The Politics of Contempt

By Caldwell, Christopher | Newsweek, May 9, 2011 | Go to article overview

The Politics of Contempt


Caldwell, Christopher, Newsweek


Why do so many Americans apparently long to be led by a super-rich yahoo?

Of the things Donald Trump has said since he began hinting at a presidential candidacy, the one that most requires challenging is his assertion that people keep asking him to run. Journalists are vigilant defenders of truth when the subject is President Obama's birthplace or OPEC prices. They are credulous when it comes to explaining populist movements. They assume the impetus always comes from the demand side. People are "fed up"! There is an "anti-incumbent sentiment" in the air!

Such demand-side sentiments can explain a lot--but not why certain members of the public might wish to be governed by a billionaire yahoo. For that, it is just as important to look at the supply side. Trump's candidacy comes from a sociological fact--the steady rise of plutocracy over the last quarter century--as well as a public sentiment. The truth is not universally enough acknowledged that a man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of political influence. Diversifying one's portfolio to include clout as well as money makes sense. Bill Gates does it through charity and lobbying. Other billionaires, like Trump, run for president. Logic and megalomania counsel the same course.

The psychology of independent candidacies is much the same as when the data mogul H. Ross Perot ran in 1992. Perot had mulled running for years, possibly in tandem with Chrysler executive Lee Iacocca, as Iacocca later revealed. Despite an erratic performance, Perot led the whole field for a while and ended up beating Bush in Maine, winning a quarter of the votes in Massachusetts, and taking a fifth of them in the country as a whole.

The difference between then and now is that the plutocratic universe has expanded enormously. There were 71 billionaires on the Forbes 400 list when Perot declared, and Perot was among the very richest--he had been one of 13 billionaires on the original list in 1982. Today there are more American billionaires than one can even fit on a list 400 names long. Trump, with a fortune estimated at $2.4 billion to $2.7 billion, is merely the 153rd-richest American, and the roll of potentially self-financing candidates is longer than that. In 1996, when publisher Steve Forbes ran for president, his wealth--$430 million--caused jaws to drop. Today there are rappers worth more than that. (Say, Jay-Z at $450 million.) There are comedians worth more. (Say, Jerry Seinfeld at $800 million.)

Like many a rich man before him, Perot met his downfall by deluding himself that what was special about him was something other than his money. In Mad as Hell, Jack W. Germond and Jules Witcover's history of the campaign, consultant Ed Rollins recalls asking for a national budget for yard signs. "Ten million dollars for yard signs?" Perot asked. "Can't they make their own yard signs?"

There are stylistic similarities between the Perot and Trump campaigns. Both candidates, as businessmen, had ties to the establishment that they now diagnose as corrupt. (Trump gave $50,000 to Rahm Emanuel's campaign for Chicago mayor, which ended just weeks ago.) Both are stubbornly vague. Where Perot believed America's problems could be solved by "looking under the hood" of the economy, Trump promises to tell those who take advantage of America, from Chinese currency manipulators to Arabian oil cartelists, "Fellows, you've had your fun."

Say what you will about Perot, his focus was on the American people. On the Larry King Live appearance where he first hinted at a run, he said: "The first thing I'd like for you to do, all of you, is look in the mirror -- We own this place. …

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