It doesn’t take an oracle to see that Mike Bloomberg is on his way to becoming the Democratic nominee for president.
It’s a remarkable development. On paper, Bloomberg is everything that the Democratic Party hates: white, male, and fabulously rich. He’s also boring. Until recently his candidacy was considered a joke. Yet, all of a sudden, his rise feels increasingly fated.
Former Vice President Joe Biden is suffering a spectacularly sad and predictable implosion. With Vermont socialist Senator Bernie Sanders closing in, the establishment is in panic mode. They’re looking for someone, anyone, to save them from Donald Trump.
Pete Buttigieg seems to have won the fascination of the liberal, professional Left, but the media’s adoration is a poor metric for success. Nine months ago this primary was about Kamala Harris, the freshman U.S. senator from California. Having a bunch of paid shills gush over your candidacy on CNN is flattering, but it’s not influence.
Bloomberg’s nomination would make for an ironic coda to a primary spent feverishly bashing billionaires, debating the merits of slavery reparations, and parading women and minorities as the future of the Democratic Party.
Bloomberg is running as a super-rich guy who isn’t Trump and knows how to “get things done” with just enough a patina of liberal advocacy to call his campaign a step forward. He supports gun control and amnesty. He’s got the Statue of Liberty in his advertisements. He enjoys Big Gay ice cream! He’s even got memes depicting him as a meatball.
He’s trying to buy an election in the open, sure, but at least he’s got a sense of humor about it. What Bloomberg is doing is obscene and undemocratic, but the chutzpah is almost admirable. Hillary Clinton was an unlikable professional grifter. Bloomberg may be an oligarch, but at least he’s an unabashed oligarch.
The Democratic Party can now either burn itself down in the flames of revolution with Sanders, or make a Faustian bargain with one of the wealthiest men on the planet to stop Trump.
It’s quite the decision. The Sanders surge has been compared to the MAGA revolution in 2016, and the comparisons are merited. But it’s not too late for a different narrative from 2016 to take shape in this race: that of a dark horse New York billionaire suddenly emerging and tipping over the game board.
The difference is that Trump and Sanders are populists channeling the anger generated by an unequal and unraveling social order. Like Biden, Bloomberg is simply promising the restoration of that social order, minus the senility and with tons and tons of money to back him.
If Trump is Caesar, the hero of the reactionary commoner, then Bloomberg is the new champion of our mediocre and contemptible patricians. Like Trump’s, his candidacy would be purely transactional. Democrats would waive the right to clutch pearls over the “hypocrisy” of Trump’s evangelical supporters or the existential threat that Trump supposedly poses to democracy. He would be a single-issue candidate running in a single-issue election, and that just may be enough.
The 2020 election is about lots of things, but what matters most to Democratic voters is getting Trump out of office. Like 2016, what America looks like beyond that horizon feels cosmically important to everyone. The stakes are too high to care about scruples, let alone ideology.
If Sanders falters or gets railroaded, Bloomberg may be their only option—not an exciting or even a good option, but an option nonetheless. All but the most hardcore progressives would hold their noses and begrudgingly back him. CNN viewers and Clinton voters might do so happily. He wouldn’t be much different than Buttigieg or the other “moderates,” not counting his questionable views on China.
Voters seeking not revolution but the autopilot of managed national decline that came before Trump would find him palatable. It would be the establishment striking back. The Democratic Party would become, openly at last, the party of woke capital, preaching tolerance for illegal immigrants while acquiescing to a massive and growing gap between the ruling class and hoi polloi.
Bloomberg could not convincingly portray himself as bearing either the mantle of progressive revolution or the enthusiastic mandate of the people. His rise would prove that the wokeness that consumed so much of discourse during the primary is more or less a form of identity signaling for the elite—a game—rather than a serious commitment for all but a few hardcore ideologues.
A Bloomberg victory would chasten a populist Left that has grown increasingly energetic since 2016, and yet it would keep in place the corporatization of cultural radicalism that even Sanders, for all his anti-establishment credentials, supports. It would prove that the most “radical” policies of the Left—at least those that have nothing to do with money—from late-term abortion to amnesty to LGBT rights, are things that a super-rich, white, male oligarch, with ideological consistency and without too much protest from liberals, could support.
A Faustian bargain between Democrats, Bloomberg, and his unlimited wealth also would echo the deal struck between social conservatives and Trump in 2016.
Democrats have been searching for their Trump without success, even looking at the very unfortunate Michael Avenatti at one point. But Trump didn’t win because of his money. If Bloomberg would own up to his support of stop-and-frisk—a popular policy—and just show some human edges instead of apologizing for everything he’s ever said, he might have better odds. But that’s just the tip of the iceberg: Bloomberg can’t drum up the energy that Trump and Sanders can because they draw that energy from the fraying of the social order that Bloomberg promises to uphold.
An election battle between two New York billionaires—one establishmentarian and superficially woke, the other a populist street brawler—is almost too apt, too perfect a summary of the times, not to happen. The establishment wants Bloomberg to be their Trump, but the guy who wanted to ban large sodas and tax poor people so they can’t buy cigarettes just doesn’t have charisma like Trump’s or the support of a devoted and enthusiastic base. In a general election fight, the president would make mincemeat out of him.