In the heat of the primary campaign, when it looked like Donald Trump and a Bernie Sanders battle of the populists for president still remained technically possible, Michael Bloomberg tried to position himself as a potential alternative. Ultimately he backed off when Hillary Clinton was nominated by the Democrats and he also decided a third party run was somewhat untenable. Had Bernie Sanders won though and Michael Bloomberg felt compelled to run, it would have pitted the man crying oligarchy against two New York City billionaires. It’s not worth speculating what would have happened but in retrospect the fact that Michael Bloomberg contemplated a run at all might be part of a broader trend where billionaires decide to jump from the world of private industry into the world of public policy.
The Rockefellers, Ross Perot, and others have tried to meld the worlds of personal wealth and politics, but none have been as successful as Donald Trump. Now it seems Trump’s success has other billionaires looking at the presidency with a whole new gleam in their eye. Michael Bloomberg might have been part of that trend, but he might have also been genuinely concerned with the birth of a bipartisan affection for American populism. Mark Cuban and Mark Zuckerberg on the other hand both seem to be contemplating a run and their motivations are a lot less clear. What is clear though is big money might not be as prohibitive to entry into politics as it was in decades past, but then again Donald Trump might be an exception who has done an excellent job at branding himself a blue collar billionaire.
Since the gilded age a disdain for big money and personal wealth has been a prevalent piece of American politics. From William Jennings Bryan plea not to crucify the country “on a cross of gold” to Teddy Roosevelt’s famous calls against the “robber barons.” The American people have consistently been mobilized against the influence of big money interests. These calls subsided for a while, Calvin Coolidge famously said “the business of America is business.” Which was a view backed by his successor Herbert Hoover, even into the midst of the Great Depression, when a healthy skepticism of old money was once again injected into American politics. Ironically by none other than Franklin Delano Roosevelt from an incredibly connected East Coast family. Nearly two decades after FDR took office his successor Harry Truman would campaign as the quintessential union man, inherently opposed to big wealth and big money in favor of the working man.
It’s hard to imagine even a potential president Mark Cuban, Mark Zuckerberg, or Michael Bloomberg existing in a time with such a focus on the downside of hoarded wealth. Perhaps one of these three could brand themselves in the same way Donald Trump did somehow.
Donald Trump tapped into a similar vein of the American psyche as the anti-big money candidates before him, despite being born a billionaire and spending the better part of his adult life living in a literal gilded penthouse in a skyscraper bearing his own name. There is no better a personification of the intergenerational wealth the likes of Bryan, Roosevelt, Roosevelt, and Truman decried, than Donald Trump.Yet for some strange reason millions of working Americans have turned their trust to the exact forces they for so long held as the cause of much of their heartache.
It probably won’t work out for them and when it doesn’t hopefully it removes the fascination with big money from American politics once again. In a time with when it’s easy to equate money with success, it’s easy to equate success with political potential, so it’s tempting to hand billionaires political power with legitimate hope that their success will equate to good public policy. Americans were rightly skeptical of monopolies and institutional wealth at the turn of the century and they should be just as skeptical of the robber barons of silicon valley as their predecessors were the railroad monopolies of the past.
Americans are rejecting the world order because of a deeply seated feeling that it’s not working for them. Donald Trump, Mark Zuckerberg, or Mark Cuban, might sense that, they might appreciate that, but it’s important not to entrust them with power unless they prove they have a well thought out plan to alleviate that. Discounting billionaires whole cloth because they’re billionaires might be a little extreme. Holding on to that long tradition of American skepticism when it comes to the interests of big money aligning with the personal interests of the average American seems like a necessary response to the rapid growth at the intersection of big money and politics.