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The rich are different from you and me: They have immensely more power. But when they try to exercise that power they can trap themselves — supporting politicians who will, if they can, create a society the rich themselves wouldn’t want to live in.
This, I’d argue, is the common theme running through four major stories that have been playing out over the past few months. They are: the relationship between Justice Clarence Thomas and the billionaire Harlan Crow; the rise and seeming decline of Ron DeSantis’s presidential campaign; the trials (literally) of Fox News; and the Muskopalypse at Twitter.
First, some notes on the role of vast wealth in a democracy.
People on the right often insist that expressing any concern about highly concentrated wealth is “un-American.” The truth, however, is that worrying about the dangers great wealth poses for democracy is very much part of the American tradition. And our nation basically invented progressive taxation, which was traditionally seen not just as a source of revenue but also as a way to limit excessive wealth.
In fact, if you read what prominent figures said during the Progressive Era, many expressed views that would be hysterically denounced as class warfare today. Theodore Roosevelt warned against “a small class of enormously wealthy and economically powerful men, whose chief object is to hold and increase their power.” Woodrow Wilson declared, “If there are men in this country big enough to own the government of the United States, they are going to own it.”
How does great wealth translate into great power? Campaign finance is dominated by a tiny number of extremely rich donors. But there are several other channels of influence.
Until recently I would have said that outright corruption — direct purchase of favors from policymakers — was rare. ProPublica’s revelation that Justice Thomas enjoyed many lavish, undisclosed vacations at Crow’s expense suggests that I may have been insufficiently cynical.
Beyond that, there’s the revolving door: Former politicians and officials who supported the interests of the wealthy find comfortable sinecures at billionaire-supported lobbying firms, think tanks and media organizations. These organizations also help shape what military analysts call the “information space,” defining public discourse in ways that favor the interests of the superrich.
Despite all that, however, there’s only so much you can achieve in America, imperfect and gerrymandered as our democracy may be, unless you can win over large numbers of voters who don’t support a pro-billionaire economic agenda.
It’s a simplification, but I think fundamentally true, to say that the U.S. right has won many elections, despite an inherently unpopular economic agenda, by appealing to intolerance — racism, homophobia and these days anti-“wokeness.” Yet there’s a risk in that strategy: Plutocrats who imagine that the forces of intolerance are working for them can wake up and discover that it’s the other way around.
Which brings us to the other stories I mentioned.
For a while DeSantis seemed to be surging in the race for the 2024 Republican presidential nomination. Much of his apparent rise reflected support from big G.O.P. donors, who saw him as a saner alternative to Donald Trump — someone who would serve their financial interests while attracting working-class support with his social conservatism and willingness to play footsie with conspiracy theories.
But some of those donors are now bailing, because it looks increasingly as if DeSantis’s intolerance and conspiracy theorizing weren’t a political show — they’re who he really is. And the big money was looking for a charlatan, not a genuine fanatic.
Among the forces pushing a DeSantis candidacy has been Rupert Murdoch’s Fox News. Fox was essentially founded to carry out the right-wing strategy of pushing plutocratic policy while winning over working-class whites with intolerance and conspiracy theories. But emails and texts uncovered by the defamation suit by Dominion Voting Systems show that Fox has become a prisoner of the audience it created. It found itself endorsing claims about a stolen election, even though its own people knew they were false, because it feared losing market share among viewers who wanted to believe the Big Lie.
And does anyone doubt that if the Republican primary goes the way it seems to be heading, Fox will soon be back in Trump’s corner?
Rupert Murdoch’s organization, then, has effectively been taken hostage by the very forces he helped conjure up.
But Elon Musk’s story is, if anything, even sadder. As Kara Swisher recently noted for Time magazine, he’s become “the world’s richest online troll.” The crazy he helped foment hasn’t taken over his organization — it has taken over his mind.
I still believe that the concentration of wealth at the top is undermining democracy. But it isn’t a simple story of plutocratic rule. It is, instead, a story in which the attempts of the superrich to get what they want have unleashed forces that may destroy America as we know it. And it’s terrifying.