The election of Donald Trump in 2016 sent a message that the world of American politics is still struggling to interpret, a world that can be divided into four factions and one exceptional supplement:
To the liberals, the Democrats loyal to Hillary Clinton who had looked forward to decades of electoral supremacy held up by the inevitable demographic growth of the Obama coalition, the message is still too catastrophic to process, a senseless betrayal by the fickle masses that defies all comprehension; repressed in the hope that another Obama will be found who can wake the Americans from their nightmare.
To the conservatives, the moderates in the Republican Party who balked at the demagogue that mocked them and everything they held sacred, the message is a strange gift whose utility required submission to the newly ascendant nationalists and acceptance, however insincere, that they had failed to realize the world-historical cunning of Donald J. Trump.
To the nationalists, the emergent faction of the Republican Party that backed Trump’s mad gambit to replace the fake reality of the liberals and conservatives with the neofascist reality TV death-drive spectacle of his own making, the message is a mandate from the people. A mandate to rule won through a cynical dissimulation of class struggle that channeled broad dissatisfaction with the hypocrisy of the ruling class neoliberal consensus against marginalized minority groups.
To the socialists, the rebel Democrats and interlopers from more radical margins who supported the long-shot insurgency of Bernie Sanders, the message, however concealed in the bitter defeat of that moment, is a vindication. It signals an opening for a radical politics of class struggle on a national scale, for a true patriotic solidarity with the multitude whom the liberal-conservative centrists could only tokenize and whom the nationalists saw only through the lens of their perverse jouissance.
And to the oligarchs, the class of people not unlike Trump himself, who’ve amassed more money than they know how to spend, the message is that the political system on which their profits depend is too precious to be entrusted to the usual liberal and conservative gatekeepers, that now is the time to call in the favors they’re owed from their philanthropy and patronage — that if someone as boorish as Donald Trump can take power, surely they too can have their names carved in the eternal marble of the state.
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Enter Michael Bloomberg, former Republican mayor of New York City, CEO and majority owner of Bloomberg LP, philanthropist and patron of the arts whose bottomless coffers influence the institutions that govern nearly all industries and aspects of human experience. Since its fashionably late start in November, Bloomberg’s campaign has already spent over half a billion of his own cash. What does the money buy him? An advertising blitz in the most expensive media markets, the endorsements of mayors and politicians (through indirect political or philanthropic contributions), the labor of mid-level political operatives (with pay rates for campaign staff that the other Democrats can’t compete with), and the “meme magic” of influencers from big name accounts like FuckJerry down to micro-influencers with as few as 1,000 followers.
This swaggering entry has given Bloomberg a mystique that excites a disappointed liberal-conservative bourgeoisie desperate for a dad-figure that can beat up that other dad. Trump made it big in New York City high society but Bloomberg made it bigger. Trump has a wide-ranging portfolio of investments but Bloomberg’s is far wider. Trump is not really a true Republican or Democrat but Bloomberg is even less of either. Trump is friends with powerful people but Bloomberg knows they make fun of him behind his back. Trump is rich but Bloomberg is richer.
Such is the libidinal promise of Bloomberg to the American voter. The two titans will battle each other in enormous chrome mecha suits, toppling skyscrapers while millions of powerless onlookers gawk idly or go about their business. And in the end, Bloomberg’s larger and more sleek Chinese-made machine will stand victorious over Trump’s gilded-steel wreck. And Trump, naked and pathetic, will wriggle out of the remains like a fat slug, ghostly pale under the light of day. And the people will point at him and laugh, cackling in their grotesque hyenalike New Yawk accents. And you, you virtuous citizen, you will be very satisfied.
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This erotic anticipation has helped Bloomberg shoot up in the polls and betting markets—to the dismay of the other liberals still in the race, who are competing among themselves to be the only alternative to the Sanders’ socialist program. Bloomberg, who has been running television ads that deceptively imply an endorsement from Obama, makes the stakes all the more dire, especially for Joe Biden’s flailing campaign.
Ironically, the racist cruelty of Trumpism — the ultimate repudiation of Obama’s politically-correct legacy — is barely concealed in Bloomberg. Bloomberg does not negate Trump with his virtue or “wokeness,” but rather by sublimating the obscene Trump-like excess into the tolerable obscenity of polite society. Trump is a “carnival barker.” Bloomberg is a “data nerd.” Trump blurts out his racism with the childlike satisfaction of a fart. Bloomberg enjoys the cruelty of the stop-and-frisk policy he implemented as mayor of New York with the mathematical sophistication of a data analyst typing numbers in Excel that add up the way they are supposed to. Will the Democrats content themselves with nominating a more competent, ruthless, and authoritarian Trump to beat Trump?
They might—because the 2020 election is not, as we are supposed to believe, a duel between Democrats and Republicans to depose Trump, but a fluid four-way brawl over class struggle.
Bloomberg is not running against Trump, but against Sanders.
What Bloomberg offers is a liberal-conservative coalition committed to defending the interests of the ruling class, which are not repressed or concealed by meritocratic liberal identity politics as under Obama, but embraced and legitimized by the paternalistic authority of an ostensibly omnipotent oligarch. This is why the claim by some of his opponents, that “Bloomberg is a Republican,” misses the mark—he is neither Republican nor Democrat, standing apart from the petty partisanship of both sides of the fractured center. The party lines are blurring. He is the oligarch, who the centrists call upon to save them from their inability to deal with the brutality of class struggle.
But Bloomberg’s weak performance in his debut Democratic debate on February 19 might throw a wrench in his plans to push out the other Democratic contenders by force. Money can’t buy charisma. For Bloomberg to make his big trick work in time for the Democratic National Convention would mean that the liberals must jettison the whole field of Obama’s presumptive heirs to make the primary a one-on-one battle of the oligarch faction against the socialists. It would require lock-step adherence to his program of bourgeois solidarity under the auspice of an oligarch strongman. While it might be possible to consolidate the network of operatives and superdelegates for a convention floor coup, this would risk an uprising. And doing so would also validate the socialists’ framing of the election as hinging on the class struggle, indirectly legitimizing Trump’s own tenuous populist mandate.
With the 2020 Democratic National Convention just five months away, the meaning of the message of 2016 still hangs in the balance. The Democratic Party faces a choice it can no longer delay: democracy or authoritarianism. Should the Democratic Party attempt to nominate a candidate other than the one that wins the most votes in the state primaries—a possibility entertained by all candidates on stage at the February 19 debate except Bernie Sanders—it would destroy the party’s legitimacy. And should that candidate be Michael Bloomberg, it would show that the party would sooner immolate itself and embrace an authoritarian thug essentially identical with Donald Trump than accept the demands of the people.
Should Bloomberg’s bet pay off, the 2020 general election would be reduced to two racist, sexist billionaires arguing over whose form of tyrannical obscenity is the more tolerable one. It isn’t clear that the answer is Bloomberg’s. And once the Democratic Party’s choice is made, there will be no going back. Instead of bringing a “return to normalcy,” Bloomberg’s success would set a precedent for future billionaire power-grabs, confirming that Trump’s 2016 takeover is not an anomaly but the new normal. And instead of dismantling the fascist excesses of Trump’s administration, it would likely “moderate” those excesses only to bring about even more ruthless police surveillance and control. In short, America’s new unmasked authoritarianism would simply become “bipartisan.” And it would be an authoritarianism that the media and political establishment will be far less willing to confront. Bloomberg offers no more than Trump, without so much as the pretense of democracy and popular sovereignty.
The “pragmatic” argument for Bloomberg is that the 2020 election is so urgent that nominating a socialist runs an unnecessary risk. But the real risk is that forcing Bloomberg through a contested convention alienates a generation of under-40 voters that overwhelmingly support Sanders. Not only would this lead to catastrophe in the general election, but it also sets the stage for the socialists to leave the Democrats and start a rival political party—if not turn away from electoral politics entirely. Indignant moderates may find that appealing, but what that would look like is electoral impotence punctuated by moments of radical insurrectionary violence. If this election really is about the future of American democracy, then the people cannot accept its undoing by a desperate establishment’s short-sighted collaboration with the exact oligarchic authoritarianism it claims to oppose.