Over eight million Americans received an unsolicited marketing email on Tuesday. But unlike the random vacation offers and buy-one-get-one-free enticements that regularly flood the nation’s inboxes, this email arrived to announce the presidential campaign of a pious billionaire. Tom Steyer had very cleverly cultivated the email list for several years on false pretenses, putting himself front-and-center of a PR initiative to impeach Donald Trump well before most in the Democratic party were willing to entertain that notion. By October 2017, Steyer had already launched his ‘Need to Impeach’ organization, which exhorted the public to sign up for his email updates or else risk collapse of the American constitutional order. Conspicuously, the main output of this initiative appeared to be ads featuring Steyer himself, gazing solemnly into the camera and opining on why his fellow billionaire Trump ought to be removed from office forthwith. Steyer even aired the ads during the World Series, which despite baseball’s relative decline in viewership compared to other major sports, suggested a keen willingness on his part to blow massive amounts of money on dubious pursuits.
But the people who took heed of these calls to action and entered their contact information on the ‘Need to Impeach’ website were not were signing up for a Steyer 2020 presidential campaign. They were signing up for some amorphous pro-impeachment effort, which may have had Steyer as its figurehead but never gave any direct indication that he was actually going to run for president – especially after he swore off the idea earlier this year. Steyer effectively duped eight million people into forming his initial campaign constituency; large email lists are one of the most valuable assets any candidate can have, and Steyer generated his with a very cunning bait-and-switch. (‘Need to Impeach’ now claims to be ‘renting’ the email list to Steyer’s presidential operation, although the legality of this curious arrangement certainly warrants further scrutiny.) He may still believe fervently in impeachment, and will almost certainly use this newfound notoriety to continue advancing that goal, but it is now undeniable that his political activity in the past two-and-a-half years was at least partly a giant swindle designed to burgeon a late entry into the presidential race.
All across the country Steyer has dispatched his ‘Need to Impeach’ personnel – presumably unaware that they were effectively running a shadow presidential campaign for the crafty billionaire. The organization had a sizable booth set up at the South Carolina Democratic Convention last month, dutifully distributing impeachment-related paraphernalia and of course, collecting email addresses. They even projected a large moving image of Robert Mueller on the convention wall, almost as if he were some divine force enjoining the convention attendees to take righteous action. Naturally, Steyer’s heavenly visage was also prominently displayed.
So too did Steyer organize various pro-impeachment rallies, again under deceptive auspices, given that they were essentially test runs for Steyer’s forthcoming candidacy. The one I attended in Lower Manhattan took place less than a month ago, June 15, and little did the ‘Need to Impeach’ activists on site realize that they were actually setting the institutional groundwork for Steyer’s egotistical announcement just a few weeks later. Despite the obvious chicanery, however, it should be noted that Steyer’s tactics have been successful in galvanizing some significant public support. Elizabeth Warren started ticking up in the polls shortly after she became the first high-profile presidential candidate to start demanding impeachment after the release of the Mueller report. Like Steyer, Warren recognized a significant market within the Democratic electorate for this aggressive stance. Depending on the precise count, 83 or 84 House Democrats are now on record calling for the initiation of impeachment proceedings, with many others said to support it privately; an additional slew will likely get on board after Mueller’s public testimony next week, which is sure to produce an enormous public frenzy. So even if his impeachment crusade was nothing more than a cover to expand his political profile in preparation for a presidential run, Steyer can’t be dismissed as ineffective.
Unlike Warren, however, Steyer is now in the ridiculous situation of soliciting $1 contributions from his ‘Need to Impeach’ followers – even as he pledges to spend a minimum of $100 million of his own money on the run. Recipients of the Tuesday email were directed to an Act Blue donate page where they had the option of literally sending Steyer $1 so as to enable him to qualify for upcoming debates. But such are the contradictions inherent in a billionaire running as a left-wing ‘populist’.
Whether he’s genuinely committed to this campaign or is just using it as another phase of his long-standing personal PR gambit is anyone’s guess. If nothing else, Steyer’s lavish expenditures should be welcomed by wayward party operatives and consultants who will no doubt pretend to be deeply committed to his endeavor long enough to receive handsome payouts. The most obvious beneficiary, however, is likely Bernie Sanders. Steyer has gifted him a bonafide billionaire rival to rail against, thereby sharpening Bernie’s general anti-oligarch message. That would be a fitting legacy for Steyer: inadvertently boosting the one candidate who wants to confiscate his wealth. Best of luck, Tom.