Michael Bloomberg is the kind of rich person Donald Trump aspires to be. While both men are billionaires, Bloomberg boasts a vastly greater net worth. While both men slap their likenesses on business enterprises, Bloomberg News and Bloomberg Radio easily outpace Trump University or Trump Steaks. And while both are rank misogynists, Bloomberg has even more women who have accused him of sexual harassment than Trump.
The two are also similar on a political level — especially if we ignore Bloomberg’s newfound commitments to a variety of liberal positions he didn’t pretend to support in the recent past (just last year, Bloomberg was calling trans people “it” and warning about “a guy in a dress” going into women’s locker rooms.) Like Trump, Bloomberg is very concerned about undocumented immigrants — so much so that he once advocated that all Social Security cards include fingerprints to stop such workers from getting jobs. Like Trump, Bloomberg has a long history of making openly racist comments about racial minorities and crime. Nor was this just idle talk — from the horrifying “stop and frisk” program to the mini-police-state he set up for Muslims in New York City, Mayor Bloomberg put his Trump-like ideas into practice.
Despite all these parallels between the two oligarchs, some progressives may have trouble letting go of the idea that everyone has a duty to vote for the Democratic nominee — even if that nominee ends up being Michael Bloomberg — to deny Trump a second term. Their slogan is “vote blue no matter who” — no matter what role the “blue” candidate played at the 2004 Republican Convention or who he was doing fundraisers for as recently as 2018.
That’s a red line we can’t cross.
The Standard Case for Lesser-Evil Voting
In 2016, most Bernie supporters held their noses and voted for Hillary Clinton. The former secretary of state had a terrible record on issues ranging from NAFTA to welfare reform to the invasion of Iraq. Even so, most leftists decided that there were good moral and strategic reasons, at least in swing states, to pull the lever for her on Election Day.
First, although Clinton would have inherited Barack Obama’s mantle of “Deporter-in-Chief,” there was no reason to think she would do things like try to institute a Muslim ban or systematically separate immigrant and refugee families. She would have been a good custodian of a deeply unjust status quo, but she wouldn’t have initiated any lurch to the Right.
Second, Clinton is a loyal product of the Democratic machine. Her appointees to bodies ranging from the Supreme Court to the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) to the Environmental Protection Agency would have been standard-issue Democratic nominees — mediocre from a left-wing perspective, but certainly better than standard-issue Republican nominees.
Third, a mass defection of left-wing votes from Clinton in swing states would have made it easier for centrists to demonize and marginalize the Left as they did after Al Gore’s loss in the 2000 election. Finally, the political terrain would have been more advantageous to the Left if our chief enemy was a centrist Democrat rather than a far-right Republican.
I was sympathetic to this perspective in 2016, and it still seems correct to me in retrospect. If the Democrats nominate some terrible Clintonian like Joe Biden or Pete Buttigieg, I’ll probably vote for them. (I live in Georgia, which hasn’t historically been a swing state, but might be in the process of becoming one.) A Bloomberg nomination, however, would be too much. No one should vote to replace one Republican oligarch with another.
Clinton vs. Bloomberg
One important difference between the two cases is that Michael Bloomberg’s racial politics resemble Trump’s far more than Hillary Clinton’s. Secretary Clinton may have used a dog whistle about “superpredators,” but Trump and Bloomberg are both fond of making public comments so openly racist you’d think they’d be hidden away on Nixon’s secret tapes. A vote for Hillary Clinton in 2016 was, among other things, a symbolic rebuke of the way that Trump moved the Overton window on these matters. A vote for Michael Bloomberg in 2020 would represent an acceptance of that shift.
On a policy level, it’s far from clear that a candidate who hosted a fundraiser for Congressman Peter “There are Too Many Mosques” King in 2018 would return us to anything resembling the pre-2016 status quo on immigrants and refugees. Even on Supreme Court and NLRB appointments, there’s little reason for confidence that Bloomberg would act like Clinton would have (or like Obama did). Crucially, Bloomberg is anything but a loyal product of the Democratic machine. He’s an eclectic outsider with some liberal views (gun control), some far-right views (spies in mosques and fingerprints in Social Security cards), and some views reminiscent of the technocratic authoritarians who run Singapore (banning large-size sodas). As recently as the 2018 midterm election, he was merrily funding an assortment of politicians of both parties.
And remember — he’s a multi-multibillionaire. While Trump has, for whatever reason, been reluctant to commit large amounts of his own money to his political efforts, Bloomberg is so rich that he could self-fund his entire general election campaign — literally taking no donations from anyone and asking no outside body to run ads on his behalf — and most of his fortune would still be intact. This would give him far more independence from the institutional pressures of the Democratic Party — and far more freedom to act according to his own unpredictable political impulses as president — than almost any other candidate.
Bernie Sanders’s ability to mobilize an independent army of small donors would allow him the space to pursue an agenda of transformative, democratic change. But in Bloomberg’s case, his independence would represent a profound threat to democracy — setting a precedent that would send the United States careening further down the road of oligarchy. If Bloomberg can use his personal fortune to first cultivate an empire of influence and then capture a major party presidential nomination, what’s stopping other billionaires from doing the same thing? Why settle for using campaign cash to buy some degree of influence over politicians and parties when their ballot lines can be bought like so much Manhattan real estate?
Democratic socialists have no love for America’s two-party system, but a breakdown of that system in favor of one with dueling Trumps and Bloombergs would be a death knell for popular self-government. No matter how much we’d like to see Trump out of office, no one should vote to bring about that version of the future.