Perhaps never before has philanthropy played such a prominent role in an American presidential election. For many months now, Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton has had to fend off charges that her foundation sold access to the then-Secretary of State. Republicans eager to skewer Clinton have pointed to the many millions of dollars paid out to the Clinton Foundation by unsavory foreign countries like Saudi Arabia. When these gifts were revealed to have coincided with the awarding of choice contracts — as appeared to be the case when a uranium production plant was sold to the Russians in 2014 — accusations of corruption seemed more than a little credible. For a time during the long summer of the presidential primary season, it seemed this story line might even torpedo Clinton’s White House bid.
But exercising his uncanny ability to steal even bad press from his rivals, Donald Trump now finds himself facing legal consequences for the shady dealings of his own so-called charitable foundation. As extensive reporting by the Washington Post’s David Farenthold shows, there’s no evidence that Trump has donated significantly to his foundation for more than a decade, and “only a handful” of Trump gifts can be traced directly to charities at all, with the most recent appearing back in 2009. “In all, the total of the donations [by Trump] that The Post has discovered between 2006 and [this] May — to the Trump Foundation and other charities — appears to be less than $800,000.” This from a candidate who has repeatedly boasted on the campaign trail not just of his enormous wealth but also his unparalleled generosity.
There’s also evidence showing that Trump took credit for other people’s donations, announced donations that he never made, directed business earnings through his foundation in order to avoid taxes, and used foundation money to settle his business expenses. New York’s attorney general made it official last week by ordering Trump’s foundation to stop fundraising in the state, after it was revealed that the foundation lacked the necessary authorization.
Now with a month to go before America goes to the polls, these story lines have faded very much into the background of this election (especially after the discovery of tapes in which Trump is heard making predatory statements about women). But the outsize role that the candidates’ philanthropic activity has played up to this point reveals a couple of things about the American public square.
First, if this election has revealed anything, it’s that every aspect of a candidate’s personal life is subject to scrutiny. From the insane (the obsession over Trump’s hairline) to the inane (how much Hillary paid for a jacket), media reports have poured over every inch of personality they can find. In different ways, Trump and Clinton have both encouraged this sort of voyeurism—Trump through his pathological exhibitionism and Clinton through her more than three decades in the public life—but the scrutiny has mostly damaged Trump, who is much more reckless and spontaneous than his Democratic counterpart.
More to the point, the attention on philanthropy reveals the persistent strength of a longstanding American virtue: generosity. We’ve always wanted our political leaders to embody the best aspects of our national character, and as long as Americans are the most generous people in the world, we can expect a candidate’s personal history of philanthropy to enter in the political debate.
But the 2016 election has deformed our natural sentiments almost beyond recognition. Sure, we’ve always wanted generous people in office, but we never wanted them to brag about their generosity, as Trump has done (especially given that he has precious little generosity to brag about!). And likewise, though the scale of Hillary Clinton’s charitable operations is truly impressive (Clinton has donated more than $20 million of her own money and the foundation has spent many hundreds of millions of dollars on programming), it does seem to feel—like so much else in Clinton’s public persona—to be a calculated, professionalized operation, servicing the typical slate of trendy global causes; and if the allegations of favor-selling at the Clinton Foundation are even half-true, they constitute a serious breach of national integrity.
This race has been a national embarrassment for a number of reasons. Unfortunately, these two candidates have managed to drag one of America’s deepest-held values—charity—through the gutter. It’s imperative that organized philanthropy not merely be seen as the playground of the rich and powerful. Sadly, it may not be until the memory of this election season fades that that perception will abate.