With Wednesday night’s GOP debate in Boulder, Colorado focused on the economy, many of the dozen-plus roster of Republican candidates have recently worked to highlight their personal economic stories. Both former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush and hotel mogul Donald Trump have boasted about their business acumen, while others highlight the influence of their hard-working immigrant parents, or how they exhibit personal frugality in their shopping habits.
Thanks to our current campaign finance laws, it takes a staggering amount of money to mount a credible bid for the White House. Those with a head start in life — from elite private education to a circle of well-to-do friends — have a distinct advantage. Yet because U.S. voters love a good rags-to-riches tale, even those candidates born into lives of wealth, power, and privilege have portrayed themselves in their campaign trail stories as scrappy underdogs who pulled themselves up by their bootstraps.
To hear these candidates tell it, they are modern-day Abraham Lincolns. The real story is more complicated.
This week, real estate tycoon and recent GOP frontrunner Donald Trump told a New Hampshire town hall an interesting version of his rise to power.
“My whole life really has been a ‘no’ and I fought through it,” Trump said. “It has not been easy for me, it has not been easy for me. And you know I started off in Brooklyn, my father gave me a small loan of a million dollars.” Trump added that he had to pay this loan back with interest.
When called out on deeming $1 million dollars “small” — especially since it was worth the equivalent of $6.8 million when he received it — Trump argued that it was small compared to the massive fortune he has since accumulated.
Yet this Spark Notes version of Trump’s upbringing leaves out several key facts.
In the early 1970s, Trump inherited a share of his father’s real estate empire worth tens of millions of dollars. He later took several massive loans from his siblings’ trust funds and his father to pay his debts and shore up his business.
Even before his casino and hotel days, Trump benefited from education at the elite, expensive prep school New York Military Academy and the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton business school — where he honed his skills and made connections available to few outside the Ivy League. This education also gave him deferments from serving in the Vietnam War, which many lower-income Americans could not obtain.
Fiorina’s secretary days
The star of the last GOP debate — former HP CEO Carly Fiorina — has similarly obscured her privileged upbringing. In the last campaign she ran, a failed bid for the Senate in 2010, she billed herself as a “self-made woman,” and has described her family’s socioeconomic status as “modest.” Now, in one of her favorite stump speech lines, she summarizes her career by saying: “My story — from secretary to CEO to candidate for President — is only possible in this country.” The super PAC backing her campaign has built a whole website around this line. Putting aside the fact that women have risen from middle class backgrounds to become the presidents or prime ministers of many other countries already, the phrase “secretary to CEO” is somewhat misleading.
Yes, Fiorina did briefly work as a secretary between her time at Stanford University, her year in Italy with her first husband, and her time at UCLA Law School and the University of Maryland’s business school. Yet these elite education opportunities — unavailable to most — helped get her on the management fast-track. It should also be noted that her father, who she has described as “up-and-coming” and an “academic,” was an Ivy League law school dean and, later, a powerful federal judge and deputy U.S. attorney general.
The son and brother of a president
When it comes to family privilege, no one has more of an advantage in the 2016 race than Jeb Bush, the son and brother of former presidents. While he has repeatedly asserted that he is his “own man” and a “Washington outsider,” he has made extensive use of his family’s connections and donor network.
More than half of the more than $120 million he has raised this cycle has come from benefactors of his father and brother’s campaigns for the White House.
This privileged background has sometimes shined through in some of his controversial remarks. Recently, he told a crowd at a fundraiser in South Carolina that his message for African-American voters is not, “We’ll take care of you with free stuff,” but rather, “You can achieve earned success.” The comment echoed something Mitt Romney — another wealthy candidate from a political family — said repeatedly during the 2012 election, implying that the Democratic Party woos voters of color with “free stuff” such as taxpayer-supported social programs.
Jeb Bush’s campaign refused to clarify if he too, like Romney, thinks of health care, housing, and education — which he never had to worry about growing up — as “free stuff.”
The actual Cinderella stories
As unlikely as it is for Americans born into a poor or working class family to climb their way to wealth and power, some of the candidates on stage at Wednesday’s GOP debate prove that it remains possible.
Neurosurgeon Ben Carson — the new frontrunner in the race — was raised in inner-city Detroit by a single mother who was functionally illiterate. Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) grew up living in the back of the bar and pool hall his family owned in a small town in South Carolina, and worked there from the age of 12. He was the first in his family to attend college, and both his parents died while he was enrolled. He then joined the Air Force and became his sister’s legal guardian, so she could get military benefits. Florida Sen. Marco Rubio was raised by immigrants from Cuba who worked as a maid and a bartender and sent him to public schools.
Yet as Donald Trump has repeatedly pointed out, when candidates do not have their own personal fortunes to spend on a presidential run, they must turn to wealthy benefactors for support — benefactors who may have an agenda and expect something in return for their generosity. Since the Supreme Court ruled to allow unlimited corporate money in politics in 2010, such donations have soared, leading both researchers and former presidents to argue the nation has transitioned from democracy to an oligarchy.