What Lawrence Lessig Loves About Donald Trump

The Harvard professor calls Trump “the most influential person” talking about campaign finance reform in the 2016 race.

NEW YORK, NY - APRIL 20: Lawrence Lessig, Harvard Law professor attends Lawrence Lessig Speech On Sen. Elizabeth Warren In 2016 on April 20, 2015 in New York City. 
National Journal
Clare Foran
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Clare Foran
Aug. 18, 2015, 1:01 a.m.

Har­vard pro­fess­or and po­ten­tial 2016 White House hope­ful Lawrence Lessig is grate­ful for Don­ald Trump.

Lessig may soon jump in­to the pres­id­en­tial race as a Demo­crat and de­plores many of the things that Trump has said so far on the cam­paign trail. But Lessig is on a mis­sion to make cam­paign fin­ance re­form the No. 1 fight of the 2016 race. And the aca­dem­ic-turned-act­iv­ist loves that Trump is tak­ing ad­vant­age of the co­pi­ous me­dia spot­light he’s been af­forded to at­tack the in­flu­ence of money in polit­ics.

“I’m happy to con­cede that he is the most in­flu­en­tial per­son on this is­sue right now,” Lessig told Na­tion­al Journ­al in an in­ter­view. “He has been the most in­flu­en­tial be­cause he’s Don­ald Trump. I’m not Don­ald Trump. I haven’t been on na­tion­al tele­vi­sion and some crazy real­ity TV show, I haven’t had the suc­cess he has had … What I’m say­ing is someone with that prom­in­ence tak­ing on this is­sue has el­ev­ated it in a way that re­formers who don’t have that stage can’t.”

Trump has been quick to call money in polit­ics a prob­lem. The real es­tate mogul de­clared his “love” for “the idea of cam­paign fin­ance re­form” in New Hamp­shire on Fri­day. Stand­ing on the main stage for the first GOP prime-time pres­id­en­tial de­bate, he pro­claimed that “our sys­tem is broken” when asked about his own polit­ic­al dona­tions. Trump has also gone out of his way to paint Re­pub­lic­an rival Jeb Bush as “a pup­pet” be­hold­en to mega-donors.

In short: While the two White House hope­fuls may not agree on much, Lessig be­lieves that Trump’s will­ing­ness to speak out has helped the cause for cam­paign fin­ance re­form.

As Lessig works to boost his own name re­cog­ni­tion — a ne­ces­sary in­gredi­ent for the long-shot pres­id­en­tial con­tender to climb high enough in na­tion­al polls to make the first Demo­crat­ic de­bate in Oc­to­ber — in­vok­ing Trump’s re­cord is also likely to win him at­ten­tion. (If that hap­pens, Lessig will join nearly the en­tire field of Re­pub­lic­an con­tenders who have grabbed head­lines for their re­ac­tions to the out­spoken real es­tate mogul.) 

Trump has at­trac­ted a flood of me­dia cov­er­age. His will­ing­ness to talk about money in polit­ics vir­tu­ally guar­an­tees that the fight for re­form will also get at­ten­tion. Trump’s stamp of ap­prov­al could also lend re­form a kind of cred­ib­il­ity with Re­pub­lic­an voters that any ef­fort on the left to kick-start a na­tion­al con­ver­sa­tion would be hard pressed to achieve.

“Hav­ing spoken about it the way that he has spoken about it will cer­tainly el­ev­ate it in the Re­pub­lic­an and Demo­crat­ic de­bates,” Lessig said. “He has made it pos­sible as a Re­pub­lic­an to talk about this and be con­cerned about it … I think it will really press the is­sue among Re­pub­lic­ans.”

Lessig, though, has built his po­ten­tial 2016 bid on a highly spe­cif­ic pre­scrip­tion for cam­paign fin­ance re­form. And in much the same way that he re­mains un­con­vinced that any of the Demo­crats run­ning for the White House will be able to fix the prob­lem, Lessig be­lieves that Trump’s cam­paign prom­ises fall far short of what’s needed to en­act re­form.

Trump has signaled that he may be open to sup­port­ing le­gis­la­tion to re­form Amer­ica’s cam­paign fin­ance laws. But he has yet to out­line an agenda to tackle the in­flu­ence of money in polit­ics. For now, Trump seems con­tent to cast him­self as the rare can­did­ate who is not be­hold­en to spe­cial in­terests, since he has so much of his own money to burn in sup­port of a 2016 bid.

And that, Lessig says, simply is not a good solu­tion.

“He re­in­forces the idea on the right and the left to say that we’ve got to deal with this, but Don­ald’s solu­tion is to elect bil­lion­aires,” Lessig said, of­fer­ing up a cri­ti­cism of the real es­tate ty­coon that con­veni­ently al­lowed him to ad­vert­ise his own agenda for re­form. “That’s not my solu­tion … We need to change the way that cam­paigns are fun­ded and re­store polit­ic­al and eco­nom­ic equal­ity.”

Even though he is evid­ently fol­low­ing Trump’s turn in the na­tion­al spot­light, Lessig said he has not had any con­tact with the pres­id­en­tial con­tender’s cam­paign. (The Trump cam­paign did not im­me­di­ately re­turn a re­quest for com­ment.)

Lessig has said that he will run for pres­id­ent if he can raise $1 mil­lion by Labor Day as the res­ult of a crowd­fun­ded cam­paign. If he meets that high wa­ter mark, the Har­vard pro­fess­or plans to jump in­to the Demo­crat­ic pres­id­en­tial field as a “ref­er­en­dum can­did­ate,” hop­ing to el­ev­ate cam­paign fin­ance re­form on the trail.

As of Monday even­ing, Lessig had raised $381,224 from 3,563 donors with 21 days left to go.

In the un­likely event that he makes it to the White House, Lessig prom­ises to tackle the prob­lem of money in polit­ics by passing a series of re­forms that would re­form the way elec­tions are paid for, end ger­ry­man­der­ing, and guar­an­tee all Amer­ic­ans an equal right to vote.

Hil­lary Clin­ton, the lead­ing Demo­crat­ic con­tender, has pledged to rein in the in­flu­ence of money in polit­ics if she be­comes the next pres­id­ent. Bernie Sanders, Clin­ton’s chal­lenger on the left, has also made get­ting big money out of polit­ics a pil­lar of his cam­paign.

But Lessig says that none of the Demo­crat­ic can­did­ates have shown that they would make cam­paign-fin­ance-re­form their No.1 agenda item. And he be­lieves that Trump has done more than any Demo­crat­ic pres­id­en­tial can­did­ate to el­ev­ate cam­paign fin­ance re­form — in part, Lessig says, be­cause when Trump talks, there is an ele­ment of sur­prise.

“He sur­prised people … and I think the Demo­crats when they talk about this is­sue, they sur­prise nobody,” Lessig said. “People be­lieve he is cred­ible on this … The press is con­stantly ob­sess­ing about the idea — how can people like Don­ald Trump when he has these hor­rendous views about im­mig­rants and wo­men, how can they love him? I think the an­swer is people are so des­per­ate for someone they be­lieve is ac­tu­ally in­de­pend­ent that they’re will­ing to put up with the [oth­er] views.”

But while Lessig thinks that Trump’s high-pro­file per­sona helps the cause, he has no plans of ced­ing any ground when it comes to con­vin­cing voters how cam­paign fin­ance laws should be re­formed.

Des­pite spec­u­la­tion that his cam­paign will stall out, the Har­vard pro­fess­or in­sists that he is tak­ing steps to plot out a ser­i­ous run for the pres­id­ency. On Fri­day, Lessig’s ex­plor­at­ory cam­paign an­nounced that Wiki­pe­dia founder Jimmy Wales had signed on as com­mit­tee chair­man. Lessig ad­ded that his team plans to open field of­fices in states such as New Hamp­shire and Iowa, though that strategy re­mains con­tin­gent on Lessig’s abil­ity to meet his small-dol­lar fun­drais­ing dead­line.

The Har­vard pro­fess­or also has his sights set squarely on mak­ing it to the first Demo­crat­ic de­bate, an event that would al­low Lessig a ma­jor op­por­tun­ity to spell out his agenda and press for re­form. But to make it to the main stage, Lessig read­ily ad­mits, his cam­paign will need to gen­er­ate some buzz.

“Ob­vi­ously we’re do­ing everything we can to get there and I’m do­ing everything I can to be pre­pared,” Lessig said, adding: “To get to that, we have to do a couple of pretty crit­ic­al things. We’ve got to hit our fund­ing goal and be in pub­lic enough so that people see ex­actly the po­ten­tial here and are will­ing to ex­press their sup­port for me in polls.”

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