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The Campaign at the End of the World

For a brief, mad moment, Michael Bloomberg illuminated the rot at the core of this new Gilded Age.

Joe Raedle/Getty Images

The relentless and obliterating inequality that warps every facet of American life is easy to see and increasingly difficult to ignore, but it can also be vexingly difficult to comprehend. The very idea of a billion dollars, for instance, is effectively a science fiction concept, not only for people who actually live off what they get paid every two weeks but also for your basic everyday rich person. It is one thing to know that a billion dollars is one thousand million dollars, but what a number that size actually represents does not just beggar belief; it defies understanding. The idiotic hierarchy that our deliriously wealth-besotted media imposes where this sort of thing is concerned—a millionaire is a successful person, whereas a billionaire is a very successful person—is something worse than unhelpful. It conflates things that have no right being conflated, but the outsize scale of both the broader cultural problem and the more specific comprehension-related one renders the compounded mistake somehow too big to see.

The scope and scale of this chasmic disparity is most readily seen through the bizarre abstractions that it throws off. In this chaotic Democratic primary, that distance has led to a darkly comic bifurcation on the question of what a president is and between those concerned with the airy vibological responsibilities of a candidate—to lead “a revival of decency and character,” per The Washington Post’s Jennifer Rubin, or “to bring America to a place where we care for one another, where everyone is seen and included & where government has your back when you stumble,” as Samantha Power wrote in her endorsement of Joe Biden—and those more concerned with what a candidate might actually do. One priority seems more important than the other, but that’s markedly more obvious to those who can be harmed by political actions than to those who are merely unsettled by them.

Politics touches the lives of most Americans most clearly as pain—determining the cruelties that some people have to suffer and others do not, setting the variously occluded or intentionally dammed channels of recourse that are, but mostly are not, available as a result of various voluntary austerities and institutional cynicisms. From privilege’s higher ground, though, it’s all much cleaner, just as a football game naturally looks and feels and plays much different from a luxury box than it does from the bottom of the pile. It’s not just a matter of who gets dirty, although there is that. It’s what the field looks like and how the broader contest is experienced—the difference between whether it reads as a game or a desperate scramble in the mud.

Inequality shapes this, too, which is how this election season—one taking place as a pandemic bears down on a rickety and wildly vampiric health care system, during the rule of a bigoted wad of clammy old ham—has somehow played out as strange, character-driven television. The scale of what’s compromised and what’s actively collapsing is so great that it is only really legible as strange satire. Think of the billionaire hedge fund manager Tom Steyer ending his brief, quixotic, extremely expensive presidential campaign by joining the rapper Juvenile on stage for a performance of “Back That Ass Up,” at a party that Steyer threw for himself. Think of Beto O’Rourke, who married into a vast family fortune that helped him launch a political career and whose much shorter primary campaign played out as a sort of metaphysical walkabout. Think of health care stocks yo-yoing up and down according to the political fortunes of Medicare for All. Or think of Michael Bloomberg, who spent nearly half a billion dollars in an abortive campaign that started late and ended, on Wednesday morning, with a chesty suspension announcement and an endorsement of Joe Biden.

On its merits, Bloomberg’s campaign sure looks like one of the greatest failures in American political history: Before his name ever appeared on a ballot, Bloomberg spent an amount of money that would also have enabled him to buy a different National Hockey League franchise every 10 days. He was humiliated in two debates and trounced in every Super Tuesday primary besides American Samoa’s. The twist, and the moment when the broader context briefly becomes visible, is that it might not quite be that. “Dropping half a billion on a campaign might probably still represent serious savings compared to what he’d have to face under a hypothetically revamped tax scheme,” the writer Patrick Blanchfield observed. That’s it, right there. That’s when you can see all of it, if just for a moment.

Given the fact that Michael Bloomberg is worth more than sixty thousand million dollars, and because he has been so impossibly, unconscionably rich for decades, it stands to reason that his presidential campaign would be as psychedelically strange as it was. A presidential campaign, in this broken and rapacious moment, is one of the few ways that a person could blow half a billion dollars in a month and change, and that is what Bloomberg did.

All that spending bought Bloomberg ubiquity—Advertising Analytics estimated that voters in Alabama, Arkansas, Oklahoma, and Tennessee saw one of the three dozen ads he had commissioned more than 30 times per day leading up to Tuesday’s primary—and all of 33 delegates. He sent his wealth forth in thousands of dollars paid to Instagram influencers but also in smaller sums committed to normal people willing to spam their contacts with transparently inauthentic Bloomberg boosterism.

Bloomberg’s largesse afforded above-market salaries for organizers and campaign workers but also luxurious buffet spreads for curious voters. There was all that money spent on TV and radio ads and outright is-that-legal hiring sprees in the last weeks, a cheesy surge that leveraged millions more spent in the past on relationship-building—or, if you prefer, prepaid endorsement fees—with various Democratic organizations and candidates. At one point, during the second and final Democratic debate in which Bloomberg participated—and in which, thanks to an implausibly loud and on-message cheering section in the venue, he seemed to do rather well—CBS paused for a commercial break. While the candidates themselves hydrated and caught their breath, the Democratic debate shrank to a corner of the screen and gave way to a commercial for … Michael Bloomberg.

It all added up—lord, did it ever add up—and even made a sort of sense relative to the dystopian best practices of contemporary campaigncraft, but the scale of it once again defies comprehension. It is one thing to read that Bloomberg spent more during his brief run than every other candidate running for the nomination has spent to date, combined; that at least sounds like something someone as rich as Michael Bloomberg might do. But it has been another thing entirely to live with and in the sheer vastness of all that waste—not just the unrelenting wash of it and the sudden and unwelcome ubiquity of Bloomberg’s stern rictus on every screen with space for sale, but the certainty that it didn’t really matter which way it went to anyone involved. Bloomberg himself might really have wanted to be president, or he might have realized that spending a ton of money up front to guarantee that his taxes wouldn’t go up down the line was a move he could make, or it all might just have been the whim of a rich and grandiose man. None of the people he hired—not the comedy writers brought in to punch up his material nor the field organizers nor the people toting clipboards and chasing signatures to get him onto some state’s primary ballot—really seemed to want him to be president, and with good reason. As a politician, Bloomberg himself has never evinced any wish deeper than to make everyone else 1) shut up and 2) behave.

The campaign was a flop, but the way in which Donald Trump chose to gloat about it was telling. Trump jeered not so much at the failure of Bloomberg’s gambit as at his foolhardiness in being “taken for a ride.” Some of that taunt is just Trump—a man whose core belief is that there is no greater humiliation than paying someone else with your own money—being who he is and pursuing yet another long-running intra-elite beef. Bloomberg entered the race as a sort of ambassador from the world of The Actual Elite come to boot this honking TV-addled pretender from the Oval Office and restore the natural order of things. Bloomberg didn’t run on his past accomplishments or (uh) overwhelming personal magnetism so much as on the ambient authority that his egregious wealth conferred to him; he never offered much in the way of policy positions beyond those that could be gathered from a hat that was briefly for sale in his campaign’s online store, the front of which read “Not a Socialist,” and the back of which bore the strange and uniquely charmless legend, “Send in the boss.”

It’s hard to imagine how someone like Bloomberg could have run a campaign that was any less unreal than the one he ran. The reality of Bloomberg’s wealth registers more as a strange speculative notion—imagine a long, wide beach at which every grain of sand is a dime—than as anything legible or concrete. Of course all that money made Bloomberg strange and peremptory and cruel; it has been a very long time since real people were anything but stubborn abstractions to him. In the early weeks of his campaign, Bloomberg’s heroic ads were contrasted by a steady drip of video footage from his decades of appearing at various accursed Ideas Festivals and oligarch-in-conversation events, all of which reliably revealed the billionaire as a sniffy and dismissive man with the sort of strange, soft ideas that rich people tend to form over the course of several uncontradicted decades.

In his brief and revealing run, Bloomberg did succeed in a few ways. He showed America the raw face of bloodless managerial liberalism; from the salty strangeness and wary impatience and blithe unearned confidence of the man himself to his social class’s sour and unforgiving perspective on the rest of humanity; to the basic way in which the fundamental language of the monied elite seems somehow to have been run through a malfunctioning translation algorithm—all the grim spirit of Trumpism without any of the deranged musicality. That was revealing, too. It is easy to get the sense, at darker moments, that for all the ways in which it visits real harm on real people, our politics really is an abstraction—a lazy and sadistic game played by lazy and sadistic rich people. Bloomberg, by squandering some small amount of his unconscionable wealth on this unconscionable run, gave us a glimpse of the whole rotten truth.