Column: Inbox Assault

We read campaign emails so you don’t have to. And Lord knows you don’t want to.

July 27, 2020 10:00 am
Email from Trump-Pence campaign.

Email from Trump-Pence campaign.

With campaigns so thoroughly filtered through polls, press, pundits, and other words starting with p that will come to me eventually, sometimes it’s worth taking a step back, turning it all off, and looking at what candidates have to say directly to their supporters. In that spirit, then, comes the experiment in political self-harm I report on here. 

I recently put myself on the supporter mailing lists of both the Trump and Biden campaigns. Their appeals, mainly of course for money, do come packaged with efforts to try to keep the faithful interested and engaged. I tracked all of the emails I received from both campaigns, from early morning July 13 through late Friday night July 17. It will not surprise you to learn that their approaches diverge just a tad.

The Biden campaign hit once a day. The first two were straightforward pitches for support; Wednesday brought one of those “will you take our survey?” appeals to get me to click through to the campaign site and answer hard-hitting questions like “Do you think Joe Biden will be a better president than Donald Trump?” On Thursday under the subject line “I hate doing this” Joe implored me to “please chip in $5 to my campaign.” Friday found Team Joe telling me the “most powerful thing” I can do to defeat Trump is make weekly donations. The Biden tally for the week: five emails, each hitting the theme that beating Trump is crucial, mostly just asking straight out for money.

Where the Biden campaign sprinkled my inbox with raindrops, Trump’s campaign assaulted it with an open fire hydrant. During the five days I received 39 (yes 39) different emails – many configured to be from Trump, a few taking the form of appeals from Don Jr., one each from Eric Trump and Lara Trump, and an assortment of various campaign organization senders (Trump Finance,, Trump Sweepstakes Alert, and my personal favorite the Official Trump Campaign Store). The remarkable thing about the Trump inbox invasion is that it is a relentless (and relentlessly cheesy) exercise in the cultivation of grift. 

On Monday it was Don Jr. trying to interest me in the “Official Trump VIP Club,” Lara inviting me to join the “Official 2020 Trump Executive Membership Program,” and Eric pushing me to activate my “Trump Gold Card Membership” (“extremely limited amount of Gold Card memberships available,” lies the website). On Tuesday afternoon it’s a “sweepstakes alert” for a chance to meet Trump at an upcoming event – “a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, Bruce, and the President REALLY wants to meet you.” How could he not? Tuesday evening Don Jr. wants to know “Why haven’t you accepted my father’s invitation to join the Official Trump VIP Club?” described as a “highly exclusive, invite-only group of my father’s most trusted supporters,” while Eric is pushing me to get my name on “Trump Presidential Honor Roll.”

Where the Biden campaign sprinkled my inbox with raindrops, Trump’s campaign assaulted it with an open fire hydrant. During five days I received 39 (yes 39) different emails

Wednesday brings four different emails offering a chance at a trip to join Trump in Texas on July 29 “for a very important strategy discussion.” I can even bring a guest, and they will make sure I have “a very nice place to stay.” Also Wednesday Lara wants to know why I haven’t yet joined the Official Trump VIP Club, and the campaign wants me to be an “Official 2020 Trump Platinum Member” (I guess that Gold Card thing was so Monday). 

On Thursday I see offers of 500% contribution matches, opportunities to discuss campaign strategy in an upcoming online video call (“this invitation is for you and you only” so don’t share with anyone), and yet another push on that Texas trip thing. I can bring a date!

Friday brings eight more emails with … well, you get the idea. The highlight was a tempting offer for a “limited-edition PERSONALIZED Trump-Pence 2020 Welcome Mat” – already sold out but the team rush-ordered 50 more “for top supporters only” and yes, you guess it, I’ve been selected to get one of them.

Of course Trump’s emails, like Bidens, are all about the money, but there’s room for an occasional bite of red meat: “The Liberals are uniting behind Radical Democrats from across the Nation to try and take me down, and more importantly, to take YOU down.” And it goes without saying that we have “some of the best border numbers ever, but sadly, the Radical Left wants Open Borders for anyone, including many dangerous criminals, to come in.”

Look, we can all accept that the hellscape of campaign mass email will always be a dreary wasteland of doggedly shallow money-grubbing that keeps a small-donor machine humming. But even granting that, the transparent serial swindle that is the Trump campaign’s approach is astonishing in its relentlessness, and after a few days, it’s utter banality. 

So what do we make of the difference in approaches? Viewed through the lens of campaign strategy we might say that for Biden it’s mainly just about sustaining the flow of small donations, whereas for Trump it’s also about juicing the base’s engagement, not just putting sticky fingers on their wallets. But how does anyone possibly stay engaged after the thirtieth overtly bogus email this week? What part of one’s frontal lobe has to be AWOL to buy into any of it? Who can resist hitting unsubscribe? You don’t have to answer that.


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Bruce Barry
Bruce Barry

Bruce Barry is a professor of management at Vanderbilt University who teaches and writes about ethics, conflict, rights, politics, policy, and other things that pop into his head.