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The Billionaire Grifter’s Threat to Democracy

With Tom Steyer surging to new heights in a spate of recent polls, it's time to take him seriously—and end this candidacy.

Frederic J. Brown/AFP/ Getty

Remember how 2018 was the year of the grifter? We were inundated with juicy stories of amazing con artists, from Anna Delvey’s rich girl scam to Elizabeth Holmes’s other rich girl scam. The summer of that year was christened “scam season” by The New York Times’ Amanda Hess. If 2018 was the year of charlatans scamming each other out of their money, 2020 is the year of presidential candidates scamming us out of our limited, precious attention. And just like in 2018, it’s the rich people who are perpetuating the biggest frauds.

The now-departed Marianne Williamson and still-in-it Andrew Yang both have the air of a grift about them—the former having hawked a The Secret-style psychic salve to our political problems, the latter pitching a bad version of universal basic income with gimmicks like handing out $1,000 a month to 10 people, as if his campaign were the Monster Energy Epic Presidency Raffle. (Yang’s campaign raised $1 million and harvested 450,000 email addresses from the contest, it said, the day after he announced it.) But it’s unfair to focus just on these two, since there are much less successful, lower-profile weirdos who have oozed in and out of the ranks of both parties’ primary fields. Bill Weld. Wayne Messam. Joe Walsh. Mark Sanford, briefly. Deval Patrick, who announced a run for the Democratic nomination in November and might as well have announced a campaign to become a Fortnite champion.

I call these people grifters not because they are necessarily trying to directly scam people out of money—though politics is rife with this—but because they attempted to use the opportunity of 2020’s wide-open field and unpopular incumbent to raise their profile, despite never believing they could become president. People like Seth Moulton or Steve Bullock might not have been trying to get paid using their campaigns, in the way that Trump so brazenly directed his campaign spending back to his businesses. Nevertheless, it’s not hard to imagine how the attention, however minimal, of being included on a debate stage can be leveraged into a better paycheck down the line—whether it’s hopping on a corporate board, or grabbing a luxe lobbying gig, or being absorbed within cable news’ elite coterie of green-room layabouts. In politics, prominence is currency, and the 2020 race represented a get-prominent-quick opportunity.

But the current election cycle has also enabled a second category of grifter: The Already Rich Grifter, specifically former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg and California rich man Tom Steyer. These two are far more troubling—not least because it’s unfathomable that one could be wealthy enough to never have to work again and still decide that the best course of action is to try to get elected to do the hardest job on the planet. (Fellas, you realize there’s, like, video games? You could play Mario Kart while on a helicopter flying back and forth over the Great Pyramids. Be more imaginative.) There is actually something even more disturbing about not doing this for the potential windfall: We can all relate to wanting more money, but can you imagine being so egomaniacal that you spend hundreds of millions of dollars on running for president? And yet, what’s spookier still: They are rich enough that it could actually work.

The night before the deadline to qualify for this week’s debate in Iowa, two polls from Fox News vaulted Steyer to the debate stage. In South Carolina, Fox News had Steyer in second place, with 15 percent of the vote; in Nevada, Steyer placed third, with 12 percent. As The New York Times pointed out, Steyer “had never before exceeded 5 percent in a debate-qualifying poll.” These polls could be outliers—or they could be a horrible sign that Steyer’s strategy of pulverizing the airwaves with advertisements is working.

Only Bloomberg has spent more—$153 million—on TV ads than Steyer, an astonishing amount given that Steyer has been in the race for many more months than the former New York City mayor. Steyer has spent $116.5 million during that time, which is more than a hundred million dollars more than the campaign’s next biggest spender, Bernie Sanders. It is easy to understand how voters outside Iowa and New Hampshire, who take their deeply undeserved “first in the nation” status very seriously and may be paying more attention than voters in other states, might not know a ton about Steyer other than that he’s the guy who’s always on TV saying he’s going to provide health care to all and take on Trump.

Last week, New York’s Jonathan Chait wrote a piece making the case that Michael Bloomberg wouldn’t actually be a bad nominee for the Democratic party. Putting aside Chait’s motives for writing this, the arguments don’t hold up: He maintains that Bloomberg has given climate change “a singular priority no other candidate (except the departed Jay Inslee) can match,” for example, without actually describing Bloomberg’s climate plan. He handwaves away the fact that Bloomberg’s particular assemblage of policies and record—anti-soda, anti-gun, pro–racist policing, anti–giving food to the homeless—is uniquely repellant to multiple segments of the electorate. Americans of most ideologies can find something to hate about Bloomberg. But it is useful to look at Chait’s closing argument, which is essentially that all the Democrats are flawed, and “[w]inning the presidential election is starting to look hard. How about buying it instead?”

This dangerous notion is precisely what the Democrats must resist. Chait, along with a fairly significant number of Democratic voters, believes that it’s vitally important to defeat Donald Trump with whomever is best placed to do that. It is a virtuous desire, but even this calculation should not lead any rational person to choose Steyer or Bloomberg. This premise is fatally flawed.

Democrats must chart a path away from the one that led to Trump’s election in the first place, and that cannot be done by locking America into a battle between competing aristocrats. Doing so would not only effectively repudiate the rising credence of taxing the rich into oblivion; it would undo all of the work that the Trump presidency has done to demonstrate how little merit resides in the billionaire class and how foolish it is to expect someone so hell-bent on accruing wealth to be a good steward of the state and the public trust. It would endorse the idea that if you are lucky enough to make billions off the stock market (or selling Wall Streeters little terminals on which they may make their billions), then you are fit to lead the country. It’s an idea that has the potential to be just as damaging as four more years of Trump. At any rate there’s not a scintilla of evidence to suggest that Steyer or Bloomberg would be successful candidates in a head-to-head matchup with Trump, whose appeal is rooted in the fact that he has successfully portrayed himself as a traitor to the plutocratic class.

Bloomberg’s immense personal wealth, which is approximately 33 times that of Steyer, might have allowed him to match Steyer’s standing in the polls had he not waited until November to jump in—and were he not deeply unlikeable and disliked. As it stands, it is very hard to imagine what Bloomberg’s path to victory would be, though he clearly envisions paving his way by spending an obscene amount of money on advertisements and staff. It is nevertheless unlikely that either of these billionaires will win many primaries. But the thought that Steyer may have juked his way to second place in some of the polls, solely by dint of having the money to maximize attention, should be sobering. It demonstrates, once again, the powerful deforming effect that money can have on our democracy, and that American politics is just stupid enough to reward those who can create these distortions.

Joe Biden could be a disaster for the country and for the future of the Democratic Party, which are sadly intertwined; so could Pete Buttigieg and Amy Klobuchar. A candidate who fails to grasp that the core institutions of the party, and donor-class democracy more generally, need to be reformed to prevent the permanent hold of Trumpist authoritarianism is not up to the task of wrenching America away from its slide into a nightmare future. The magnitude of the unavoidable crises we face—climate change, health care, income inequality, homelessness, endless war, opioids, student debt, the fact that life expectancy is declining, the fact that more children are killing themselves—cannot be solved by merely dispatching Trump in an election on the promise of returning to the status quo ante.

Nevertheless, if there’s a benefit to a Joe Biden presidency, it’s that its problems will be familiar: He’ll be a centrist politician who does not want to “clobber” the Republican party. Biden’s insistence that his GOP counterparts will experience an “epiphany” and become inclined toward compromise is a dangerously naïve idea for someone who had a front-row seat during the Obama administration to possess, and someone should disabuse him of the notion sooner, rather than later. But what Steyer and Bloomberg represent is a different kind of sinister: an attempt to circumvent the democratic process with almost unlimited wealth. They are using the spoils of an unfair and deadly economic system to perpetuate that unfair and deadly political system. It doesn’t matter that they say they want to tax the rich if elected, because the simple fact of their candidacies is wrong. A plutocrat shouldn’t get to buy his way to the head of the party that claims it represents the working class, no matter what he says to get there. And though the Steyer Threat Level remains at yellow, the polls out of South Carolina and Nevada should be a reminder to firmly and thoroughly say—absolutely not.

No one should particularly care about the sanctity of the Democratic primary process, which is messy, corrupt, and often nonsensical. But it is plainly a problem if Steyer, an egomaniac with nothing to recommend him and no record of any achievement other than the same sort of bored-rich-guy political philanthropy that hundreds of other rich guys do, is polling in second place in any state. If it is ever proven that “buying an election, instead,” as Chait suggests, is a viable way of winning the presidency, it might preclude all other paths to the White House. This would be a dire outcome for the country. It is time to mobilize against the plutocrat candidates, for other candidates to openly criticize and mock them, for more media scrutiny of how they obtained their fortunes, for people to go to their town halls and heckle them. It’s time for scam season to end.