A Bloomberg Presidency Would Be a Shadow Puppet with a Compound Fracture

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In Gary Shteyngart’s Lake Success, the protagonist, a soulless hedge-funder named Barry, meets his wife at a “cultural art thing” attended by none other than New York Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg. It is an almost religious experience for a finance guy who becomes physically aroused when he sees a Bloomberg terminal — the $30,000-per year software system that helped Bloomberg become the ninth-wealthiest human — up and running. The aura of limitless wealth surrounding the mayor is so intoxicating that Barry forgets the party is actually thrown by the slightly more glamorous Anna Wintour, even though Bloomberg deflects Barry’s wan attempt at banter.

Shtyengart’s novel came out in the summer of 2018. Less than two years later, the “mild billionaire mayor now convinced he’s a king” may through sheer televised ubiquity be poised to turn the Democratic Party into a collection of starstruck Barrys. Spending $300 million so far, he’s gobbled up advisers and organizers in a mad dash to deprive everyone else of talent, introducing an element of chaos far beyond the primary and FiveThirtyEight. Already, he’s possibly in first place in Florida, that home of Trump and total insanity and perpetual dasher of Democrat dreams. Bloomberg even edged out Mayor Pete in terms of raising the ire of the online left (sorta).

We knew before Trump that America was broken. We knew before the Iowa caucuses that the Democratic primary was a mess. But the seduction that Bloomberg holds is terrifying in its consequences. The appeal of a Bernie or a Warren (for their followers) is not only that they possess the magic mix of empathy and revolution, inspiration and wonkery, but also that neither wishes to be a monarch. While Joe Biden’s semi-articulated promise is to restore this timeline back to that moment in 2013 or ’14 when it skewed into this ghastly tangent, Bloomberg’s offer is more like realigning plate tectonics to fuse the earth’s crust so that we’re never again bothered by political parties and their penchant to produce demagogues — and if the resulting supercontinent is unrecognizable, then at least it will have fewer guns and sodas and the same number of gazillionaires. 

A three-term mayor of New York — who sweet-talked a fellow billionaire into letting him rewrite the city’s term-limits law — Bloomberg is a habitual party-switcher whose candidacy seems tailor-made to infuriate anyone who’s spent much time knocking on doors or phone-banking for terrestrial Democrats. His core beliefs seem to obey Newtonian physics: For every effective effort to help Democrats there’s an endorsement of George W. Bush, for every High Line a litany of awful utterances about women and the overweight.

Then there’s the grotesque racism of stop-and-frisk, and the transparently insincere apology that came years too late. Together, they’re absolutely disqualifying by both the heightened moral standards of our day and because a self-professed numbers guy shouldn’t get to be this quantitatively incorrect. The numbers, though, are what allow Bloomberg to shine with transpartisan, Gets Things Done allure even as he exudes a CEO’s impatience with bedrock constitutional principles. Pretty weird that someone so abruptly omnipresent and eager for flattering memes should have a birthday on Valentine’s Day and celebrate it so quietly. Not even @fuckjerry got invited.

Still, he isn’t all bad, not the way Trump is, literally, all bad. At one point during his mayoralty, at least, you could look up Bloomberg’s number and give him a buzz. Like London Breed, who endorsed him like many other mayors have, his finest moment as mayor involved making a principled stand on behalf of a less-than-universally-beloved minority community: unhoused San Franciscans in her case, Muslims in post-9/11 New York in his. As a candidate, he’s good on climate change, great on gun control, and even the un-please-able Streetsblog gave him high marks on transportation policy. He also said it would be a “godsend” if every billionaire moved to New York (which, in fairness, is indeed true from San Francisco’s perspective).

The passable goodness might be the worst bit, because it gives him just enough plausibility to pull this off. Combine that plausibility with his truly extraordinary wealth and you get an alarming sense of inevitability, especially when literally everyone looks good compared with Trump. It’s enough to make your most uncritical #votebluenomatterwho Facebook acquaintance play chess against Death.

If Bloomberg becomes president, he will remake the Democratic Party in his image the way Trump has done with the GOP, snuffing out any insurgencies on the left that threaten the portfolios of upper-middle-class white people with promises of a brighter future for all. Money matters so much in Washington that even liberal Dems fell for a fringe cult of hawkish Iranians just because it had cash to throw around. How can we know that “never-Bloombergers” will be frozen out? Because of the intrusive, top-down way that he exerts control over nonprofits via his philanthropy, right down to the words a mom who lost a child to gun violence is permitted to say on stage. With Bloomberg, the stars in D.C.’s sky will reorder themselves into a new constellation, a benign authoritarian rubbing his fingers together in a “moolah” gesture and presiding over the cosmos. 

Mike Money Illustration by Greg Groesch

Anything that you can spin as anti-Trump will be OK. The cowardice and limited horizons of Schumer-Clinton triangulation will find their surest footing in “At least [shitty thing X we just did] isn’t as bad as 45!” defensiveness, because no one is ever as bad as Trump, until all of a sudden someone is — probably Tom Cotton, from the looks of it. And then we’ll have to endure creeping Trump nostalgia the way we’re starting to think of Mitt Romney as a genial moderate and John Bolton as a low-key hero. 

Instead of getting rid of money in politics, presidential campaigns will become a permanent contest of “our” billionaires versus theirs. Everyone else will have no choice but to fall in line, because the alternative (a Trump-style president who’s actually competent) will always be too terrifying ever to ditch such a potent weapon. This is the total fulfillment of oligarchy. We will never get what we want, but at least the other side won’t, either. 

(AP Photo/Charlie Riedel)

Remember all the whispers of how Trump, that hater of “the media” who can’t stand to be out of the spotlight for 15 seconds, might someday create his own news network? Well, Bloomberg already has one, and its politics are that precise type of pro-Wall Street, anti-labor centrism that hobbled Obama and will absolutely hobble any other future Democrat — even Buttigieg types who might think they can co-opt it. 

I’d love to see Bloomberg and Tom Steyer drop out and establish a $10 billion Local Journalism Stabilization Fund to endow a counterweight to Fox News in perpetuity. What’s likelier is that Bloomberg (the media corporation) will swell up to become a duller New York Times, a bland, post-print State News organ without recipes or crossword puzzles that pounds a sober, centrist message of foreclosed opportunities. The lies will still be lies, but not the hysterical, flamboyant untruths of a Ben Shapiro or a Lou Dobbs. No, you can’t have national dental insurance, America. If you don’t want cavities, then put down the Big Gulp.

For a New York billionaire, Bloomberg is a credible anti-Trump. And the restoration of norms like, say, not tweeting childish insults every morning will make it look like everything is normal again even when it’s not. But democracy under a Bloomberg presidency would be like an arm with a compound fracture making shadow puppets. Most people are entertained cause the show mostly looks like it should, but the people in front who are paying the most attention can see the bloody protruding bone, and they’re screaming.

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Peter-Astrid Kane

Peter-Astrid Kane

Peter-Astrid Kane (they/them) is the Communications Manager for San Francisco Pride and a former editor of SF Weekly.