Rich people love a party, especially one where they can donate non-taxable money to a friend’s charity, usually covering the price of drinks and the chance to hear some one-hit wonders play their first paid gig in 10 years. For many in this world of galas and step-and-repeats, charity work also translates to a different sort of power—social capital, and the ability to shape and influence national conversations.
Nowhere is this truer than in New York City, where a significant percentage of the wealth in the United States has slowly concentrated over the last 150 years. For most of his tenure as mayor, and long after, Michael Bloomberg sat at the top of New York’s charity-obsessed social hierarchy. Market Watch reports that in 2019 Bloomberg donated $3.3 billion, out of his $61 billion fortune, to charitable causes. He’s also shown up on the Philanthropy 50 list 15 times, largely through his work with Bloomberg Philanthropies, donating to causes like childhood tobacco use prevention, “economic development,” hospitals, and environmental activist groups like Oceana.
It follows then that most of the celebrities who have recently endorsed him have rubbed shoulders with Bloomberg in New York’s elite party scene. Ted Danson, for example, claimed in his endorsement of Bloomberg that he has “the strongest track record on climate change, and will do the most to fight it.” What Danson failed to mention, of course, is that Bloomberg donated $54 million dollars to the Vibrant Ocean Initiative in 2014 in partnership with Oceana, which Danson sat on the board of. In an editorial for the HuffPost, Danson wrote: “This is an unprecedented chance to transform the world’s oceans and to improve the lives of millions of people. We’d like to thank Michael Bloomberg for choosing to help Oceana save the oceans and feed the world. We can’t wait to get started.”
Law & Order’s Sam Waterston, who is also on Oceana’s board of directors, claimed that the former mayor transformed New York into “the city people wanted to live in.” While Waterston’s close involvement with a charity into which Bloomberg has poured tens of millions of dollars wasn’t mentioned, perhaps more galling is the claim that Bloomberg was a beloved New York City mayor, never mind his extremely violent stop-and-frisk policies that terrorized people of color, or allegations that he wielded his vast fortune to win the press and silence critics who dared to talk about sexism and misogyny at Bloomberg LP. (How could you, Jack McCoy?)
That two very wealthy actors involved with Bloomberg’s charity operations endorsed him for president isn’t shocking. It’s predictable, especially in the context of New York’s incredibly insular, often myopic pool of rich dilettantes. Ghislaine Maxwell herself once hosted a party for Oceana during both Danson and Waterston’s tenure on the board of directors. It’s illustrative of the very narrow frame through which those with access to vast fortunes engage the world around them. Namely, the rich stick with the rich.
Take Judy Sheindlin, better known Judge Judy. While campaigning for Bloomberg, the New York Times reported that the television presenter told rally-goers: “America probably still needs a little tweaking, it doesn’t need a revolution.” For those like Sheindlin, who have amassed near-$400 million fortune, it’s probably a comfort to see an oligarch like Bloomberg enter the presidential race, with a plan to both save the oceans and America’s elite. On The View, she echoed this sentiment, telling the show’s panelists: “To describe Mike Bloomberg as just another rich guy is one of the greatest injustices of this political campaign that we’re in.”
Like Sheindlin, who describes Bloomberg’s unmatched “government leadership,” others, like fashion designer Isaac Mizrahi and former Project Runway personality Tim Gunn describe a leader that, frankly, never existed. Gunn told People that “Bloomberg was a great mayor. We still miss him.” Maybe he was a great mayor for men like Gunn—famous, well connected, and sheltered. Bloomberg even deigned to appear on Project Runway when Gunn was still relevant enough to host it!
Mizrahi even went so far as to claim that Mike Bloomberg fought for LGBTQ+ people “every day” of his mayoral run. Considering a recently surfaced video of the candidate referring to trans people as “it,” and “a man in a dress,” I consider Mizhrahi’s vision of a past New York extremely unlikely.
Perhaps sensing the disconnect, Bloomberg’s campaign also connected with “the great voice of the American heartland,” singer John Mellencamp. In the campaign announcement, Bloomberg claimed that the “heartland” experience is what “binds” America together. I guess there is a world where Mellencamp is a trustworthy window into small-town America, but this ignores that for much of the last decade, he’s been a New York fixture, frequently photographed across the city with now ex-girlfriend Meg Ryan. There were even rumors that he almost purchased Emma Bloomberg’s $3.5 million Tribeca loft in 2016. He ultimately went with a budget-friendly $2.3 million loft in SoHo. Even Bloomberg’s avatars of “real America” are rich, New York celebrities in disguise.
Bloomberg’s campaign has also funneled enormous sums of money into a different sort of celebrity—influencers, and the social capital they wield on the internet. As the Daily Beast reported, a portion of the $300 million the campaign has spent on advertising went to digital influencers, each paid $150 a post to mention the presidential candidate to their followers. Shortly after, a deluge of memes flooded the timelines of 60 million people across the internet in what Forbes described as a $1 million ad buy from the Bloomberg campaign.
It isn’t shocking that Bloomberg has successfully dumped enormous sums of money into buying off influencers and celebrities. Billionaires are treated like kings, and influencers, seeking to conquest larger and larger tracts of the social media landscape, and celebrities are predictably eager to perform. And it’s an easy way to insert himself into a cultural landscape that’s completely foreign to him. In the week since the meme storm, tweets and statements made by Bloomberg have become increasingly “online” in construction—striving to look cool and in touch with #resistance hungry voters.
Bloomberg wants coolness—he wants the same social and political capital he’s been purchasing for years to lift him into the White House. Celebrities and influencers are lining up to cash his checks and help him. Though Bloomberg is hardly the first to leverage the cultural capital of celebrity for political gain, this feels like part of a strategy that believes only in the power of purchase. Bloomberg is buying influence in the same way questionable companies like Flat Tummy buy the endorsements of the Kardashians. And it’s not just celebrities, Bloomberg successfully purchased political influence long before he sought the social capital of relevance. Recently, the New York Times reported that Democratic groups, including Emily’s List, refused to distance themselves from Bloomberg despite his documented history of promoting racist policies and sexual harassment accusations because of his large donations. There’s also a long list of Democratic politicians who have recently endorsed or defended Bloomberg after receiving large donations from him.
Bloomberg’s campaign has proven how unfathomably easy it is to purchase your way into American politics. It’s even easier to buy a good word and a celebrity endorsement.