” of his constituents “fueling a campaign of hate that labels Hispanic immigrants as ‘invaders.’”
The particulars of these two episodes differed, as did the public reactions. But both touched on broader questions about the advantages and challenges of promoting campaign finance transparency in the age of social media.
Scrambling to contain the fallout from the fundraiser news, Equinox and SoulCycle tried to draw a bright line between corporate policy and the personal politics of Ross.
The companies posted statements on social media, dismissing him as “a passive investor” and assuring members that the companies are not involved with his fundraiser, that “no company profits are used to fund politicians” and that they “believe in tolerance and equality.”
Ross issued his own defense, insisting that he had always been “an active participant in the democratic process” and had “never been bashful” about airing points of disagreements with the president.
Such distinctions appear to have done little to placate critics, who contend that the companies’ profits fatten Ross’ bottom line — and by extension Trump’s campaign coffers.
A popular form of protest, boycotts more often serve to draw public attention to an issue than to effect concrete change. With Ross, critics may or may not manage to inflict any financial pain.
They nonetheless are publicly demanding that he answer for — and perhaps ultimately rethink — his political giving. In the process, they’re sending a signal to other major contributors to carefully consider their choices lest they face a similar accounting.
Public shaming seemed to be at the core of Castro’s tweet as well, though the outcry from Republican officials was much louder. The Texas congressman was accused of “inviting harassment” and “encouraging violence against” his own constituents.
“People should not be personally targeted for their political views,” warned Rep. Steve Scalise of Louisiana, noting that he knew “firsthand” that “lives are at stake.” (Scalise was shot by an apparently politically motivated gunman in 2017.)
Donald Trump Jr. equated Castro’s tweet with the “hit list” kept by the perpetrator of Sunday’s mass shooting in Dayton, Ohio. There were calls for Castro to resign, and the hashtag #ImpeachJoaquinCastro trended on Twitter. (Note: Constitutionally speaking, impeaching House members is not a thing.)
There is rich irony in Republican self-righteousness about public attacks on people’s political donations. Prominent Republicans routinely assert that billionaire George Soros, a major donor to progressive candidates and causes, secretly controls the Democratic Party.
Trump and his supporters spent over a year publicly smearing members of former special counsel Robert Mueller’s team as “13 angry Democrats,” based on their voter registrations or political giving, or both.
Thus far, Castro and his defenders have refused to back down, noting that the information he tweeted was public and readily available to anyone who cared to do a quick internet search.
This is true. But it does not mean his move shouldn’t give people pause.
A key legal rationale for campaign finance disclosure laws has long been that they help prevent corruption by letting people determine whether donors seem to be influencing recipients on policy.
What Castro did was to “unlink” disclosure from policy, said Fred Wertheimer, a longtime crusader for campaign finance regulation. Such public shaming, devoid of context and redolent of politics, threatens to start “a very dangerous game,” Wertheimer said.
Castro has insisted he did not intend for the donors to be harassed. Whatever his intent, posting the names on Twitter — a platform not known for inspiring users’ better angels — was like tossing an injured sea lion into a shark tank. The results were certain to be bloody.
As with all political tactics, there is also a high risk of escalation, to the point where each side routinely sics the dark furies of social media on their opponents’ donors.
“It is not the purpose of campaign finance disclosure to create political warfare in which the donors become the targets per se,” said Wertheimer, noting that such a turn could nudge more contributors into dark-money channels — or be used as a weapon in future legal challenges to campaign finance laws.
“The other side always argues that disclosure laws encourage harassment and chill speech,” he said of court cases, cautioning that, if angry Twitter users wage online campaigns against random donors, that argument could carry considerably more weight.
When it comes to political money, transparency is vital to the health of our democracy, and contributors, be they billionaires or bus drivers, should have no expectation of privacy. The challenge is to get the public to pay attention to the flow of political money without the situation devolving into partisan blood sport.
There are searchable databases, like opensecrets.org, many of them maintained by advocacy groups. But capturing people’s interest can be hard unless they are focused on a hot policy topic like guns or reproductive rights — and sometimes not even then.
For now, one basic step may be for media outlets and other advocates for transparency to keep working to ease access to and promote interest in donor data more broadly, so that it is more about public education than partisan enmity.
Americans have not only a right but also a duty to be informed about whose money is influencing their political system and its leaders.