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The Year the Rich Didn’t Save Us

It didn’t work with Donald Trump, but it’s not gonna work with Steve Kerr, Gregg Popovich, or Mark Zuckerberg, either

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In June, Lakers coach Luke Walton attended a California volleyball tournament wearing a shirt that bore the slogan “Popovich Kerr 2020.” The shirt made a few headlines online but didn’t generate huge waves in the NBA world because it seems like everyone wants Gregg Popovich and Steve Kerr to run as a presidential ticket in 2020—or has at least joked about wanting it.

It’s an understandable impulse. Popovich and Kerr are immensely successful basketball coaches who are beloved by fans, media, and players alike. And they are notably iconoclastic leadership figures in a sports world where players are rediscovering their power as activists while management resists, either out of a fear of alienating consumers or because the coaches, GMs, and owners who call the shots lean conservative.

But Popovich is on a yearlong campaign of impromptu stump speeches in opposition to the intolerance and cruelty of Donald Trump’s administration, while Kerr sparked a direct confrontation with the president when his team expressed ambivalence over attending the traditional celebratory trip to the White House. (Trump then rescinded Golden State’s invitation.) They don’t talk like most coaches because they haven’t lived the average coaches’ lives: Kerr spent much of his childhood in the Middle East. Popovich, a former Air Force officer with intelligence training, has made a career out of preaching teamwork and multiculturalism to his players. And while every coach talks about “culture,” it takes a special kind of motivator to get pro athletes to buy in for 20-plus years without coming off like a huckster. With that perspective, both men were primed to eschew the blinders of “stick to sports.”

The Popovich-Kerr presidential ticket is now part and parcel of basketball culture—ESPN’s Kevin Arnovitz wrote a feature in September that detailed not only Popovich’s antagonism toward Trump, but his suitability and willingness to become a political candidate in his own right. And Walton’s shirt isn’t a custom-made inside joke—it’s from a mock campaign website that’s been selling mock campaign merchandise for months, with the proceeds benefiting various civil rights organizations.

But jokes about the need for a celebrity to run for president stopped being a laughing matter when Trump became a serious candidate for the Republican presidential nomination in 2016. The Trump-Pence campaign succeeded thanks in part to the independence from traditional political power structures that Trump’s wealth and celebrity afforded him, and the opposition won’t get another shot at regaining national power for another 11 months, with two more years after that until the next chance to capture the White House. The Democrats will need every minute of that interim to craft a coherent, positive vision for the future, much less appoint a standard-bearer. Until then, voters, pundits, and operatives alike are left alone with their imaginations: Senators and governors are fan-cast alongside actors like Dwayne Johnson and tech billionaires like Mark Zuckerberg. With the opposition party still reeling from a contentious primary and a humiliating general election defeat, American liberals see a rich, famous dilettante in the White House and, if only in jest, are saying, “We ought to get us one of those.”

That outlook, even uttered half-jokingly for lack of a better idea, assumes that a celebrity candidate can ride in and offer a liberal rebuttal to the naked greed and antipathy that won at the polls in 2016. Rich and famous people can talk a good game on certain social issues, and many do, and should continue to. But the very celebrity that grants them an outsized platform also blinds them to the structural injustices that prevent hundreds of millions of Americans who don’t have the advantages of wealth, otherwise lined up and spent like pawns, from living better lives.

Mark Zuckerberg, who has hired political pollsters, says he is not running for president. He’s spent so much time ruminating on life in Midwestern battleground states he probably thinks he’s living in a Jonathan Franzen novel by now, but he still says he’s not running for president. He’s talked about not running for president more than anyone since General Sherman, which if nothing else shows there’s a danger he’ll run for president. At 33, Zuckerberg measures his wealth in the tens of billions, and his claim to fame is founding Facebook, a tool that’s become integral to modern life. Unlike most super-rich people, Zuckerberg made his billions not through inheritance or some inscrutable financial process of rubbing dollars together until they multiply, but by inventing something—something many people use and like.

Over the first 10 months of 2017, Zuckerberg went on a 30-state road trip with the goal of learning about the people who use Facebook and what their lives are like. It felt like something out of Harry Truman’s playbook and—though Zuckerberg denied it—looked like a prelude to a run at the White House in 2020.

But even a cursory look at the outcome of Zuckerberg’s trip reveals his potential shortcomings as a candidate. In October, Zuckerberg showcased Facebook’s virtual-reality capability by appearing as a cheery cartoon avatar on Puerto Rican streets flooded by Hurricane Maria, a visual that made Marie Antoinette look like Mother Teresa. Just after he’d finished apologizing for using his vast wealth and technological might to rubberneck in Puerto Rico rather than alleviate suffering, Zuckerberg said his most profound revelation from the tour was the depth and scale of the opioid crisis.

There’s also the bounty of vitriol and misinformation that chokes out legitimate political news on the internet—an epidemic in its own right, and one in which Facebook is complicit, from the white supremacists who organize in its pages to the hoaxes and race-baiting images that the now-universal Uncle Gary spends so much time consuming. Zuckerberg’s never been able to absolve Facebook of its role in spreading misinformation and hate, nor fix the problem, which is a troubling political lineage if he ever does decide to run for office.

Even so, highlighting the opioid crisis is fair enough, but while Zuckerberg mentioned the strain on police resources and the workforce, the influence of for-profit drug companies on health care went unremarked on, as did the cost of health care—a birthright in almost every other nation of comparable wealth to the United States.

But why would Zuckerberg make that connection? The self-made billionaire still comes from a background of immense privilege, growing up in an affluent New York suburb, receiving education at Phillips Exeter and Harvard, and living as a tech baron since he was old enough to drink. In other words, he’s never had to worry about finding a job or undergone the stress of living paycheck to paycheck or gone without health insurance—if he needs to go to the hospital, he can just buy one. He’s never had to fear losing everything in a natural disaster because Zuckerberg’s wealth is so great, nature itself lacks the strength to annihilate it.

Our experiences limit our capacity to imagine: Zuckerberg has never faced a practical problem technology cannot solve or his own money cannot bail him out of, and even if he could conceive that what works for him might not necessarily work for everyone, he lacks the perspective to understand the gravity of poverty or the fear of living in poverty, which underpins every issue in domestic politics. That Zuckerberg spent a year traveling and conducting interviews in an attempt to find that empathy—or at least look like he’s attempting to find it—is admirable. A political figure who hadn’t spent his entire life on the economic equivalent of Mars wouldn’t have had to.

Zuckerberg isn’t the only Facebook billionaire who’s tried to ride his wealth into other areas of public interest. In 2012, Zuckerberg’s Harvard roommate and Facebook cofounder, Chris Hughes, made headlines by sinking $20 million into purchasing the New Republic. Years later, editor Franklin Foer remembers Hughes as young, ambitious, and curious—and importantly for a venerable magazine in a digital age, flush with cash.

Journalism was then, and is now, at a moment of existential crisis—stories move more quickly than they did even a decade ago, online ads don’t generate as much revenue as print ads once did, and as costs rise, subscriptions fall as people can now get for free the news and analysis they once gladly paid for. If there were an easy way to monetize modern journalism, someone probably would’ve found it by now. As local publications slash their budgets or close altogether, clickbait finances serious reporting, major newspapers close bureaus, and reporters and editors lose their jobs by the tens of thousands, journalism can feel like a dying industry that can only be saved by divine intervention.

In that environment, a benefactor like Hughes seemed like one solution. The New Republic could afford to maintain its former prestige while pursuing a new generation of journalistic innovation with the backing of a progressive multimillionaire. The experiment lasted two years. Under Hughes, the magazine failed to turn a profit and he eventually ousted Foer after handing the CEO position to Silicon Valley executive Guy Vidra, who so alienated the staff that two-thirds of the masthead resigned on the same day, forcing the magazine to miss an issue for the first time in its history. Hughes sold the New Republic a little more than a year later.

People like Hughes achieved their success by innovating, filling needs, or exploiting weaknesses in society in a new way. But Silicon Valley methods and philosophy rarely translate to broader societal problems, and when tech impresarios trip over Maslow’s hammer, they either get frustrated and cut bait—or worse, double down and attempt to get their money back at all costs. This particular brand of investment failure had disastrous effects at a magazine—imagine what it would look like on a national scale. Even if the billionaires who want to run the country aren’t the same as the ones who want to run its media, they have similar interests.

Hughes is far from the only plutocrat to take a stab at saving journalism. Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, the world’s richest man, owns The Washington Post. In 2009, Joe Ricketts, founder of TD Ameritrade, founded DNAInfo, a local-news site that covered neighborhood issues in Chicago and New York. (In 2017, he bought Gothamist and its sister sites, which included LAist and DCist.) Ricketts is the father of Chicago Cubs chairman Tom Ricketts and former deputy secretary of commerce nominee Todd Ricketts, who is not the deputy secretary of commerce now because he’d failed to divest himself sufficiently from his family’s company. (Failing to pass the ethics test necessary to join the Trump cabinet is a mind-boggling accomplishment.)

By 2017, DNAInfo had established affiliates in a handful of other cities in which the outlet filled a vital civic role—local news is crucial, but rarely profitable. But on October 26, the DNAInfo and Gothamist editorial staffs voted to unionize, and on November 2, Ricketts shut both sites down and scrubbed their digital archives until public outrage led to their restoration the next day. Ricketts was a patron of a necessary public service until the instant it didn’t fit his interests, at which point he not only put 115 people out of work, he attempted to hamper their ability to find work in the future.

Journalism lets people who spend most of their days working and caring for children know what’s going on in the world. It is, among other things, how we find out if our elected officials and business leaders—the rich and powerful, in so many words—are abusing their power. The problem with handing the keys to essential journalism over to the rich and powerful is that, in the case of Ricketts and DNAInfo, the survival of that essential journalism becomes dependent on the approval of very people journalists are supposed to check. It gets even thornier when a man like Bezos is in charge: Not only do tech billionaires bring their particular experience to any job outside their own sphere of influence, but Bezos’s empire brings you books, television, music, household goods, and even food. And now, when it’s placing microphones inside your house, it controls the institution that’s supposed to check that empire’s abuses.

One reason billionaire saviors look so enticing is that the poor are viewed as an undesirable class in this country—dirty, poorly spoken, and ill-mannered—while the rich are urbane, intelligent, and stylish. But to chalk up the current wave of nationalism in American politics to class factors alone is a comforting liberal delusion—working-class voters across all races voted Democratic in the 2016 presidential election, while white voters of all classes voted Republican. A “populist” billionaire president of inherited wealth, who lost the working-class vote, who installed the richest cabinet in American history, and under whose watch Congress passed a tax cut that drew parallels to 1929, did not win the election because he got poor people to believe in trickle-down economics. He won because he stoked hatred toward black and Latino people, and Muslims. He won because people who hadn’t yet gotten over resenting the first black president in American history weren’t ready to elect a woman. Reducing those driving elements of Trump’s win to class anxiety alone allows polite white middle-class liberals to absolve themselves of guilt. Rather than acknowledging that racism and sexism are endemic to America, these liberals can comfort themselves by insisting bigotry is the domain of poor people and Southern yokels.

But denying that racism and classism are linked is even more naïve and ahistorical, as it goes against the defining political coalition of American history, a coalition that is not only bipartisan but predates both modern political parties—and the nation itself.

Social justice goals almost always have an identity-based element and a class-based element. Nobody understands this better than the people who have successfully pushed back on racial justice, reproductive rights, health care reform, the environmental movement, and innumerable other issues of public good over the past generation. Politics are about power, and conservative politics are about maintaining the current power structure, one that favors rich people and white people, two groups that—even when they haven’t overlapped completely—have come together throughout American history.

The most successful politics of the past 40 years have been the politics of denial: making sure other people don’t get stuff. It’s proved a powerful appeal not only to the rich, who want nothing more than to maintain their position in society and pay less in tax, but also to people who want to deny others the dignity and security that ought to be an American birthright, either out of hate, or out of fear of losing what little they themselves have. The first part of that coalition persists in power because the second is more numerous than we feel comfortable admitting, creating a bloc that cannot be defeated politically until it’s disunited.

Celebrities will never solve the identity-based issues of social justice not only because the tools they bring to politics from business, sports, or entertainment are ill-suited to other tasks, but because they have an interest in maintaining the current economic class structure that perpetuates inequality.

The inferred promise of electing a business-minded president—whether it’s Trump, Zuckerberg, Mark Cuban, Carly Fiorina, Bob Iger, or Ross Perot—is that he or she will “run the government like a business.” That means running the government to turn a profit—for whom it is never said. Besides, the government isn’t supposed to turn a profit. It’s supposed to provide for our collective welfare and security, and running it like a business is not only a bad technique, it’s a fundamental corruption of the system. That’s not a matter of economics, it’s a matter of right and wrong, and the more zeroes you have on your bank balance, the harder it becomes to tell the difference between “right” and “profitable.”

To look to the rich for salvation is to entrust the dismantlement of a persistently unjust system to those who benefit most from that injustice. The solution is to stop trusting people who lack that perspective and start giving it to people who are more responsive to the population as a whole. Nothing will change until we realize we have that choice.


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