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Current Affairs

A Magazine of Politics and Culture

Why Does Anyone Think Michael Bloomberg Would Beat Donald Trump?

Why would Democrats show up to support someone they are unenthusiastic about?

There is no principled case for giving Michael Bloomberg the Democratic nomination. His record is atrocious: He is a sexist plutocrat who instituted an authoritarian racist policing regime in New York City and openly prioritized the interests of billionaires over the poor. But many Democrats are nevertheless drawn to him, and willing to overlook all of these unpleasant aspects of his record, for one simple reason: They think he can beat Donald Trump. In fact, the main argument for Michael Bloomberg is pragmatic rather than principled. Stopping Trump is considered so urgent that we cannot afford such secondary considerations as caring whether he shares our values. One question alone matters, which is whether Bloomberg will win. And for people who think he will, showing that Bloomberg is a terrible person who would govern in the interests of the super-rich is completely irrelevant. Those of us who raise objections to Bloomberg’s record are waved away as not caring enough about stopping Trump. 

But it is strange that the case for Michael Bloomberg is that he would beat Trump. I do not think people who make this argument have thought very hard about what a race between Bloomberg and Trump would look like. A moment’s reflection is sufficient to decimate the “electability” case for Bloomberg. Of course he wouldn’t beat Trump. How on earth would he beat Trump when he would tear the Democratic Party apart completely? How could he beat Trump without exciting the Democratic base? Why would people be excited enough to swap one Republican billionaire for another that they would work like hell to get him elected? How is this supposed to work, exactly? 

Let us remember the pitch Hillary Clinton made to those on the left who did not like her: You may not like me, she said, but I am better than Donald Trump. You have to vote for me, because you have no alternative. It’s me or Trump, and the responsible thing to do is vote for the “lesser evil.” So none of Clinton’s flaws mattered, because they paled next to Trump’s flaws. This was actually a strong argument, because Clinton was indeed better than Trump, and many of us did indeed find ourselves grudgingly voting for her. I do believe you should vote for the lesser of two evils, when that is your only choice. Of course, many people are not willing to vote for purely strategic reasons, and stubbornly insist on voting for the candidate they most agree with. In 2016, if everyone who had voted for Jill Stein had voted for Hillary Clinton instead, Donald Trump would not have become president. Same with Ralph Nader and Al Gore in 2000. Of course, Democrats can complain that it is these voters’ fault when Democrats lose, because the voters did not behave correctly. But if the aim is to win an election, rather than to just have someone to blame when you lose one, the fact that people can and do vote third-party has to be considered when choosing a nominee.

If you thought Hillary Clinton turned off the Democratic base, consider just how much worse Bloomberg would be. It’s one thing to tell leftists they have to hold their nose and vote for a centrist liberal like Clinton. Most of them will, but some of them will vote third-party or won’t show up. But what about telling them to hold their nose and vote for a Republican billionaire who bought the nomination and has a long record of racist and sexist remarks? Many millions of people will find a Bloomberg nomination a huge slap in the face. They will be outraged to have their values treated as insignificant. They will resent being told to shut up and rally behind some rich asshole who thinks he can buy their support. They will not only refuse to vote for Michael Bloomberg, they will do so proudly, because by doing so they will show that they can’t be bought or cajoled. It will feel good to defy the party’s demand that they swallow their vomit and vote for whoever has the most money. 

How many voters will be like this? I am not sure, but I think it will be far larger than the number who voted for Jill Stein over Hillary Clinton. Hillary Clinton was far more palatable to people on the left than Michael Bloomberg, and far more obviously better than Trump. There’s even a good argument to be made that Bloomberg isn’t better than Trump—that Trump is an incompetent authoritarian plutocrat while Bloomberg is a smart authoritarian plutocrat. The fact that there will be a genuine debate about whether the Democratic nominee is better than Trump will guarantee that Democrats are incapable of unifying around their chosen candidate.

And unify we must. Donald Trump is going to be very difficult to beat. He’s running on a strong economy with low unemployment. Did you watch his State of the Union address? It was very well done, and Democrats have failed utterly to come up with a strong message or oppose Trump effectively. If we’re going to beat him, we need a candidate who people are not just willing to vote for, but willing to fight for. We need someone who people will evangelize for, who they won’t have to beg people to turn up at the polls to support. You’d absolutely have to beg people to vote for Michael Bloomberg—young progressives of my generation had our political consciousnesses forged in part during Occupy Wall Street, and we remember Bloomberg chiefly as a guy who excused Wall Street’s crimes and then brutally demolished the Occupy encampment. We hate that guy. It will be very hard to get us to show up for him.

Do you really think the Bloomberg movement will have fire in its belly? Do you really think it will have the kind of zeal and passion that it will take to beat Trump? Successful presidential candidates are usually inspiring to their party. Trump inspired his voters. Obama inspired his. Clinton did not inspire. Nor did Al Gore or John Kerry. Michael Bloomberg does not inspire. 

Watch his speeches. Bloomberg doesn’t even have charisma. Or a sense of humor. He has a weird voice and he has contempt for ordinary people. His attempts to be relatable are laughably bad. He makes condescending remarks, like telling people it takes less brains to be a farmer than to work in Silicon Valley. Look at the ads he is using against Trump. They’re pathetic. He portrays Trump as a “bully” who is disgracing his office. But Bloomberg himself is a bully, and his ad makes Trump seem strong and cool. Are most people really going to be so passionate about substituting our “good” bullying billionaire for the “bad” one that they haul themselves out on Election Day?

I’m disturbed at how little the Democratic supporters of Michael Bloomberg care about his record. They don’t care about all the Iraqis who died in the Iraq War Bloomberg supported, or all the Muslims who were surveilled by his NYPD, or all the Black people thrown up against the wall and frisked by his police (a policy he is still lying about), or about the damage done by calling transgender people “men in dresses,” or about the women harassed and discriminated against at Bloomberg’s company, or about all the people who slept on the streets of New York because Mayor Bloomberg didn’t notice them. But even if you do not care about any of these people, or you convince yourself that “beating Trump” matters far more than having a candidate who is “woke” (woke in this case meaning “showing minimal standards of basic human moral decency”), why do you think all of these members of the Democratic constituency will come together around a candidate whose nomination is a sign that the party doesn’t care about them? From a purely pragmatic perspective, this is delusional.

I think people are relying on Bloomberg’s money to do the work for him. A common argument I hear is that Bloomberg is richer than Trump, and thus will be able to beat him, because we believe our democracy is so corroded that the presidency really can just be bought by the highest bidder, who will be Bloomberg. But I actually think that’s slightly too cynical. You do still need to get people to vote for you. And while Bloomberg can pay handsome salaries to all of his staffers, people who do things because they believe in them are far more dedicated than people who do things solely because the salary is good. Bloomberg will have an impressive staff, but are they going to stay late and lose sleep? Are they going to have the kind of zeal that we need in this fight? It’s almost impossible to actually be passionate about Bloomberg himself, who is an unlikable oligarch, so we’re relying on them being motivated sufficiently by hatred for Donald Trump. Hatred is powerful, but we need something more than hate and cash if we’re going to crush someone who has plenty of those things himself. We’ve got to have someone we can feel proud of, someone who is not just “slightly less terrible maybe” but genuinely good. Running Bloomberg would destroy our ability to take the moral high ground over “kids in cages” and Trump’s sexism.

Donald Trump will relish a fight with Michael Bloomberg. Trump is happy to run to the left at his convenience, and has already been presenting himself as the candidate of criminal justice reform and a friend to African Americans. He will point out Bloomberg’s long and atrocious record, and Bloomberg will not be able to defend himself—he has already started lying about what he did as mayor of New York. Trump will try to peel away Black votes by making the same arguments that Charles Blow does here, and even though Trump himself is horrendous on policing it will be difficult to mount a persuasive defense of Bloomberg, because there isn’t one.

A Trump-Bloomberg fight would be depressing. I bet voter turnout would be at its lowest level in decades; after all, who cares about a fight between two old bigoted plutocrats? I don’t know what the theory for how Bloomberg would turn out disaffected voters and young people is. I don’t think there is one. In fact, many of them would turn away from the Democratic Party forever, convinced that it did not represent their interests at all and had nothing to offer. A Bloomberg nomination might well be the end of the Democrats, driving millions of people toward third parties. They will stomach a lot, but a Republican billionaire will be too much for them.

So let us stop hearing that Bloomberg can beat Trump. How? How will he do that? How is he going to get progressives not to hate him for having spent his entire life opposing things they believe deeply in, like feminism, economic equality, and antiracism? Nominating him would be an absolute disaster. While Trump was unifying Republicans around a clear message (Keep America Great), Democrats would be having an internal debate up until Election Day on whether their candidate was too horrifically opposed to progressive values to be worth voting for. I cannot believe that anybody seriously thinks this man is the “pragmatic” choice. 

Photograph by Gage Skidmore.

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