In 2014, New York City quietly agreed to pay an $18 million settlement to the hundreds of people who had been ripped from the streets and locked away for peacefully protesting the Republican National Convention. Fittingly, Michael Bloomberg was no longer in office to hand the money out. Apologies don’t come easy to oligarchs.
More than 1,800 people, including teenagers and many uninvolved bystanders, were caught up in the massive NYPD sweep outside the 2004 convention. They were detained, thirty or forty at a time, in dismal pens with oil-soaked floors and chemical fumes. Some were held more than two days before being brought before a judge, a violation of New York law. Released detainees were taken straight to hospital for treatment of rashes and asthma.
The debacle surrounding the Republican National Convention, absurdly situated in deep blue New York City, should never be lost to history, especially now. Bloomberg, the billionaire mayor of New York, was then a card-carrying member of the Republican Party, desperate to lure their convention to Manhattan. He endorsed the reelection campaign of George W. Bush, the architect of the worst foreign policy disaster of the last forty years, and brought to bear the weight of a militarized police force that would make any rabid neoconservative proud.
The 2004 crackdown was emblematic of a Bloomberg mayoralty that could very well resemble a Bloomberg presidency. Leftists have spent the last year decrying the surges of various candidates, like Joe Biden and Pete Buttigieg, but Bloomberg is an emissary of something far more sinister than smarmy, professional-managerial class centrism. Bloomberg is a genuine admirer of dictators, violent foreign interventions, mass surveillance, and sprawling police states. His ascent to the presidency would represent the apotheosis of a certain sophisticated, immovable global elite that disdains, above all, popular dissent.
Corruption in Reverse
These days, Bloomberg is campaigning as a conventional, center-left Democrat. He calls Donald Trump names. He says he will raise taxes on the wealthy. He wants a higher minimum wage. Like other Democrats, he sounds the alarm over climate change. Moreover, his money has the power to rewrite history.
Bloomberg’s Iraq War support alone should be disqualifying. “Don’t forget that the war started not very many blocks from here,” Bloomberg said in 2004, standing next to First Lady Laura Bush at a memorial for September 11 victims. A decade later, during the savage Israeli bombardment of Gaza, Bloomberg flew to Israel to show solidarity with Benjamin Netanyahu’s ruthlessness. He has a soft spot for authoritarian China, blocking journalists at his news company from reporting on the country’s oligarch class. He has repeatedly boosted the murderous Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia.
While Donald Trump plays a wealthy person on TV, Bloomberg is no pretender, with enough billions to finance a small nation-state of his own. He has a remote chance of buying the Democratic nomination for president. There might be enough Democrats, too Trump-addled to long for genuine democracy, who let him.
Bloomberg and Trump represent two different perversions of democracy. Trump is a corrupt, wannabe autocrat, flagrantly mixing his family business with the nation’s, a hollow, orange-stained vessel for the billionaire donors who shape our health care and tax policies. He rose to the presidency on a wave of wall-to-wall cable television coverage, his rallies carried live, the corporate networks ever thirstier for his carnival act.
Bloomberg, through the blunt force of his unprecedented wealth, has bought his way into contention. Since the fall, he has plowed more than $300 million into his own campaign, with no end in sight. Some Democrats, broken by Trump, welcome as a savior such a titanic figure now playing for their team. Others, especially those in elected office, are far more transactional: witness the wave of local officials and members of Congress now endorsing him, no doubt hoping for the largesse of a campaign check or Bloomberg-funded Super PAC in due time.
His potential capture of the 2020 Democratic establishment mirrors his successful strategy in New York, where his unlimited reservoir of wealth bought deference from Democratic elected officials, labor unions, and various local power brokers. Spending as much as $100 million to win a mayoral race, he was able to put a large number of the consulting class on his payroll and effectively rent political parties. His philanthropic giving cowed the city’s nonprofit sector: as he violated the will of voters to change city law to seek a third term, he pressed the community, arts, and neighborhood groups who relied on his personal giving to back his efforts. They largely did.
It was corruption in reverse, of a kind the media has always had a hard time understanding. Bloomberg was not bought. He simply bought others. And those who weren’t directly bought feared the wrath of a man who could single-handedly wreck any charity or cultural institution.
The best way to understand Bloomberg is to study his twelve years leading America’s largest city. Let’s get the obvious out of the way: there were things to like about Bloomberg’s New York, particularly if you were white and carried a degree of wealth. He was, to his credit, an early supporter of same-sex marriage. He cared about protecting the environment. It was a good thing when smoking was banned from restaurants and bars. Bloomberg stuck up for pedestrians and cyclists. The 311 system simplified the process of lodging complaints.
All of this is easily negated by the pain and terror he wrought. If you were a Muslim in Bloomberg’s New York, the NYPD was deployed to spy, without cause, on your mosque. Bloomberg’s police infiltrated Muslim student groups and put informants in mosques. The blanket surveillance, the NYPD would later admit, didn’t produce any tangible leads. Three lawsuits were eventually settled after Bloomberg left office.
Around the time Bloomberg announced his presidential campaign, he cynically ventured to a church in a black Brooklyn neighborhood to apologize for his police department’s maniacal abuse of stop-and-frisk tactics. Under Bloomberg, police stops — which overwhelmingly targeted black and Latino men — increased from 97,296 in 2002 to a peak of 685,724 in 2011. The stops, for these young men, were traumatizing, as heavily armed police officers stalked and then aggressively searched their bodies for no justifiable cause. In 2013, a federal judge ruled the practice unconstitutional.
Rather than accept responsibility, Bloomberg fought back, appealing the ruling. “There is just no question that stop-and-frisk has saved countless lives,” Bloomberg thundered in 2013. “I worry for my kids and I worry for your kids.”
Bloomberg was unrepentant. Police power could do no wrong. In 2011, armed police stormed Zuccotti Park in the middle of the night to forcefully break up Occupy Wall Street, a movement that kicked off a public reckoning with America’s surging income inequality. The protest ultimately offended his sensibilities. “I don’t appreciate the bashing of all the hard-working people who live and work here and pay the taxes that support our city,” Bloomberg said at the time.
Bloomberg’s total lack of interest in staunching his own city’s spiraling inequality fueled homelessness and displacement. Rezonings in formerly working-class neighborhoods spurred luxury development and increasingly unsustainable rent hikes. His lavish donations to Republicans in the State Senate ensured New York’s laws protecting tenants would remain in a weakened state as long as he remained in office. Public housing further crumbled under his watch. And in 2011, Bloomberg killed a housing subsidy program for homeless families, directly triggering the homelessness crisis New York is still grappling with today.
With a straight face, Bloomberg now supports raising the federal minimum wage to $15. Yet, as mayor, Bloomberg repeatedly decried wage hikes as anti-business. In fact, as recently as 2015 he said he was “not in favor, have never been in favor, of raising the minimum wage.”
There are some darlings he will not kill. Though the Democratic Party has moved away from its admiration for union-busting charter schools, Bloomberg remains an ardent supporter. He isn’t about to embrace single-payer health care. He does, at least, believe in science and he would, inarguably, represent an improvement over Donald Trump, but that is not supposed to be the bare standard on which the next president is judged.
Swapping kakistocracy for oligarchy will not undo the damage of the Trump presidency. It will merely calcify the rot.