What is Democracy Worth to Billionaires?

We’ve always wondered how much billionaires would be willing to pay for American democracy, and now we have the answer: $4.6 trillion.

Last Thursday, Donald Trump became the first former president to be convicted in a criminal trial after a Manhattan jury found him guilty of falsifying business records to conceal a hush-money payment to a porn star. It’s too early to tell what kind of impact this historic moment will have on November’s election, and recent polls are inconclusive about how voters will weigh Trump’s felon status as they cast their ballots. But judging by their recent checkbook activity, it’s clear that billionaires have found their man.

In his 2016 and 2020 presidential runs, Trump had substantial financial backing from billionaires across a wide variety of industries. But the January 6th attack on the Capitol seemed to be the straw that broke the camel’s back for many of them. Stephen Schwarzman – co-founder and CEO of the Blackstone Group and one of Trump’s biggest contributors in 2020 – went so far as to publicly call the January 6th riot an “insurrection” and “an affront to the democratic values we hold dear as Americans” and, two years later, vowed that he would not vote for Trump in the 2024 election.

In recent months though, many of those who expressed dismay at Trump’s role in the January 6th attack seem to be experiencing collective amnesia. That is to say, billionaires are again, slowly but surely, falling in line behind Trump. Nelson Peltz – the co-founder of Trian Partners who publicly called the January 6th assault a “disgrace” and subsequently retracted his support for Trump – has pulled a complete 180. In March, Peltz hosted a breakfast at his oceanfront Palm Beach, Florida mansion with Trump and other billionaires, including Elon Musk, Steve Wynn, and Isaac Perlmutter. In April, Musk, with whom Trump regularly now speaks, and investor David Sacks hosted a dinner for Trump with a guest list that included Peter Thiel, Rupert Murdoch, and Steven Mnuchin, his former Treasury Secretary. Stephen Schwarzman is back, along with Miriam Adelson. And while some billionaires like Jamie Dimon, Bill Ackman, and Ken Griffin have yet to contribute to or endorse Trump, they have offered supporting words, which makes a difference in today’s billionaire-obsessed political climate.

So why the change of heart, you may ask? Unfortunately, it’s actually pretty simple. These billionaires want Trump to extend the expiring provisions of his 2017 tax bill so they can reap $4.6 trillion in savings over the next decade.

Billionaires have given a variety of hollow excuses for falling back in line to support Trump. Some say inflation – nevermind the fact that Biden has successfully overseen a large reduction in inflation, while Trump has proposed several inflationary policies like devaluing the dollar and raising import tariffs. Some say they’ve kissed the ring because the economy grew under Trump, conveniently forgetting that 20 million Americans lost their jobs on Trump’s watch and GDP growth has been higher under Biden. Some say immigration, some say foreign policy, and some say the rise of antisemitism. The list of excuses is long, but in the end, none of them hold water.

Make no mistake about it: the common denominator among Trump’s billionaire friends is that they want more tax cuts. And Trump knows it. Why else would he test the waters of campaign finance legality by promising donors tax cuts if elected and, mere seconds later, asking for big-dollar donations? (For what it’s worth, Trump did the same with top oil executives when he asked them for $1 billion, which, in his words, would be a “deal” because of the environmental taxes and regulations that he would slash as president.)

We have talked endlessly about the expiring 2017 Trump tax provisions and the damage that extending them would do. As we mentioned a few weeks back, if the provisions are extended after 2025, they will give another windfall to the wealthy: in 2026, the top 1% of households would receive an average $48,000 cut while households in the bottom 60% would receive an average $500 break. Biden has promised to keep the tax cuts that specifically benefit working people – like the increased standard deduction and Child Tax Credit – but to let everything else expire as scheduled. Trump, on the other hand, wants to keep all of the 2017 provisions on the books and deliver on his promise to his wealthy donor friends.

Billionaires put on a song and dance about having a conscience a few years back in the aftermath of January 6th, but now the curtains have officially fallen on their act, and we see them for who they really are. They are willing to spend millions to put a convicted felon – yes, we can say that now – in office who has promised to be a dictator on “day one” and create a “unified Reich” all with the singular aim of minimizing or outright avoiding their civic duty to pay taxes. And then, of course, they will use those savings to continue manipulating and subverting our democratic system.

One remarkable fact about the phenomenon of ultra-wealthy elites influencing elections is that politicians are so willing to play along with billionaires, and do so openly and without consequence. Donald Trump himself hit the nail on the head when he explained the dangers of money in politics during his first run for president back in 2016. At a debate in the lead-up to his first election, Trump described his personal experience donating to politicians: “I will tell you that our system is broken. I gave to many people before this…When they call, I give. And you know what, when I need something from them two years later, three years later, I call them. They are there for me. That’s a broken system.”

Trump was right. The system is broken. It’s just a shame that American voters didn’t understand that Trump himself was perpetuating the problem. Judging by his brazen requests for massive contributions at recent fundraisers, it seems as though “draining the swamp” is no longer a priority for Trump since it’s working on his behalf.

To be clear, it is a problem for billionaires to be rubber-stamping candidates for office no matter who those candidates are. Recent news has revealed that Biden received a whopping $64 million sum from an anonymous donor back in 2020 that helped propel him to the White House. Regardless of where Biden stands on our core issues, it’s a huge problem that a handful of politically active rich people – anonymous or not – can effectively handpick who gets to run for office and who wins elections in America. That’s not a democracy, but it sure fits the bill for how an oligarchy functions.

For these reasons, we urgently need to raise taxes on the ultra-wealthy and put a check on large, democracy-destabilizing fortunes. We also need to reform our campaign finance system so that there are fewer opportunities for moneyed interests to unduly influence our elected officials and institutions.

Democracy cannot be offered up as a sacrifice to enable $4.6 trillion in billionaire tax cuts. It is an outrage – and a tragedy – that American oligarchs would be so eager to empower an extremist demagogue so they can avoid their patriotic duty. Rest assured though, the Patriotic Millionaires will continue to work every day to hold the line against the rising power of the billionaire class, including the one with the “convicted felon” label attached to his name.

Related Posts