Dan Morain

What’s scary about Donald Trump’s backers

Donald Trump autographs a supporter's hand at Palo Verde High School in Las Vegas, a Republican caucus site, on Feb. 23.
Donald Trump autographs a supporter's hand at Palo Verde High School in Las Vegas, a Republican caucus site, on Feb. 23. The New York Times

Donald Trump sells all things Trump: books, bottled water, ties, reality television, beauty pageants, the 2016 presidential campaign, The Trump Talking Doll.

Among the doll’s recorded Trumpisms: “Try to avoid shaking hands whenever possible.” I’m not sure why. Nor is it clear why people donate to a real estate tycoon who is worth $4.5 billion, by Forbes’ estimate, or $10 billion, by Trump’s.

Trump has used his wealth to fund his campaign, $17.5 million. It’s a loan, which he can forgive, or repay with money donated to his campaign. Donors have given $7.5 million to date, $5.8 million of which has come in increments so small that he is not required to identify them by name.

Californians have given $208,000 of the $1.6 million in donations of $200 or more, the level at which Trump must disclose donors’ names. Hoping to understand them, I called a bunch of them.

The ones who called back were middle-aged and white, like me, though unlike them, I will not vote for Trump or, for that matter, buy his overpriced ties. Hardly the uneducated rubes who often are the focus of what’s written about Trump’s campaign, his donors include lawyers, doctors, people in real estate and finance, even a few Hollywood types.

Retirees accounted for a third of the $208,000. Trump’s largest single California donor, Martin Harmon, 81, of Rocklin, gave $5,400, and a family member gave another $2,700. Harmon, a major donor to politicians of both parties, builds and operates nursing homes.

“I want to have some skin in the game. Even though he is a billionaire, I want to show that I support him,” said Anna Lamothe, 66, a real estate broker in Antioch, who gave him $100 in October, and $100 this month after he won the South Carolina primary.

No matter that Trump’s views are variable, that he called Megyn Kelly a bimbo, flung a schoolyard epithet at Ted Cruz, belittled John McCain’s time as a prisoner of war, and questioned Pope Francis’ authority to determine what is and isn’t Christian behavior.

“He is a phenomenon and a force of nature,” said Lamothe, who happens to be a UC Berkeley graduate. “He exudes an aura of strength.”

Trump’s donors are impressed that he turned his father’s fortune into a bigger fortune, that political action committees don’t give him money, and, in the most overused term of the campaign, that he is “authentic.” They regard Barack Obama’s presidency as a disaster and think Hillary Clinton is dishonest.

Some donors find him amusing. Silicon Valley attorney Joseph Yaffe paid $220 for Trump hats, which he gave as stocking stuffers, and a Trump mug, which he kept. It’s a substantial mug, and “makes drinking coffee great again.”

Others are quite serious. The divide between the haves and have-nots is worsening, and we cannot tax our way out of the deficit, said Sacramento attorney Thomas Mouzes, who donated $1,000 last August.

“I think he is going to be able to fix the economy. I think he is going to fix immigration,” said Mouzes, who may even take a little time off to help campaign for Trump in one of the swing states.

Casey Goltermann, 45, of Petaluma, builds, remodels and sells homes in the North Bay, and has been reading Trump books and listening to Trump tapes for years. He’s also the proud owner of a Trump Talking Doll, to which he has turned when he feels the need for Trump wisdom.

“Have an ego. There is nothing wrong with ego.” “Never give up, under any circumstances.” And of course: “You’re fired.” Goltermann jetted to Michigan to hear Trump speak last year, and has given him $264.

“We’re at a place right now where we have to have someone with a business mentality,” Goltermann said.

Terrence Price, 52, a $250 donor, restores vintage Ferraris at his Legendary Motors in Gazelle, and has sold some for millions of dollars. He laments how much he must pay in taxes, supports Trump’s stand on illegal immigration, and likes that Trump gets no PAC money.

“I admire the fact that he has better things to do. He doesn’t need Air Force One,” Price said.

Trump, the master salesman, taps into voters’ angst over what they see as the country’s direction, and their fears about what Sacramento Republican consultant Wayne Johnson calls the “underclass of underemployed people.”

“He has no principles. He is whatever he needs to be on any given day,” said Johnson, who, like me, is disturbed by a major party front-runner who lacks a moral compass. But here’s the most disturbing part of about talking to Trump’s donors. They don’t seem to think they’re being sold a bill of goods by their hero. And they don’t seem unsophisticated in the least.

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