By Jonathan Swan - 09/12/15 01:35 PM EDT
Billionaire Donald TrumpDonald TrumpThe Muslim war on women's rights Election model: Clinton will win easily Trump condemns Israeli girl's murder MORE is telling every American who’ll listen how he buys their politicians, and Democratic presidential candidate Larry Lessig could not be happier.
“And that’s progress."
Lessig has no patience for much of what Trump says and does, but on this issue – the one Lessig cares most about – Trump has been a godsend.
The professor admits the “too nerdy”-sounding term “campaign finance” can make people’s eyes glaze over what he believes is the central problem in America's broken democracy.
And so Lessig is grateful to the Republican front-runner for making the corruption even more vivid in the eyes of ordinary Americans, whom polls show are already deeply cynical about their elected leaders being owned by special interests.
Lessig is perhaps the most unusual candidate in a most unusual presidential race.
After raising $1 million in donations from the public – the limit he set himself to decide whether he would run for the White House – he announced last weekend that he would compete for the Democratic nomination on the single issue platform of fixing campaign finance laws to wrench democracy out of the hands of 400 wealthy families.
If Lessig wins, he promises to resign the presidency to his vice president the moment he passes his legislation to fix voting rights restrictions, political gerrymandering and most of all, the corrupting influence of big money.
Lessig’s favorite Trump moment came when the billionaire stood on the stage at the GOP debate on Aug. 6 and told a national audience of some 24 million "you better believe it," when Fox News moderator Bret Baier reminded him that he'd once said politicians he donates to do "whatever the hell" he wants them to do.
“It was like watching an earthquake,” Lessig said.
The Trump earthquake began that night when Rand Paul launched what he appeared to think would be a stinging attack on billionaire businessman, saying: “This is what’s wrong. He buys and sells politicians of all stripes.”
Yet instead of responding to Paul in the way a conventional politician would and deny the charge, Trump took a different tack. He smirked and nodded, turned to Paul and said: "Well, I've given him plenty of money."
There is no evidence from FEC records that Trump has donated to Paul's campaigns, but the billionaire reportedly told The New York Times that he'd donated thousands of dollars to Paul's charitable work as an eye surgeon.
Trump went on to explain to the Fox News audience how he buys influence from elected officials - both Democrats including Hillary Clinton, and Republicans.
“Before this, two months ago I was a businessman,” Trump said. “I give to everybody. When they call I give.”
“And you know what, when I need something from them, two years later, three years later, I call them, they are there for me."
Lessig was on vacation in New Hampshire with his family and watched a replay of the Trump debate moment on his laptop.
He says there has never in American political history been a moment like it. Trump put campaign finance on the agenda in a more startling and authentic way than any conventional politician could.
“You just saw the tectonic plates shift,” Lessig said. “And all of a sudden it was a different world because... it was OK to stand on the stage and acknowledge what everybody in their heart of heart already knew.”
“Obviously some of [the Republican candidates] jumped in and said ‘no no he’s never given money to me; I wish he would give money to me,’” Lessig said. “But the denial and the joke reflect a deep truth which is that this is something everybody thinks is disgusting.”
Trump told the debate audience: “I will tell you that our system is broken.”
On that point, Lessig agrees with Trump. But he’s not so fond of the billionaire’s solution to the problem of rampant special interest and lobbyist money.
“Donald Trump’s solution… is to elect billionaires,” Lessig said. “We fought a revolution against that idea, and we sent the aristocrats home.”
“A better way to fix the problem is to actually fix the problem. And that’s what I want to do.”