We live in a time of hatred of elites, yet all these billionaires keep running for president. Howard Schultz, the ex-Starbucks CEO, has declared he is considering a run as an independent because he, like many others, is fed up with the current president and politics in general. Funnily enough, that is why the current billionaire president ran three years. That, plus ego.
‘This president is not qualified to be the president,’ says Schultz. That’s also what Michael Bloomberg (net worth: $44 billion) says, and the whispers that he is about to announce his candidacy are stronger than usual in this pre-election cycle. Bloomberg calls Trump a ‘pretend CEO’, and his would-be voters thrill at the thought that he is considerably richer than the Donald. Trump is a reality TV rich man. Bloomberg is the reality. He’s also quite staid and uncontroversial — compared to Trump, anyway, even if both men have a history of making inappropriate sexual remarks.
There is something silly about all these billionaire candidates. ‘Donald Trump for president’ was also, famously, a bit of joke, but he hit upon a populist rhetoric that lit a fuse in America.
What really qualifies Bloomberg or Howard Schultz any more than Trump? Bloomberg has been mayor of New York, which gives him government experience. But former mayors aren’t usually touted as potential Commanders-in-Chief. What makes the idea of a Bloomberg candidacy intoxicating is his money. People will say that he can bankroll his own campaign. People said the same about Trump, even if it wasn’t entirely true. But the appeal of the billionaire candidate is in large part that: his fortune puts him above grubby party infighting. He can’t be bought, or so they say, unlike those career politicians.
It’s all very American, too, in a way. From Washington to Hoover to Wendell Willkie to Ross Perot and Mitt Romney, the US has a long history of rich men wanting to downsize their residence to the White House. Americans tend to prefer business to statesmanship, and to think that successful businessmen get things done.
But Schultz and Bloomberg are different. They are in the modern billionaire league, and in our age billionaire men are awarded a sort of demi-god status. That’s why there are always excited rumors that Mark Zuckerberg or Jeff Bezos might be contemplating a run. The idea is that somehow money guarantees success, even if in politics that is often not the case.
Ahead of 2020, however, the thinking behind the billionaire candidates is anti-Trump. After Trump won in 2016, lots of hacks attributed his shocking success to celebrity — name-recognition power. This prompted mass fantasizing that a more attractive famous person might beat him in 2020: George Clooney, Oprah, and, gulp, Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson.
The people behind the Schultz and Bloomberg candidacies tend to think the same way, and this lends a foolish quality to their tilts at the presidency. This daddy big bucks can beat your daddy big bucks — he has more bucks! Take that your Trumpist hicks!
Most billionaire runs are ludicrous exercises in vanity. It’s also a great excuse for political consultants to flatter super-rich men into cutting them checks. In the Washington Post this week, Nick Troiano and Charles Wheelan wrote a piece called ‘Run, Howard, Run!’ In it, they argued that those opposed to Schultz’s candidacy on the grounds that it might split the opposition were guilty of ‘a new kind of political bigotry.’ A bigotry against billionaires? Poor dears!
Another man floated the idea of his 2020 candidacy this week, the anti-billionaire candidate Bernie Sanders. Sanders is not being taken seriously by most of the media — because of his age, mostly. But look at how close he came to winning the nomination in 2016: only a fool would write him off. Sanders’s lefty appeal is in large part because he seems unfazed by money and incorruptible. Yet journalists and political flacks dismiss his chances and write instead about billionaires with big ideas. This says something about our age, and why we may end up with the socialism that billionaires dread.