President Donald Trump has been good for America’s billionaires. He slashed corporate taxes, cut the top income tax rate and raised the total exemption for the estate tax, directly benefiting several hundred billionaires and their heirs. He’s placed wealthy supporters in key positions of government like the Commerce Department, rolled back Obama-era financial regulations and privileged the interests of favored industries — like resource extraction and fossil fuel production — above all else.
There are billionaires who oppose Trump, of course. But for the most part they aren’t class traitors. They still want the government to work in their favor. They still want to keep their taxes low, just without the dysfunction — and gratuitous cruelty — of the current administration. And they want Democrats to choose a conventional nominee: a moderate standard-bearer who doesn’t want to make fundamental changes to the economy, from greatly increased taxes to greater worker control.
Plenty of Democratic voters agree. But just as many have rallied behind candidates who want a more equal, more democratic economy. Two of the three leading candidates — Sens. Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren — want new taxes on the wealthiest Americans and their assets. Sanders has the steeper tax but Warren is not far behind former Vice President Joe Biden in national polling and leads the field in both Iowa and New Hampshire. With Biden struggling to break away from the pack, it looks like Warren actually could be the nominee, and anti-Trump billionaires are worried.
That’s why one of them, Mike Bloomberg, has floated a plan to run for the Democratic nomination. And why others have gone public with their attacks on Warren.
Mark Cuban, a billionaire investor, said Warren — whose wealth tax calls for a 2% tax on households with more than $50 million in assets and a 6% tax on households with assets of more than $1 billion — is “selling shiny objects to divert attention from reality.”
Another billionaire investor, Leon Cooperman, called Warren’s wealth tax a “bankrupt concept,” said it could “lead to inappropriate actions in the economy that are counterproductive” and warned that Warren is “taking the country down a very wrong path.”
“What she’s peddling is bull. Total, complete bull,” Cooperman said last week on CNBC, “That comes from someone who believes in a progressive income tax structure, who believes the rich should pay more.”
A few days later, Cooperman announced his support for Bloomberg’s potential candidacy.
Bill Gates also thinks Warren’s wealth tax goes too far: “I’ve paid over $10 billion in taxes. I’ve paid more than anyone in taxes. If I had to have paid $20 billion, it’s fine. But when you say I should pay $100 billion, then I’m starting to do a little math about what I have left over.” He claimed that he was “just kidding,” but when asked if he would support Warren over Trump, he demurred. Instead, he said, he’d cast a ballot for whichever candidate had the “more professional approach.”
If there’s a prominent billionaire who hasn’t taken a public stance on Warren, it’s Jeff Bezos, the chief executive of Amazon. But he did urge Bloomberg to run for president earlier this year, perhaps a sign that he, too, is worried about the outcome of the Democratic primary.
All of this is understandable. As my New York Times colleague Patty Cohen notes, if Warren’s wealth tax had been in effect since 1982, Gates would have had $13.9 billion in 2018 instead of $97 billion, Bezos would have $48.8 billion instead of $160 billion, and Bloomberg would have had $12.3 billion instead of $51.8 billion. They would still be billionaires, but Warren’s tax would have taken a significant chunk out of their assets. And even if the wealth tax never became law, a Warren administration would still take a hard line on financial regulation, consumer protection and tax enforcement, key areas of interest for the super rich. It’s impossible to imagine a Warren White House in which billionaires would have the same access and favored status that they do with Trump.
Warren’s wealthy critics are right to be nervous. And they have a right to speak out against her. But Bloomberg’s potential entry into the race — and Tom Steyer’s ongoing presence — shows that they’re not just giving an opinion. They want assurance that the Democratic nominee won’t be too disruptive. They want a restoration of the pre-Trump status quo, not a revolution. They want a veto of sorts, a formal way to say that Democrats can only go so far with their plans and policies.
The only response worth making to this idea is to laugh. Despite voter suppression, unlimited political spending and the president’s attempt to solicit foreign interference on his behalf, this is still a democracy. The final say still rests with voters, with ordinary Americans who retain the power to shape our government. And if those voters decide to nominate Warren or Sanders instead of a traditional moderate — and if either of those candidates beats Trump, as is very possible — then the billionaires will have to learn to live with the people’s will.
Jamelle Bouie is an Op-Ed columnist for The New York Times.