Howard Schultz announced Monday that he's stepping down as CEO of Starbucks and immediately sparked speculation that he is going to run for president. Business-friendly news outlets got his friends (that is, other CEOs) to vouch for him, and he started talking up an issue to seem like a serious political player. Naturally, it was a lot of claptrap about the national debt.
But he's not alone. Other billionaires like Mark Zuckerberg, Mark Cuban, Elon Musk, and Michael Bloomberg (who may be getting the itch to purchase himself another high political office, as he did the New York City mayoralty) have also invited speculation about running. The modern robber barons of our Second Gilded Age already have a death grip on the commanding heights of the economy, and Donald Trump seemingly cruised to the presidency on his billions, so why shouldn't they try the same trick?
But let me share a little secret with the billionaire crew here: Donald Trump does not prove that the next presidential election is up for sale to the highest bidder. I will take the risk of predicting, even in this unstable age, that any of these plutocrats will lose horribly in any national election.
For starters, Trump himself did not purchase the presidency, nor even spend much of his own money on the effort. Indeed, though his campaign and various outside conservative groups did spend a good bit of cash on the election, he was heavily outspent by Hillary Clinton by something like two to one. If anything, his campaign is strong evidence for the proposition that money is heavily overrated in national elections — especially when the money is coming from the ultra-rich.
That leads into another important point: Trump is not mainly a rich man. He is notorious for inflating his wealth and may not be an actual billionaire (though he may well be now, given how he has used the presidency to rake in cash for himself). No, Trump is a celebrity, a very different beast from the typical billionaire. (The same is true for Oprah.) As Alex Pareene once wrote about NFL team owners:
Professional sports team owners, like most of the modern global mega-rich, tend to exhibit most or all of the following traits: general cluelessness about matters unrelated to the immediate field in which they made their fortune; unjustified faith, despite that cluelessness, in their own abilities and intelligence; the related belief that their expertise in money hoarding translates to expertise in all other fields of human endeavor; staggering greed and attendant unscrupulousness. [Salon]
Additionally, your average billionaire tends to be secretive, intensely private, and extraordinarily intolerant of criticism. They live in near-unimaginable isolation and privilege (typically on city-sized estates), surrounded by lickspittles and yes-men on every side. As a result, when billionaires end up under intense media scrutiny, they tend to react either with spoiled, operatic self-pity (Elon Musk) or look like some kind of mole creature exposed to the light of day for the first time in a decade (Mark Zuckerberg). You simply can't be charismatic without constant practice — or at least regular interaction with normal humans.
Trump doesn't particularly like being criticized either, but he has a frankly staggering facility for manipulating the media even for a celebrity, and especially for getting free coverage. He is easy and comfortable in the media spotlight — indeed, he craves it even more than he does money. Under sustained media attack, he can stay on his feet, counterpunch effectively, and turn the situation to his advantage.
He is also pretty good at speeches, particularly in sensing what his audience wants to hear. That gives him a better policy sense than the average billionaire, at least rhetorically — and there is no better demonstration than Schultz making the deficit his opening Signature Issue. While Trump has broken nearly all of his promises, he won his campaign by basically ignoring the deficit and promising to protect Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security. He just could sense that nobody really cares about the deficit and that people like welfare programs, even if he himself knows nothing about political economy.
That goes for Schultz too, because rich people fretting about the deficit is a cover for naked class self-interest 100 percent of the time. Indeed, in that same interview, Schultz moved from deficit phobia to whining about the Democrats going "so far to the left," with policies like Medicare for all. "How are we going to pay for all these things?" he wondered, arguing that such programs should be cut instead.
Well, we already dedicate way more than enough national resources to pay for universal Medicare, and then some. What Schultz (net worth: about $2.8 billion) is actually worried about is that more of those resources will be harnessed in the form of steep taxes on rich people like himself. Thus he must scaremonger about the deficit to keep as much of his dragon hoard for himself as possible. (Incidentally, the fraction of the economy going to interest payments on the national debt is nearly 60 percent less today than it was in the early '90s.)
All that aside, the political appeal of deficit phobia today is nil, and nobody but a billionaire (or, just possibly, Chuck Schumer) could fail to notice it. No coddled, inept rich guy limply whining about borrowing and how Medicare is too expensive is going to beat Trump delivering xenophobic tirades to the baying ride-or-die partisans of the Republican base.
Of course, in the age of President Donald J. Trump, one must always include the caveat that the future is an unknowable void from hell, and anything bad that can happen probably will. Maybe one of these plutocrats will discover his inner Mussolini and cruise to victory. But I fear it is more likely that one will mount a vanity third-party run, only to bleed enough votes from the Democratic candidate in 2020 to give Trump another term.
So, plutocratic overlords: Why not just enjoy your unimaginable riches in peace instead?