Trashing Michael Bloomberg does little to find a credible Democrat challenger

Nick Cohen
Photograph: Mark Ralston/AFP via Getty Images

The monstering of Michael Bloomberg brings a false comfort to all who hope that plutocracy is not supplanting democracy. On stage, at the Democratic debate in Nevada, his net worth of $53.4bn and his success in building up Bloomberg LP from nothing to financial capitalism’s essential information service weren’t worth a cent. His failure took us back to a world where billionaires could not command nations and would be made to look like fools if they tried.

“A billionaire who calls women ‘fat broads’ and ‘horse-faced lesbians’,” said Elizabeth Warren as she began her pummelling. “And no, I’m not talking about Donald Trump. I’m talking about Mayor Bloomberg.”

He didn’t know what to say. A practised democratic politician would have had answers ready. When questioned about his behaviour towards women, he would have apologised and promised it would never happen again. When Warren spat “billionaire” at him, he would have said that at least he made his own money, unlike Trump, who inherited it from Daddy. Americans believe in the American Dream, he might have continued, and respect men and women who lived it. And, since you mentioned his money, he had poured it into progressive causes rather than wasting it on luxuries or funding the rightwing and far-right lobby groups beloved by many of his peers.

He didn’t, because at Bloomberg LP no one talks to him the way Warren did. Businesses, public and third-sector organisations may operate in free-market democracies, but most are neither free nor democratic. The boss is a dictator, and subordinates risk their futures if they speak their mind. When exposed to the robust realities of democratic life, bosses crumble. They can’t manage a world in which Shelley’s “sneer of cold command” does not bring frightened obedience but rather sneers in return.

No one talks to Bloomberg that way. Subordinates risk their future if they speak their mind

Or that’s how it used to be. The notion that democracies need professional politicians who know how to argue and compromise is no longer true and not just because Bloomberg was a successful mayor of New York and ought to have learned how to handle himself.

First Silvio Berlusconi, the 21st-century’s dark prophet, and then Donald Trump shattered liberal illusions. They were tycoons who knew that most people don’t hate “the bosses”. Given the structure of global capitalism, most are unlikely to ever meet their boss. Plutocrats can exploit the media to project themselves as a fantasy boss who can cut deals and “get things done”. Berlusconi actually controlled most of the Italian media. Trump was the first western politician to understand how a skilled propagandist could exploit the opportunities for debased self-promotion offered by Twitter and reality television. And I wouldn’t write off Bloomberg and his bottomless advertising budget just yet.

Political insiders may realise there is all the difference in the world between running a business and running a government. Most voters don’t yearn for decisiveness. When television viewers were asked, in 1997, who should replace the Queen if Britain became a republic, their first choice was Princess Anne (not much of a replacement) and second was Richard Branson.

Trump, Berlusconi, the British Brexit right and European far right understand too that it is far from clear to working- and lower-middle class voters that the boss is the most oppressive figure in their lives. Lawyers, social workers, HR departments, politically correct “elite” voices lecturing them on what they can say and think – these are just as fitting targets for class hatred.

Only one liberal certainty has survived and it’s more of a hope than a certainty: Trump and frauds like him will be found out. If the 2020 US presidential election does nothing else, it will test that hope to destruction. The US is, by any reasonable measure, a plutocracy. Trump ran against it to become president and worked for it once in the White House. He promised tax cuts to ordinary Americans and ended up directing a $2tn giveaway to the wealthy. He targeted social security and Medicare, after promising not to. He won power with the cry of “Wall Street has caused tremendous problems for us. We’re going to tax Wall Street” and then filled his administration with Wall Street bankers and dismantled restrictions on high finance.

Do you remember the “Never Trump” movement of respectable conservatives who vowed to defend the US constitution against a swaggering slob? Aside from Mitt Romney and a couple of journalists, it barely exists now because Trump has given the Republican elite everything it wanted.

The American right is exceptional. The first concern of Marine Le Pen in France, Viktor Orbán in Hungary, the AfD in Germany and, although I accept to a lesser degree, the Brexit movement, is race and immigration. The Republican elite’s first concern is making sure the rich stay rich and get richer. To keep power, it has to stoke racial and cultural outrage among its voters, whose lives are not improving, and bind conservatism to a mentally unstable sociopath. Rich Republicans have become “plutocrats with pitchforks”, in the phrase of academics Jacob Hacker and Paul Pierson. They survive by stoking a dangerous frenzy that would have scared the wits out of 20th-century conservatives.

You’d think the Democrats could find someone with the political ability to split their combustible coalition. As things stand, Bloomberg does not seem up to it. As he is 78, is this such a surprise? Bernie Sanders, the hero of the left, is also 78 and has already suffered a heart attack. You wonder how the poor old thing would make it through the presidency.

Meanwhile, Joe Biden, yesterday’s rightwing hope, is just behind them at 77. The Democrats look closer to a rest home than a political party. Pete Buttigieg is too inexperienced and probably too gay for Christian America. I like Elizabeth Warren, but the feeling is not widely shared. Whatever your preference, here is a question that shows how the world has changed: are you sure any one of these professional Democratic politicians can monster Trump in free debate?

Or will he thrash them?

• Nick Cohen is an Observer columnist