President Donald Trump has frequently accused protesters and activists of being paid by powerful liberal forces, but many attendees at his own events were financially compensated to be there.
For much of his administration, Trump has, without evidence, dismissed protesters at his rallies or other events as hired and paid by prominent liberals, especially the powerful billionaire and conservative boogeyman George Soros.
During the fraught confirmation process for Justice Brett Kavanaugh, Trump accused people protesting his confirmation hearings of being “paid professionals only looking to make Senators look bad,” adding, “look at all of the professionally made identical signs. Paid for by Soros and others. These are not signs made in the basement from love!”
The Washington Post and other news outlets fact-checked the claim and found no evidence that the Kavanaugh protesters had been directly paid by Soros or his Open Society Foundation.
But despite his own disdain for supposedly paid protesters, Trump himself has benefited from people being paid to attend his events, both in his capacity as a political candidate and as president.
Union workers had to attend Trump event or lose pay
On Saturday, Trump held an official event at the Dutch oil and gas company Shell’s Chemicals Petrochemical Complex in Monaca, Pennsylvania. A large crowd of union contractors working at the site, which is in the process of becoming a fully functional natural gas plant, were in attendance for Trump’s event.
But Shell came under scrutiny over the weekend after a report in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette documented how union workers for the company were offered the choice of either attending the Trump speech, or skipping the event and not being paid for the day.
The outlet reported workers were told to expect to stand for several hours during the Trump speech and that if they did not scan their work ID badges at the beginning of the day, they would not be paid.
The paper also said that Shell workers were informed that, “no yelling, shouting, protesting or anything viewed as resistance will be tolerated at the event,” and “an underlying theme of the event is to promote goodwill from the unions.”
In statements to both the Post-Gazette and to Insider, representatives for Shell said that union workers at the site have a 56-hour work week, with 40 hours a week at normal pay and an additional 16 hours of overtime at time-and-a-half pay. Workers who attended the event would receive the full 16 hours of overtime pay, whereas those who skipped the event would not get their overtime.
Trump has paid people to attend his rallies
Back in 2017, the Washington Post reported that the Trump campaign was hit with a Federal Election Commission complaint from a vendor who claimed the campaign did not pay them for their contracting services, which included gathering a crowd for initial campaign announcement at Trump Tower in June of 2015.
In the FEC complaint, the Trump campaign’s contracting firm Gotham Government Relations accused the campaign of stiffing them on their $12,000 bill they owed to Gotham for producing Trump’s campaign launch for months afterward.
In producing the event, Gotham enlisted a sub-contractor called Extra Mile Casting, which put out a call for people to be paid $50 to attend “an event in support of Donald Trump and an upcoming exciting announcement he will be making.”
According to the job posting obtained by the Hollywood Reporter, the agency was “looking to cast people for the event to wear t-shirts and carry signs and help cheer him in support of his announcement.”
Trump’s former campaign manager Corey Lewandowski denied knowing that some of the attendees were paid actors.
There’s no way to know for sure exactly how many union contractors would have attended Trump’s speech in Pennsylvania if everyone received pay for the day regardless of whether they went to see Trump speak, but it’s undeniable that Trump has benefited from people being financially incentivized to attend his events.
The practice of paying for political support is unprecedented in contemporary US politics, but common elsewhere
In many parts of the world, particularly the Global South, the practice of clientelism — or promising political support, such as turning up for a rally or voting for a particular candidate, in exchange for particular goods or services — is extremely common, according to Mariela Szwarcberg Daby, a political science professor at Reed College who studies the practice in Latin America.
But, she told INSIDER, it’s something she’s never before seen in the US, until now. She described Trump’s actions at the Pennsylvania rally as an example of electoral clientelism.
“It was used as a strategy of political mobilization,” Daby explained to Insider. “This is [a] case of a political and partisan rally in which the candidate is using clientelism to mobilize workers to attend.”
She told Insider that, in many countries, the people who are being paid to attend rallies are often extremely poor and, as such, the money they receive could ultimately decide whether or not they eat that night. She said she imagines it’s likely a similar situation for the Shell workers, who are reliant on their daily incomes.
An anonymous union leader told the Post-Gazette that one day of work could amount to around $700 in pay, benefits, and a per diem payment for out-of-town workers.
“They can choose to stay home if they despise Trump or they don’t want to show support, but I’m sure these people really need the paycheck. These are not Wall Street bankers who can do whatever they want with their time,” she said. “They are in a much more vulnerable position.”
Daby noted that it’s unlikely that clientelism will become widespread in the US, due to the high costs associated with the practice. But, she said that what happened in Pennsylvania is a clear example of Trump challenging existent norms that are paramount for keeping democracy intact.
“I’m worried about the erosion of democracy,” she told INSIDER. “Americans tend to think, because they’ve had democracy for so long, this is just so stable and it will never crumble and, as someone who has experienced this crumbling many times… it’s not that one morning you wake up and there’s not democracy. It’s like this very slow death of democracy.”
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