Imagine America in 2023. The President of the United States has racked up major legislative wins, with scant media opposition. Online, he and his platform are tremendously popular, and people who disagree avoid openly questioning the administration. All potential rivals to his re-election quietly bow out of the race.
Now, imagine this dystopia under our present Constitution with all its attendant freedoms. Couldn’t happen? It could, if the president of the United States had enough money.
Now, the $61 billion of presidential candidate Mike Bloomberg (probably) isn’t enough for him to consolidate power that thoroughly. But he can try, and he’s already showing he’s willing to.
The Bloomberg campaign continues to collect endorsements, including several after his disastrous debating debut. He has shown a remarkable ability to gain support, including in unexpected quarters like the African American and Hispanic leadership class.
Some of his supporters surely just like his policies and supposed prowess against Trump, of course. But his largesse hasn’t hurt, either. Endorsements from lawmakers like Democratic Georgia Rep. Lucy McBath, Democratic New Jersey Rep. Mikie Sherrill and Rhode Island Gov. Gina Raimondo (a rumored potential running mate) all came after serious support from Bloomberg-backed groups, sometimes in the millions of dollars.
Tom Steyer has suffered criticism in the South Carolina primary for shady spending on public officials and their relatives, but Bloomberg appears to be going much further. The Bloomberg-supporting former mayors of Miami and Philadelphia are both on his payroll, for example.
Who cares? Well, recall the fight over Barack Obama’s stalled Supreme Court nominee Merrick Garland.
What if Obama had billions not only to help assure the reelections of the legislators who voted to confirm, but also to woo them in other ways — like privately funding their pet projects and promising lucrative jobs after their retirement? Garland might already be on the Court.
And what about Woodrow Wilson’s colossal failure to pass the Treaty of Versailles? Could a billion 1919 dollars have done the trick?
Beyond pressuring legislators directly, a multi-billionaire can buy wall-to-wall TV ads pushing support for his agenda, as Bloomberg is already doing.
Then there’s direct media control. He has promised to divest from Bloomberg News upon his election, but if he was concerned about that gross appearance of impropriety, why is his media company even covering the presidential race?
President Bloomberg could even acquire any media outlet that criticizes him. Sound ridiculous?
It’s happened before. The Las Vegas Review-Journal had been a fly in Republican mega-billionaire Sheldon Adelson’s ointment for years, and the paper had an outsized role in Sin City opinion-making. So in 2015, Adelson bought it (at first anonymously) for $140 million, way over the going rate (but chump change for Bloomberg). When a major news figure owns the major news outlet covering him, there’s a chilling effect both within the newsroom and the community at large.
Or what if Bloomberg finds out an investigative reporter has uncovered the next Watergate? She could suddenly be the director of communications for a Bloomberg charity at an undisclosed salary.
And how would we know? Bloomberg has already demonstrated an affinity for non-disclosure agreements.
The quid pro quos that have grown out of Bloomberg’s spending are well-documented. In an expose February 15, The New York Times listed many occasions in which important voices in the party — from the abortion-rights group Emily’s List to the Center for American Progress — censored potential criticism of the ex-mayor to avoid losing his support.
Bloomberg is liberally hiring “social media influencers” for grotesque fees ($2,500 a month seems to be the going rate) to tell friends and family to support Bloomberg — whether they really do or don’t. Sometimes this approach has been perverse. I’m a longtime subscriber to an E-mail list about a Torah portion podcast, but after the campaign hired co-host Abigail Pogrebin as director of “Jewish Outreach” the E-mails took on a pro-Bloomberg cast (“There’s one line on Mike Bloomberg’s website which I would argue describes Mike’s Torah”). When a presidential candidate starts to buy ads in religious conversations, watch out.
Plenty of poorly paid but influential opinion-makers in the United States would sign onto the agenda of a billionaire president, and once they are on his team, they’ll probably stay. Money is addictive, and if Bloomberg’s presidency veers in new directions, not everyone will be able to wean themselves from his teat.
“And the Money Kept Rolling In (and Out)” is a lively song in the Andrew Lloyd Webber/Tim Rice musical Evita, in which the titular first lady of Argentina boosts her popularity by making grants: “Would you like to try a college education? Own your landlord’s house, take the family on vacation?”
For a billion dollars, President Bloomberg could start a fund that gives $10,000 grants to 100,000 Americans who want to start a community group, pay off debts, or fulfill a fantasy. These quasi-governmental Bloomberg Grants would be awarded by Bloomberg loyalists, and most Americans would know of someone who got one. And nearly all Americans would want one.
Combined with fears of ever-more-invasive surveillance technology — founded or unfounded — citizens of Bloomberg’s America could start to “behave” in ways consistent with the administration’s goals, and reminiscent of unfree countries.
But despots try to hold on to power forever, and American presidents have term limits, right? Well, so do New York mayors, but Bloomberg finagled the City Council to let him run for (and win) a third term.
Of course, upon his election, President Bloomberg may abandon the manipulative ways he’s used his money during the campaign, and the country would be as free as ever.
Don’t count on it.