Why you should care
Because Donald Trump might be the beginning, or the end, of the billionaire politician.
U.S. presidential elections attract billionaires like Learjet moths to a flame. In the 2016 contest, it was hard not to throw a stone without hitting one. Look, there’s Mark Cuban courtside at the presidential debate and Peter Thiel defending Donald Trump. And then there’s George Soros, the Koch brothers, Tom Steyer, Robert Mercer and many more pulling donor strings from the shadows.
Billionaires always had the money and the power to influence politics, but, of course, the real story of the 2016 election is that while we were awaiting the stealthy approach of big-money barbarian donors at the gates of American democracy, a big-money candidate with a big mouth strolled right through the front door, hijacking the election as if it were a congressional subcommittee. And now that Trump has blazed a scorched-earth path to the presidency, how many billionaire political players will decide to place themselves behind the wheel of the candidacies they have been driving for years from the backseat of the limo?
The wealthy politician is nothing new to American politics — or the presidency. George Washington was a prosperous plantation owner and one of the young nation’s richest men. And in recent years, more than half the members of Congress have been millionaires. But truly prodigious wealth and formal political power, particularly the presidency, are rarely paired, despite the best efforts of mega-wealthy candidates like Nelson Rockefeller, Ross Perot and Steve Forbes to mount America’s iron throne.
Will the scions of American industry be willing to submit to such a rough-and-tumble sport?
Trump’s unprecedented ascent in this election mirrors a broader, and disturbing, trend across the world. According to Darrell West, the director of governance studies at the Brookings Institution, billionaires have sought public office in 13 countries over the past decade, and most have been successful, from Silvio Berlusconi in Italy to hotel magnate turned Prime Minister Bidzina “Boris” Ivanishvili in Georgia to telecommunications tycoon turned Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra in Thailand.
Such moguls who portray themselves as men of the people — and they are almost exclusively male — are not without popular appeal, especially in America, where there’s a tendency to commingle wealth and virtue and worry about candidates being bought by special interests. There is something refreshing about an unbossed and unbought plutocrat with the financial independence to spurn the establishment and speak truth from power. Trump, like Michael Bloomberg and Ross Perot before him, has harnessed it well.
Combine that appeal with built-in advantages that benefit presidential candidates — name recognition, media experience and a healthy ego, says Northeastern University professor Daniel Urman — and it’s not hard to imagine a trend toward more billionaire-celebrity politicians, starting with Cuban. In fact, before he soured on Trump, the Dallas Mavericks owner and Shark Tank judge praised him as a trailblazer. “I love the fact that he has changed the game,” Cuban told Politico in 2015. “The idea of imperfect candidates with forceful ideas opens the door for a lot of people [who] would not have previously run.”
Who else might make a run for that door? The American billionaires club now boasts 540 members with a combined net worth of almost $2.4 trillion, according to Forbes. Perhaps the most political among them, Bloomberg, decided against a presidential run this year, and, at 74, the former New York City mayor may be past his “best by” date for a presidential bid come 2020. Howard Schultz, the CEO of Starbucks, who made Clinton’s long list of potential VP nominees, along with former Google CEO Eric Schmidt and California hedge fund manager Tom Steyer, has some name recognition and significant experience in the political arena but has yet to show any desire to run for office.
Several moguls have already sought office or flirted with a run in the past. Mega-donor David Koch was a Libertarian Party vice-presidential candidate in 1980; Paychex founder Tom Golisano lost three independent bids for New York governor; and CNN founder Ted Turner has said he has “very seriously” considered presidential bids over the years. All three men, however, are in their mid- to late 70s.
To be sure, there are other considerations besides age that could cause these heavyweights to hesitate to follow in Trump’s footsteps. And, in some ways, this year’s Republican nominee may have made running for high office more difficult and less appetizing to the mega-wealthy. “After Trump, billionaires will think thrice about entering politics,” says Iowa State politics professor Steffen Schmidt, who points out that most would not enjoy the intense scrutiny of their personal and professional lives that Trump has endured. Depending on the outcome, Schmidt says, Trump’s brand could end up suffering terribly from this campaign.
Will the scions of American industry, accustomed to getting their way on the playing fields of business, be willing to submit to such a rough-and-tumble sport? Or will they play it safe and remain on the sidelines? Maybe, like Trump, it will be a case of self-selection, and only the political billionaires with the biggest egos and the most bravado will make the jump. When the billionaire class sends its people, it may not deploy its very best. The magnates will send candidates who have lots of problems — the tax evaders, the narcissists, the gropers. And some, we assume, will be good people.