Trump and the Billionaire Class

By Ivan Light

We have 620 billionaires in this country – they have billions to spend to gain political influence and to spend on their own political campaigns for President.

During his campaign, Bernard Sanders often referred to “the growth of the billionaire class”. Sanders meant most obviously that the United States is producing more billionaires now than it previously. Sanders did not connect this trend to the sitting president, but in point of fact Donald Trump is a member of the billionaire class and his personal characteristics are remarkably typical of it. In 2016, the United States had 620 billionaires and first place in the world’s billionaire census. The United States housed 24 percent of the world’s billionaires but only five percent of the world’s population. Of the world’s top cities for billionaires, New York City was number one with 102 billionaire residents. Trump resided in New York City. Ninety percent of the world’s billionaires are male as is Trump. Average age of the world’s billionaires was 64 in 2016. Trump was 70. In descending order of college affiliations, the world’s billionaires attended Harvard, Stanford, and the University of Pennsylvania where they studied business or economics. Trump attended the University of Pennsylvania where he studied business. Of the richest 400 billionaires in the United States, one-third own fortunes derived from companies founded by prior generations. Donald Trump derived his wealth from a company founded by his grandfather. Billionaires typically identify golf as their favorite sport.

The growth of the billionaire class expanded and increased the political influence of billionaires in two ways. First, it increased the surplus money that “the billionaire class” can expend for political action, whether as donors to the Republican Party like Richard Uihlein, Sheldon Adelson, Robert and Rebekah Mercer, Wilbur Ross, Paul Singer, John Joseph Ricketts, Peter Thiel, Rupert Murdoch, Charles G. Koch, David H. Koch, or as donors to the Democratic Party like George Soros, Rachel Mellon, and Tom Steyer, or as independents, like Howard Schultz, Kenneth C. Griffin and Tim Draper.

Second, as their number increased, more billionaires sought political office for themselves, not just political influence through their money. For the first time in history, three rich entrepreneurs (Bloomberg, Steyer, Yang) actively sought the Democratic nomination in 2020. Facebook billionaire, Mark Zuckerberg had earlier expressed interest in the Democratic nomination for president as did billionaire Jamie Dimon, billionaire Oprah Winfrey, and billionaire Robert Iger. Billionaire Mark Cuban has expressed interest in running for president on the GOP ticket.

Since Ronald Reagan, an entertainer, all Republican presidents have been super-rich entrepreneurs born to wealth. Son of a wealthy business family, George H. W. Bush (1924-2018) started the Bush-Overbey Oil Development company in 1951 and then co-founded the Zapata Petroleum Corporation. In 1977, his son, George W. Bush established Arbusto Energy, an oil exploration company in his father’s industry. He later changed the name to Bush Exploration. Bush Exploration merged with the larger Spectrum7 in 1984, and George W. Bush became chairman of the Board. In April 1989, George W. Bush purchased a controlling interest in a sports team just as Trump later did. Enjoying celebrity status as the son of a president, entrepreneur George W. Bush was elected president in 2000 and 2004.

Several losing candidates for U.S. president were also billionaire entrepreneurs. In 1992, billionaire Ross Perot ran for president as an independent candidate and then ran as a third party candidate in 1996. In 2010, the Republican Party nominated entrepreneur Mitt Romney. Romney had founded Bain Capital, a vulture fund that acquired and cannibalized existing businesses. For all these reasons, it is fair to observe that the Republican Party was primed to nominate a billionaire entrepreneur in 2016.

One hundred million Americans are poor, but none ran for president. Yet, of 620 billionaires in the United States, three (Bloomberg, Trump, Steyer) ran for president in 2020. The increased number of billionaires in America created more billionaires seeking a presidential nomination and, in that sense, Trump was part of a national trend, not a mistake. Even if Trump is defeated in November, 2020, the trend will persist. Trump might lose but the billionaire class would remain. The unmediated political rule of the rich defines what Aristotle called a plutocracy. The increasing influence of billionaire politicians is a trend toward plutocracy.

That said, the situation of democracy now is serious but not dire. Of the 17 original candidates for the Republican nomination in 2016, only Trump was a billionaire entrepreneur. With the exception of Carly Fiorina, a multi-millionaire, the others were all professional politicians. The growth in size and influence of the billionaire class increased the odds that some billionaire would win the GOP nomination, but it did not guarantee it. Important as it is, money is not the only vector in American politics. Hillary Clinton’s committee spent 639 million dollars on her presidential campaign whereas the Trump committee expended only 302 million dollars, but Trump was elected, not Clinton. Billionaire money did not elect Donald Trump in 2016 because billionaires can have charisma too and Trump had charisma. Much richer than Trump, Bloomberg did not have charisma.