It’s never been a bad strategy to bet on an American billionaire’s knack for self-deception. But the cluelessness of the .01% is appearing to grow along with its share of the nation’s wealth.
The latest example is Howard Schultz, who stepped down from his role as Executive Chairman of Starbucks, hinting strongly that he will consider running for President as a Democrat in 2020. At first blush, it may not appear crazy for billionaires like Michael Bloomberg or Schultz to conclude that the rise of Donald Trump speaks to Americans' respect for those richer than themselves. After all, Trump put his own wealth at the center of his campaign for president, arguing that after decades of greedily amassing his own fortune, he would put that greed at the disposal of the American people, making them better off too.
But Donald Trump’s appeal was not that he was a wealthy member of America’s elite, but that he was despised by the wealthy elite and was willing, rhetorically at least, to campaign against the deeply unpopular economic orthodoxy of the Republican donor class. His personal wealth and fame were assets to him, as they enabled him to overcome efforts by the Republican elite to thwart his candidacy, not because Americans were desperate for someone so wealthy to lead them.
When it comes to a Democratic presidential primary, personal wealth will be an outright burden. Look no further than the case of Hillary Clinton, who began the 2016 Democratic Primary as historically beloved among Democrats, only to see her reputation set ablaze with accusations that she is a corrupt tool of powerful, moneyed interests. It wasn’t that Bernie Sanders or his supporters ever found much evidence that Clinton changed her position on issues based on the wishes of the donor class, and her platform for toughening regulation on Wall Street was lauded by critics of big banks.
Bernie Sanders was able to gain so much ground on his better-funded, more famous rival because politics is about symbolism, and not reality. Hillary Clinton was right that Bernie Sanders's proposals, if not out of the mainstream, were irrelevant in the context of the American system of government, where nothing substantial can be done without first building overwhelming consensus. Bernie didn’t engage this argument, relying instead innuendo and the insinuation that Clinton was personally corrupt for her participation in a corrupt system.
And the Bernie Sanders wing of the Democratic Party has only been emboldened by results of the 2016 election, and the various other U.S. elections that have transpired since then. Democrats in Congress have tripped over themselves in an effort to back policies once thought far left of the mainstream, like Medicare for all or a national $15 minimum wage. More important, Sanders himself is turning up the heat in his class war rhetoric with his forthcoming book, Where We Go From Here. He is specifically calling out wealthy executives, like Walt Disney’s Bob Iger, who was reportedly considering a presidential run of his own. “I want to hear the moral defense of a company that makes $9 billion in profits, $400 million for their CEOs and have a 30-year worker going hungry,” Sanders told a crowd at an Anaheim Church on Saturday. “Tell me how that is right.”
Schultz has been one of the most visibly progressive CEOs in the nation, offering his low-skilled workers benefits like education subsidies, paid family leave, and many other benefits that can’t be found at similar American companies. But none of that will matter if he throws his hat in the ring for the Democratic nomination. His political opponents will ferret out stories of baristas struggling to make ends meet in the many jurisdictions where these workers make less than $15 per hour, even as Schultz amassed a fortune larger than the combined net worth of tens of millions of Americans. He, too, will be made a symbol of everything that’s wrong with the American economy.
The fact of the matter is that Schultz has likely done more to foster economic mobility and security in the lower-middle class, through his commitment to offering better pay and benefits than other employers of low-skilled workers, than he could ever do as President. A pivot from business to presidential politics only risks exacerbating a rift in the Democratic Party between the working poor and educated, urban elites without providing any compensatory benefits.
But people don’t become billionaires by having a firm grip on their own limitations. Even if Schultz realizes that he has nothing to bring to a presidential run but bunch of money and baggage, some other rich guy who loves to see himself on TV will surely attempt it. Let’s just hope, for the sake of entertainment, that it’s Mark Cuban on the Republican ticket, and that the Democrats keep their billionaires out of plain view, where they belong.
Christopher Matthews is a writer who splits his time between New York City and Accra, Ghana, with an interest in the intersection of markets, the economy, and public policy. He previously held staff positions at Axios, Fortune Magazine, and Time Magazine, and has been published in Forbes and Debtwire.