Rarely in America do we get to watch a billionaire get what’s coming to him, so we have to savor it when we have the opportunity. For two glorious hours during last night’s Democratic debate in Nevada, Americans of various political stripes — centrists, liberals, progressives, socialists, people with inchoate political ideologies but gut-level hatred of the obscenely wealthy — united in celebrating Michael Bloomberg’s humiliation. It was the political equivalent of a nineties summer camp movie climaxing with a bratty rich kid face down in a pile of mud.
If only we could walk out of the theater and never see that smug villain again. Instead, he will resume appearing on every other commercial we see, as if the debate never happened.
If you’ve posted angrily about Bloomberg this last week, you probably know that a surprising number of people will rush to defend this outrageous oligarch’s flex, usually with some version of “sure, but if this is how we can defeat Trump, I’ll take it.” Humiliating as is to have your party bought by a Republican tycoon, their argument goes, perhaps Bloomberg really is more likely than Bernie Sanders to beat Trump. And isn’t that all that matters?
Supporting Bloomberg is actually the worst imaginable strategy for defeating Trump. It’s isn’t even likely that another New York City billionaire with a gross history of racism and sexism, who is hijacking the supposed opposition party, throwing around ungodly sums of money to buy surrogates, and is willing to kneecap the party’s most popular candidate, Sanders, would actually win. Faced with a choice between Bloomberg and Trump in a general election, many voters wouldn’t see much of a difference between the two — and they would be right.
Of course, we should distinguish between regular people who might genuinely believe Bloomberg can defeat Trump and fear that Bernie Sanders can’t win, and the pundits and party hacks cynically selling this line out of fear that he can. Likewise, it’s useful to set aside the anti-Bernie aspect of the campaign to better understand why some genuinely support Bloomberg.
Yes, Bloomberg buys much of his support. But he holds a perverse appeal for a certain cohort of well-off liberals. Understanding this appeal reveals that liberal elites don’t care about equality or democracy any more than elite conservatives do.
Michael Bloomberg is their Donald Trump, a sometimes embarrassing but always genuine spokesperson for the liberal side of their class outlook, a man unafraid to speak truth to the powerless. The Bloomberg message is that there’s no use denying some will be very rich and many will be poor, while soothing troubled consciences with the promise that “highly effective philanthropy” will solve our major problems.
Michael Bloomberg is far more competent than Donald Trump. He’s a more successful businessman, his philanthropy is as genuine as billionaires’ charitable giving can be, rather than the slimy hustle that is Trump’s foundations. He actually cares about issues like gun violence and climate change. Bloomberg isn’t an overt bigot like Trump, and Bloomberg doesn’t push for Muslim travel bans and take out newspaper ads calling for the execution of black teenagers framed on rape charges.
Instead, as New York City mayor, he proclaimed his support for racial diversity and religious tolerance — at the exact same time his police explicitly treated all of the city’s Muslims as potential terrorists and all of its young men of color as likely violent criminals.
The recent circulation of clips of Bloomberg supporting redlining and racial profiling is a reminder that Bloomberg has always been brutally frank in his defense of state-sanctioned racism.
The corporate media repeatedly casts Bernie Sanders as a Trump-like figure on the shallowest grounds: Both say mean things about Jeff Bezos! Both hold large rallies! But it’s Michael Bloomberg who actually echoes Trump’s cynical message that our broken political system requires an ultrarich autocratic leader to get things done.
The Bloombergian strongman is not a Trump-style nationalist bully but an arrogant CEO who holds up his wealth as proof of his brilliance and, in his telling, endows him with the unique ability to rise above the “special interests.” While Trump feels eternally stung by elite rejection, Bloomberg seems constantly aggrieved that more of us plebians aren’t grateful for his noblesse oblige, not understanding why we don’t see his bid for ultimate power as a selfless act of public service.) Both are recognizable global archetypes in the post-democratic era.
Democrats continue to complain that Sanders is only winning because he hasn’t yet been vetted, but Bloomberg’s entire blitzkrieg strategy is based on not giving the media and public time to consider his record. Consider that even as the political world digests the fallout of Bloomberg’s comments on redlining and racial profiling, there may be too many scandalous things in his past and present to get our full attention. Remind you of anyone?
Will there be time before Super Tuesday to expose the history of sexual harassment and discrimination lawsuits that Bloomberg utterly failed to address during the debate? Or that the major media company he owns has instructed its reporters not to investigate their boss? Or that this is just a taste of the massive and unprecedented conflicts of interests that a Bloomberg White House would face regarding its treatment of Wall Street banks that are the primary customers for Bloomberg LP?
We’ve never seen one person inject this much money this fast — $300 million already and as much as $2 billion by November — into the veins of the body politic, and it’s anybody’s guess what the long-term effects on our politics will be.
It’s possible that Bloomberg will spend hundreds of millions of dollars but actually help Bernie Sanders win the nomination by further splitting the moderate vote. It’s highly unlikely that he’ll win the nomination, despite his shameless purchasing of endorsements from mayors across the country whose cities have received major grants from Bloomberg Philanthropies. But Bloomberg’s impact may be less direct but no less powerful.
Some analysts have speculated that Bloomberg’s primary goal is to win enough delegates to deny Sanders a majority and force a brokered convention where Bloomberg could play kingmaker. But Bloomberg isn’t just aiming to amass delegates. With more money in hand than the entire Democratic Party apparatus, his campaign is creating a state-of-the-art national electoral infrastructure entirely beholden to him, one that’s likely a lot better run than the clown show on display at the Iowa caucus.
Bloomberg has recruited executives from Facebook, Foursquare, and advertising giant GroupM,” “reassigned employees” from Bloomberg LP and Bloomberg Philanthropies, and launched a secretive data business called Hawkfish to help his campaign and “help Democratic races across the country in future election cycles” (“The fact that he is a candidate,” notes the Washington Post, “gives him greater access to party data than he would otherwise have.”)
The twelfth richest American is so rich that all this spending only comes out of the interest he’s earning on his wealth, but billionaires don’t spend even small amounts of money without expecting something in return.
Bloomberg is making an unprecedented investment in Democratic Party leverage — to deny Bernie the nomination for sure, but also over whatever present and future candidates gratefully accept the help of Hawkfish and the rest of his operation. That’s leverage that will not only benefit Bloomberg, but all those Wall Street banks — Bloomberg LP terminal leasees, all — who want to keep taxes and regulation light.
If there’s one legitimate comparison to be made between Trump and Sanders, it’s the way that both candidates express the radicalizations and polarizations inside their parties. But Republican Party elites surrendered to Trump in 2016 and afterward in a way that Democratic Party leaders never have and probably never will, because Sanders’s class-struggle social democracy threatens American plutocracy in a way that even Trump’s erratic dysfunction never can.
Now Bloomberg’s run is adding a new dimension to the polarization inside the Democratic Party. Rather than funding a moderate like Pete Buttigieg, the debate showed how Bloomberg’s wealth is capable of sucking up all the centrist oxygen in the room, creating a dynamic where primary voters increasingly have to choose between two extremes, with Sanders’s popularity pushing some centrists to give up on democracy and turn to oligarchy, and Bloomberg’s momentum convincing others that Bernie was right after all about the need for political revolution.
As bad as Bloomberg performed in his first debate — and he was gloriously bad — he’s not going anywhere. Ultimately, it’s more likely that the main threat he poses to the socialist left is not his presidential candidacy itself, but his massive infusion of resources into the forces inside the Democratic Party defending the rotten status quo that has given Bloomberg his vast fortune. That’s a fight that Bloomberg can continue long after the party chooses its nominee.