Billionaires have been venerated figures in western society, particularly in America. Maybe not anymore.
The populist wave that swept to power the most unorthodox president in American history has crested. The MAGA-crazed working man who voted a billionaire into the Oval Office swooned at Trump’s success. He believed that, soon, someday, it might be his own.
The zeitgeist has shifted. After a senseless government shutdown, it’s a different kind of gas-in-the-tank, food-on-the-table politics that has the mega-rich looking over their shoulder.
The examination of whether billionaires are a force for good or just scions of greed and inequality has been brewing for some time. The White House seems to have missed this sea change.
After the longest partial government shutdown in U.S. history, over 60% of Americans feel we are headed in the wrong direction, according to the latest national NBC/Wall Street Journal poll.
Those in power—not simply the President, but also global elites—seemed blithely unaware that most Americans, particularly those working in the government, eke out a life from paycheck to paycheck. As the shutdown persisted, the media was all too giddy to report that Americans were turning to food banks, food stamps, driving Ubers, and fetching odd jobs just to get by.
The alleged immorality of Central Americans tunneling through our porous border was trumped by the immorality of a billionaire “laying off” 800,000 federal workers for two pay periods.
Against this Dickensian backdrop, Democrats hung this albatross of a shutdown around President Trump’s neck. Now cue the first notes of class warfare: Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA), a 2020 candidate, has proposed a 3% tax on the super-rich.
Many are asking—thanks to Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez—whether America would be a better place in the mold of a Sweden, a socialist haven, than the cauldron of capitalism that it is.
Nothing better encapsulates the current argument against billionaire reverence in western society than this nugget from a letter to Davos delegates by American author, Anand Giridharadas, published recently in Time:
Your plutocrat religion, win-win-ism, teaches that what’s best for the winners of our age is best for all. We don’t believe you anymore. You enabled the nationalism that threatens our societies. You stiffed so many of us. You fought for rules that let you steal the future from our children. The hunt for answers to the present mess is not yours to lead. Your task is simple: stay out of the way.
Stuck in the middle of this maelstrom is a now hapless President Trump.
Walled in politically, Trump is surrounded by a fed-up GOP establishment on one side, and an emboldened Democratic House majority on the other. All that’s left to egg the president on in his quest for The Wall is his FOX News-loving base. And that was never a majority.
Trump lost the popular vote to Hillary Clinton in 2016 by almost 3 million votes. In total, he garnered a 46.1% “majority.” Governing successfully with such a slim margin required tact and judiciousness, leadership qualities that have long eluded this president.
American politics has become a game of one-thirds: each party fights for a precious sliver of independents, particularly women, to top off their entrenched 33% of support. In the wake of the shutdown debacle, Trump’s sway over that swath of voters appears deeply imperiled.
Fending off the mythic Democratic wave that augured a total mid-term election wipe-out for Republicans, Trump, it seemed, was a good bet to win in 2020. Pivoting from his siren call warnings of dangerous migrant caravans, Trump, in a fatal move, picked a political standoff with his toughest opponent yet, Speaker Pelosi.
He gambled his remaining political capital for a border wall that he knew Democrats found morally repugnant. Trump held firm. Pelosi held firmer. However quixotic, he held out for 35 days as more and more made-for-media stories of furloughed American workers multiplied in the media like a political virus. Until he flinched.
Throughout his kaleidoscopic presidency, Trump, for better or for worse, has been immune to political vicissitudes, always able to outshout and out-tweet his opponents.
Now, the backlash against billionaires and the steamrolling Mueller investigation are the two menaces that confront him. Each threatens to usher in a premature lame duck presidency.
The MAGA revolution is not quite smoldering—yet. But the cavalry is coming. Howard Schultz, the chairman emeritus of Starbucks—a billionaire himself—announced he is running for president in 2020 as an independent. Will Michael Bloomberg do the same?
Democrats, infused with fresh subpoena power, are poised to carve Trump into little pieces with a scalpel of oversight investigations.
Derided by opponents as a manic carnival barker, Trump has still been able to amass a score of significant, consequential victories during his first term.
In the end, none of this may matter, though. Not in the context of class warfare. Not with more indictments. Not with one, but two, consequential independent candidates preying upon his precious one-third sliver of swing voters.
Political solipsism is often fatal. In the case of Trump, he may be destined to go out not with a bang but a whimper.
Eric Bovim is a Managing Director at Signal Group, a strategic communications and lobbying firm based in Washington, D.C.