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The Billionaire’s Burden: Running for President

Like many uber-wealthy men before him, Michael Bloomberg labors under the delusion that only he can save us.

Andrew H. Walker/Getty Images

The news that Michael Bloomberg is expected to file to be on the presidential ballot in Alabama was not greeted on Thursday night with explosions of public joy and gratitude. There were no street parties or flash mobs, no lines of cars honking cheerfully outside Bloomberg HQ. For some reason, the American public did not realize the honor they may yet experience: the chance to pull the lever for Michael Bloomberg, Democratic candidate for president.

Many Americans instead are asking, Why? Why this particular billionaire, when we’ve already got one billionaire trying to buy his way into the White House, while another billionaire has already dropped out? That’s not to mention the other billionaires floated for the 2020 cycle, including Jamie Dimon, Oprah, and Mark Cuban. Who is telling these people, or suggesting to the media on their behalf, that they should go to the immense effort and expense of running for president?

Bloomberg may be merely testing the presidential waters yet again, albeit more seriously than he ever has before; perhaps he’s getting his name on the Alabama ballot, the state with the earliest deadline to do so, just in case Joe Biden truly, literally collapses. But if the former New York mayor is serious this time, then why did he wait so long? We’re only three months from the first presidential primary; for him to win as a Democrat, an unprecedented movement of primary voters (who are extremely satisfied with the existing choices) would have to spring up almost immediately and carry him atop their shoulders to the nomination. He would have to accomplish this without appearing in a single Democratic debate, because he has indicated he would entirely self-fund his campaign. (There are donor thresholds to qualify for debates.)

The most troubling aspect of this is the prospect that Bloomberg might actually think this could happen—that he has enough name recognition (and positive name recognition at that), enough broadly appealing ideas, enough political wizardry, and enough money to pull it off. He only decisively checks one of those boxes.

The simplest explanation of a Bloomberg candidacy is that billionaires are under attack (rhetorically, not yet from torch-and-pitchfork mobs), and that the candidacies of Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren represent a threat to their bottom line. Bloomberg, and before him Howard Schultz, might see a presidential run as the best way to defend their fortunes from taxation. But there has to be a further explanation, because a sensible steward of wealth as great as Bloomberg’s would have to recognize that dumping the same amount of money into an existing centrist candidate, like Amy Klobuchar, would be more rational and cost-effective. We have been told that people become billionaires through their own intellect and hard work; any Business Guru on LinkedIn could explain the concept of start-up costs to Bloomberg.

We can only conclude there must be something in the billionaire mindset that precludes them from doing the math, or otherwise disregarding it. Something is getting in the way of the normal thought process that would begin at “these presidential candidates are threatening my massive wealth” and usually end at “I should support a candidate who will stop this,” instead diverting wildly off into “and it must be me; I am the Chosen One.” Bloomberg suffers from this delusion, as did Schultz, the former Starbucks executive whose brief flirtation with a presidential run probably personally cost him millions of dollars and gained him nothing but an exhausting book tour and Twitter ridicule. The consulting work of ex-Obama aides and ex-Bush aide-turned-MSNBC pundits doesn’t come cheap.

On the other hand, it does help stimulate the economy: For every billionaire who pays a Washington consultant half a million dollars to tell him that yes, absolutely sir, the country is crying out for your unique ability to lead, there’s a Lexus salesman in Arlington or a bespoke kitchen designer in Bethesda who’s about to make a killing. You can see this grift at work in the delusional maps that Schoen Consulting drew up for Bloomberg when he flirted with a run in 2016, which envisioned him winning Florida and Tennessee in a three-way contest with Trump and Sanders, or winning Arizona and Michigan if he faced Clinton and Trump. Congratulations to Schoen Consulting on picking up that check.

In this way, the fault lies not only with the easily flattered billionaire; it lies with the bootlickers and swindlers they surround themselves with, who encourage them to make these poor decisions. Take Bob Iger. Have you heard of him? Could you pick him out of a lineup? Do you know that he’s the CEO of Disney? Could you imagine any reason why he would add anything to the already overpopulated presidential field? Yet a Washington Post article from October reported the existence of “a small but influential push in Hollywood” to get Iger to run, with the culprits seeing Iger as “a successful—and likable—businessman who could actually take on President Trump.” One anonymous TV executive told the Post, “He’s a smooth guy, the right age, a supersmart team builder.” That classic rationale for a presidential candidacy: A “smooth” man in his late 60s who has overseen the rise of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. You can picture the Rust Belt diner-goers signing up to canvas for him already.

It’s easy to see how our current moment would appeal to a billionaire with too much time on his hands and an inflated sense of his own utility to the world. They perceive America as being in great danger right now (true) and place the blame on things like a lack of “leadership” or “optimism” (false), as well as the budget deficit and the rise of the left. They imagine themselves in grand terms, being the only person with the vision, the know-how, and the leadership skills to get the job done. American culture already lauds this sort of individual—the boss with the biggest paycheck, rather than the workers who built those earnings. It speaks equally to the billionaire’s entitlement: their understanding that the presidency should be rightfully theirs if they want to take it, since they’re used to being able to buy anything they want.

Among a certain few Americans, including the billionaires themselves, their hangers-on, and cable news pundits, a contest between billionaires makes perfect sense, because to them, a presidential contest is not really about who will fix the health care system or fight climate change. It’s a wrestling match. It’s a People magazine feud. And billionaires, like celebrities, are our betters. We are supposed to be happy to sit and watch our elites duke it out, perhaps cheering for the one we like best because they pretend to drink the same beer we do.

Hence we have CNN throwing up a graphic comparing Bloomberg’s net worth ($52 billion) to Trump’s ($3.1 billion) and its reporters speculating that Trump “will extremely not like this graphic.” Undoubtedly true, but rather missing the point that having two plutocrats fight about who is richer would be just about the most debased, grim way for the 2020 presidential contest to play out—which, according to the warped political logic of the Trump era, probably means it’s going to happen.