Bloomberg, Trump, and oligarchy

Plus: The case against reality’s reality; the cases for Warren, Sanders, Biden, and Buttigieg; populism’s persistent energy.

Welcome to another issue of NZN! This week I (1) look at the source of Michael Bloomberg’s recent surge in the presidential race, ask whether it’s a sign of approaching oligarchy, and compare Bloomberg’s oligarchic potential to Trump’s; (2) share a conversation I had with cognitive scientist Donald Hoffman, who says reality isn’t even remotely like what it appears to be; (3) share links to readings on such things as: the Trump administration’s just-revealed deception about its reasons for killing Qassim Suleimani; the Justice Department’s legitimacy crisis; why populism resists civilizing; the case for each of four Democratic presidential frontrunners; the case that Bernie Sanders is being propelled toward the nomination by the same horserace dynamics that propelled Trump in 2016; and your name as seen by someone with synesthesia.

Note: This month the newsletter passed the 15,000 subscribers mark! But are we resting on our laurels? No! In pursuit of yet another milestone, we’re encouraging you—actually, we’re exhorting you—to follow us on Twitter and thus push our Twitter following past the 1,000 mark, to which it is tantalizingly close. Of course, that assumes that you’re not already a Twitter follower. If you are already following us, we exhort you to retweet us often—starting, perhaps, with this tweet.

Mike Bloomberg and the oligarchy question

This was the week that Mike Bloomberg finally got some respect. After which he got massive disrespect.

First the respect: 

Bloomberg had always been dismissed as a long-shot for the Democratic presidential nomination. He did, after all, have somewhat eccentric credentials for that honor—such as having delivered a speech at the 2004 Republican convention endorsing George W. Bush. But when “frontrunner” Joe Biden finished the Iowa caucuses at the rear of the pack, moderate Democrats started looking for a new Biden, and by the end of this week the betting was on Bloomberg.

I mean that literally. In the betting markets, Bloomberg’s chances of getting the nomination rose from 18 percent on the eve of Iowa to 35 percent by the end of this week. That put him way ahead of the nearest moderate—Buttigieg at 12 percent—and not far behind the market favorite, Bernie Sanders at 39.

And if you’re not the kind to put much faith in betting markets: Bloomberg’s national polling numbers have risen from 2 percent three months ago to 8 percent two weeks ago to 14 percent this week—all without his appearing in a single debate. Apparently spending $350 million on ads (9 times what Sanders has spent) can move the needle. 

And there’s more where that came from. If Bloomberg could somehow find a way to spend another $350 million every week between now and the end of the primaries in June—which is basically impossible, but just suppose—he’d be reduced to the status of man with only $54 billion to his name. If Tom Steyer, the other billionaire in the Democratic race, spent money at that rate, he’d be penniless by the end of March.

Bloomberg’s new prominence led me to formulate a portentous tweet. Noting that the betting markets predict that the November election will pit either a socialist against a billionaire or a billionaire against a billionaire, I wrote: “If the former, one candidate will warn we're heading toward oligarchy. If the latter, the warning will be substantiated.”

But I now see that characterizing Bloomberg and Trump as two billionaires, and implying that they have comparable oligarchic potential, is misleading. And not just because, for all we know, Trump is lying about being a billionaire. If you look at their formulas for getting to the White House, you realize that Bloomberg and Trump are different kinds of warning signs about the future of American democracy. Explaining what I mean will involve looking at the disrespect that was heaped on Bloomberg shortly after the respect crystallized.

Nothing brings a more painful stroll down memory lane than becoming one of the frontrunners in a presidential race. By midweek, various episodes that Bloomberg might like to forget had been retrieved from the dustbin of history, most notably: (1) a particularly colorful defense of the stop-and-frisk policy he pursued as New York mayor and disavowed recently in preparation for pursuing a piece of the black vote; and (2) his long-ago suggestion that maybe the 2008 financial crash could have been avoided if bankers hadn’t been forced to end redlining, the famously discriminatory practice of excluding whole neighborhoods from consideration for loans.

But no theme from Bloomberg’s political past was raised as persistently by his detractors as the oligarchy theme: Bloomberg’s use of money to gain and hold power. 

This goes well beyond massive ad buys, a point made powerfully in a  twitter thread written by a journalist who has covered Bloomberg. The thread, which got tens of thousands of retweets, noted the large sums of money Bloomberg steered toward various New York people and organizations whose endorsements helped him become mayor. And some of these gifts keep on giving. Prominent African-American Minister Calvin Butts, who had endorsed Bloomberg for mayor after a project associated with his church got a million Bloomberg dollars, surfaced this week to accept Bloomberg’s apology for the stop-and-frisk remarks. 

I didn’t really grasp the magnitude of Bloomberg’s influence-buying machine until I listened to The Intercept’s Lee Fang talking about it to Matt Taibbi and Katie Halper on their Useful Idiots podcast. Fang said that a good-sized chunk of Bloomberg’s philanthropic disbursements—which have averaged more than $1 billion per year for the last five years—go to mayors, state legislators, national politicians, and other influential people and groups who can in various ways help a presidential candidate. 

It’s hard to say how much money we’re talking about, because a lot of it isn’t in the form of publicly disclosed campaign donations. But the visible money alone has potentially massive consequences. Bloomberg dropped $100 million on electoral politics during the 2018 midterms. And every Democratic senator, representative, and governor will be one of the superdelegates who, in the event of a deadlocked 2020 convention, could decide who the nominee is.

To give you a sense for the diversity of ways Bloomberg can call in an IOU: 

This week somebody leaked the news that an anti-Sanders ad still in development would imply that on women’s issues Sanders is as bad as Trump. It turned out the ad was being produced by Women Vote, an appendage of Emily’s List, which has long defined its mission as “getting pro-choice Democratic women elected to office.” Why would a group like that try to harm the emphatically pro-choice Sanders? As of 2018, Bloomberg had given some $6 million to Emily’s List. Nobody’s proven that the ad was being prepared at the behest of the Bloomberg campaign, but nobody seems to have come up with a plausible alternative explanation of this strange development.  

And then there’s the money Bloomberg is using to buy vast quantities of the finest in campaign workers, and to ensure big, happy crowds at his rallies. (They’re catered—and that includes free wine!) Plus this innovation in presidential politics: Bloomberg is paying Instagram influencers to say nice things about him. 

All told, if Bloomberg becomes president, he will have shown that, in the modern age, an incredibly rich and reasonably capable politician can basically buy the presidency. It’s not easy, and it takes years of work, but it’s doable.

This grim lesson is different from the grim lesson taught by Donald Trump in 2016. Trump used some of his own money, but not tons, and his campaign expenditures didn’t dwarf those of his rivals. What was ominous about Trump’s victory was its illustration of what can happen in an age of balkanized media, precision-targeted social media ads, and increasingly impotent party elites. 

Namely: a sufficiently brazen and clever candidate with no real political experience, and little relevant experience of any kind, can crash the party and wind up in the White House. And in a country as polarized as ours, this candidate’s winning formula can include saying ugly things and doing outrageous things. Our technological and political environments have combined to not just permit but encourage the empowerment of dangerous demagogues.

On that score, at least, Bloomberg looks good compared to Trump. As president he wouldn’t be the dishonest rabble rouser, or the flagrant norm buster, that Trump is. 

On other scores, Bloomberg doesn’t look better than Trump so much as different. Consider the distinctive dimensions of oligarchy that the two men represent. 

Bloomberg has now spent many years putting money in the hands of influential people who can not only help him gain power but, should he be elected, help him hold onto it. These payments are legal, and I doubt there are explicit quid pro quos, and both of those facts stand in welcome contrast to the situation in various oligarchies abroad. Still, the basic dynamic of giving lots of money to influential people to get power and hold it is characteristic of various countries I’d rather America didn’t resemble. 

If Bloomberg’s basic model is influence buying, Trump’s is influence peddling. His administration is populated by numerous people who donated big money to his campaign. And, as for the big donors who didn’t want or didn’t get jobs: well, his doors are always open to them, and some of his appointees seem to meet with their specific approval.

Obviously, this isn’t a whole new model. Mediocre but rich ambassadors who double as campaign donors are by now a political cliché, even if Trump has had more of them, in more important positions, than American tradition demands. In various other ways, too, money has long influenced the executive branch. 

But Trump, in addition to opening all the traditional avenues for money, and in some cases broadening them, has opened a new one via his private businesses. There was a time when, if you were a Saudi prince who had people killed and dismembered via bonesaw, you couldn’t hope that the American president would mute his criticism of you just because you had channeled a lot of money to one of his hotels.  

Bloomberg’s model, like Trump’s, isn’t entirely new. No doubt the Clinton Foundation did some tactical disbursement in anticipation of Hillary Clinton’s run for the White House. But this couldn’t have had nearly the scale of Bloomberg’s operation.  

Strictly speaking, “oligarchy” doesn’t mean rule by the rich; that’s plutocracy. Oligarchy means rule by a relatively small number of powerful people, rich or not. The concern in America is that we’re moving toward a fusion of oligarchy and plutocracy—a supposed democracy that places massive influence in the hands of a relatively small number of rich people. Bloomberg and Trump, with their top-down and bottom-up cash flow models, illustrate two of the ways a small number of rich people can be empowered. 

Some Democrats say that, though they’re not big fans of Bloomberg, they support him because he’s got what it takes to beat Trump. I partly sympathize. I’m far from sure that Bloomberg is the most electable Democrat. (For one thing, his likely path to the nomination involves a bitter, brokered convention that will alienate some Democratic voters, especially if their candidate enters the convention with a plurality of delegates.) But if the choice we’re left with is Bloomberg versus Trump, Bloomberg’s got my vote.

Still, it’s worth pondering the deeper emanations of the fact that this is the choice we may face. Saying Bloomberg is better than Trump is saying that one threat to democracy—top-down oligarchy—is less alarming than another threat: bottom-up oligarchy that, in this case, is infused with the dangers posed by a norm-breaking, thuggish president who feeds on and fosters xenophobia, bigotry, and polarization. In a Bloomberg versus Trump election, we’re picking our poison and hoping that the one we pick isn’t fatal.

What’s especially worrisome is that the threats represented by both Bloomberg and Trump are structural. They are the product of things ranging from the ongoing accumulation of immense wealth by a small number of Americans, to the pernicious Citizens United Supreme Court ruling, to the aforementioned trends in media, technology, and party power—the trends that make it easier for a demagogue wholly unqualified for the presidency to grab a presidential nomination.  

And the fact that the trends driving these threats aren’t new, that we’ve been moving in this direction for some time, isn’t very consoling, given that the movement seems to be accelerating. I’m not an expert on how democracies die, but I’d guess the basic dynamic is like the one described by the character in Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises who was asked how he went bankrupt. He said, “Two ways. Gradually, then suddenly.” We may be getting close to suddenly territory.

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Through a glass very, very darkly

A number of spiritual and philosophical traditions hold that reality is very different from what it seems to be. Buddhism springs to mind, as does George Berkeley’s idealism. But I don’t think I’ve ever heard an argument in this vein that’s as distinctively disorienting as the one made by cognitive scientist Donald Hoffman in his recent book The Case Against Reality: Why Evolution Hid the Truth from Our Eyes. The Apostle Paul said that we see this world “through a glass, darkly,” but Hoffman would say that’s wildly optimistic. As he put it to me in a conversation on The Wright Show podcast (available as video on meaningoflife.tv): We have to let go of the idea “that there's any resemblance whatsoever between the nature of our perceptions—and even the language of our perceptions—and the nature of objective reality.” Below is Part I of that conversation (which we had several years before his book came out). Part II will appear in next week’s newsletter.  

ROBERT WRIGHT: What we're going to talk about today is kind of at the intersection of cognitive science and philosophy. We're going to talk about the mind-body problem, the question of what consciousness is, and a question that's raised by your particular theory of consciousness, which is, so far as I know, quite distinctive—unlike anything I've heard before. That question is whether what we think we see is really real, or how close to real it is. 

Your theory of consciousness, which has been getting attention among the people who think about these things, suggests that things are not as real as we think they are.

This bottle of water—

—it’s useful for me to think I see it, but it may not bear a very close correspondence to the underlying reality, right?

DONALD HOFFMAN: Correct. It's real as an experience, but it may not exist apart from my experience in that form. 

Your theory builds on the following fact about natural selection… that, strictly speaking, natural selection doesn't build a brain that sees the truth. I mean, that's not what the criterion of natural selection is. The criterion is: natural selection will preserve traits that are conducive to the proliferation of genes.

Yes.

And so it will build brains that have the kinds of perceptions and thoughts that are conducive to the proliferation of genes. And if those perceptions and thoughts are false but still are conducive to the proliferation of genes, then there will be false perceptions. I think that's actually uncontroversial in evolutionary biology. 

Absolutely.

And some mundane reflections of that are well-known. 

For example, you could imagine a species that grows up amid poisonous snakes. When you're walking through the brush and there's anything that makes the kind of noise a snake makes, it probably makes sense to get alarmed and even think you see a snake. Even if 9 times out of 10, there is no snake, that still is on balance a healthy policy. So that will lead to the actual illusion of snakes.

Yes.

You'll sometimes think you see a snake when it's just a lizard or something else. But natural selection favors that kind of perceptual bias because it helps you stay alive long enough to get your genes in the next generation.

Now, that's a mundane reflection of this. And so too are a lot of famous optical illusions. Those are also reflections of this in ways I don't think we need to get into.

But you're taking this fact about natural selection and making a much deeper claim about its implications for perception, right? … 

That's right. 

So, the standard view in the field is the one that you just described: that, of course, natural selection is, in the first instance, only about propagating the genes, propagating the species; and perceptions that do that are the ones that will survive. And I think nobody argues with that.

But the assumption in the field has been that the perceptual strategies that will actually be favored by that kind of natural selection are perceptual strategies that see reality as it is. Not exhaustively—very, very few people would claim that we see all of reality as it is—but that those aspects of the world that we do see, we do see accurately; and we see the ones that we need to survive and reproduce. 

And so the assumption has been therefore that veridical perceptions—perceptions that are accurate to the state of the world … — are the ones that are favored by natural selection. 

[You can read the rest of this dialogue at nonzero.org.]

In Rolling Stone, Matt Taibbi compares the Democratic presidential race to the 2016 Republican race and argues that the same dynamics that favored Trump make Bernie Sanders the likely nominee.

Remember when the Trump administration said it killed Iranian General Qassim Suleimani because he posed an “imminent threat” to the US—you know, the claim that might have rendered the assassination compatible with international law, the claim that the administration seemed puzzlingly unable to support with actual evidence? Well cancel that claim. As the New York Times notes, the administration’s report to Congress defending the Suleimani killing makes no mention of an imminent threat.

In the Guardian, Benjamin Moffit asks why populist movements, such as Trumpism, are so durable, notwithstanding the efforts of “anti-populists” to eliminate them—or, at least, civilize them. He offers various answers, including this one: There are parts of populism that make a lot of sense! For example: “the elite often deserve their unpopularity and disdain.”

In Vice, Shayla Love explores the implications of a strange fact: though people who lose their sight are more prone to schizophrenia than the general population, no one who was born blind is known to have developed schizophrenia

In Vox, four staffers—Matthew Yglesias, Ezra Klein, Laura McGann, Dylan Matthews—each take a front-running Democratic presidential candidate and make the case for them. Bernie Sanders “can unite Democrats and beat Trump,” Mayor Pete is  “more progressive than you think,” Elizabeth Warren “has the best shot at a transformative presidency,” and Joe Biden “is the only candidate with a real shot at getting things done.” And the case for Michael Bloomberg is “coming soon.” 

In the Dispatch, a new magazine founded by National Review and Weekly Standard alumni, legal scholar and former justice department official Jack Goldsmith weighs in on the crisis of legitimacy in the Justice Department—the crisis triggered when prosecutors resigned from the Roger Stone case after Attorney General William Barr revised their sentencing recommendations in the wake of Trump’s tweeted gripes about the recommendations. Goldsmith (who was writing before Barr publicly complained about Trump’s tweeting) is hard on both Barr and Trump, though he notes that Obama, too, once violated the norm against presidential comment on justice department matters.

Bernadette Sheridan has synesthesia—more specifically, she has grapheme-color synesthesia; she sees numbers and letters in color. In a piece in Elemental she explains what it’s like to have synesthesia, and on this site she lets you type in your name and see what it would look like to her.

This week on Bloggingheads.tv (and The Wright Show podcast) I interviewed Andrew Bacevich, the historian and former Army colonel who is now president of the anti-militarism and anti-Blob Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft. We talked about his new book, The Age of Illusions: How America Squandered Its Cold War Victory, which advances a grand unified theory that explains both America’s disastrous recent foreign policy and the ascendancy of Donald Trump as flowing from a kind of ideological and moral hubris on the part of America’s ruling elites.   

Incoming: Thanks to NZN readers Cary W. and Mark S. for sending challenging emails about last week’s piece on how to deal with a resurgent Trump. I’m mulling them over and will try to reply in a future NZN. I encourage other readers to send challenging, or even non-challenging, emails to us at nonzero.news@gmail.com

OK, that’s it! See you in a week. Meanwhile, if you feel an impulse to share our content on your preferred social media platform, observe the feeling mindfully and then follow it slavishly.  

Illustrations by Nikita Petrov.