Campaign Finance

Rep. Joaquin Castro's Doxxing of Trump Donors in His District Has Flipped the Campaign Finance Discourse on Its Head

Political donations are made public so that citizens can hold politicians accountable, not the other way around.

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Late Monday night, Rep. Joaquin Castro (D–Texas) tweeted out a graphic featuring the names of San Antonio residents in his district who had donated the legal maximum to the re-election campaign of President Donald Trump.

"Sad to see so many San Antonians as 2019 maximum donors to Donald Trump," said Castro in a tweet that also called out specific businesses. "Their contributions are fueling a campaign of hate that labels Hispanic immigrants as 'invaders.'"

The tweet listed the employers of these Trump donors, including a dozen who said they were retired, and one self-described "homemaker."

Conservatives blasted Castro for the tweet.

"Targeting and harassing Americans because of their political beliefs is shameful and dangerous," said House Minority Leader Rep. Kevin McCarthy (R–Calif.) in a Twitter response that also included a dig at the flagging presidential campaign of Castro's twin brother Julian.

Castro himself is not backing down, arguing that he did not create the graphic (it reportedly originated from an activist group) and that this is all public information anyway.

"No one was targeted or harassed in my post. You know that. All that info is routinely published," he said in response to McCarthy.

There is a difference, however, between campaign finance information being available and a member of Congress broadcasting that information on social media.

Castro also appears to be trying to draw a link between donors to Trump's campaign and the recent El Paso shooting, the perpetrator of which wrote a manifesto denouncing immigrants as "invaders." After the conservative backlash to his tweet, Castro retweeted a couple of supporters who made this link explicit.

Transparency advocates argue that by allowing the public to see who donates how much to which campaign committees and ballot initiatives, voters can better understand the motivations and incentives of officeholders and the relationships between special interests and the government. The stated justification of campaign finance transparency, in other words, is not to publicly shame private individuals for their political preferences.

And yet this isn't the first time that campaign contribution data has been used to punish private individuals for their political donations. Former Mozilla Firefox CEO Brendan Eich was forced to resign in 2014 after it was revealed that he gave $1,000 in support of a 2008 ballot initiative to ban gay marriage in California.

The ability to punish people for supporting or opposing particular political campaigns is one reason a lot of libertarians oppose making political donations public.

"Given all the death threats, risks to family members, calls for people to be fired, and personal relationships strained by politics, the value of political anonymity is higher today than at any time since the McCarthy era," wrote Brad Smith of the Institute for Free Speech, a group that opposes many disclosure requirements, in an April National Review article. "Requiring people to choose between participation in the political process and a private personal life will lead to a situation where the only ideas in the public square will be those deemed acceptable by the prevailing political majority."

I personally think making large-dollar donations public is a net benefit, but that's an issue reasonable people can reasonably disagree on.

And while reasonable people may not be able to reasonably disagree on Trump, Castro's tweet is just deepening the divide. He has given every person he singled out even more reason to support Castro's opponents, particularly since the nature of social media virality almost guarantees each of those individuals has received or will receive unpleasant messages thanks to Castro's spotlight. Whatever divisions he was hoping to fix, he has only deepened.