The call to impeach President Trump is verging on clamor among Democrats. Tom Steyer, a California billionaire, has one of the loudest voices. He takes this all personally. Steyer stars in ads for his “Need to Impeach” group calling the president a criminal. Characteristically, the president has tweeted his adversary is “wacky” and “unhinged.”
The feud is between two members of what many progressives call the “1 percent” — or, in this particular case, what would more accurately be the 0.1 percent, a conspiracy of multimillionaires content on running the middle class into the ground as they laugh, arm-in-arm, all the way to the bank. The Trump-Steyer battle is therefore illuminating. Why would “oligarchs” fall out?
This is not just a clash of personalities. Steyer believes the president’s personal behavior — most recently Trump’s role as an “unindicted co-conspirator” in the Michael Cohen investigation — is grounds for impeachment. But his enthusiasm belies an understanding of American life antithetical to Trump’s. The two men’s worldviews are an extension of their experiences with American capitalism.
Steyer made his billion plus as a manager of a hedge fund, an entity that pools and then puts to work the financial assets of institutions and wealthy individuals. Hedge-fund managers sit behind computer screens or in meetings with colleagues strategizing about how to maximize returns for clients. The approach is intellectual, and today hedge funds employ hundreds of whizz kids with Ph.D.s in math and science, called “quants.” These are the spectators of the game we call American capitalism, using other people’s money to bet on both the success and failure (hence the term “hedge”) of companies, currencies, commodities, governments, and complex financial instruments — such as the bundles of mortgages that were at the heart of the financial crisis in 2008. Hedge-funders are “big thinkers,” enamored with theories and unconcerned with the plight of individuals. People are data to them.
Trump, on the other hand, made his initial millions as a New York real-estate mogul. He succeeded as a hand-shaker, a man who knew personally the people he dealt with and whose financial lives he often enriched, sometimes impoverished. His currency was loyalty. Being immensely practical, he had no truck for economic theories. Trump was a player, an important participant in the game and, unlike Steyer, more intensely experienced its highs and lows. Losing left bruises, not just a lighter wallet. Winning meant toiling, not just getting lucky or using your brain. He won when he won; the fortunes of others were largely immaterial. Having to leverage personal resources, Trump financed his future with debt. Steyer thought more in terms of equity, a stake in the success of others.
Steyer loathes Trump’s boorishness and anti-intellectualism. Trump cannot abide Steyer and his type’s distance from the rough-and-tumble of real business. To the president, people add value by producing tangible things. He runs the country like this. America is his business. Trump has a visceral appreciation for traditional manufacturing, construction, and the extraction industries. He harbors a deep dislike for much of the service and intellectual property sectors — the media, education, Hollywood, Silicon Valley. Trump values people, but a paycheck constitutes his recognition of them. He does not care to invest in human capital. We are all sovereign economic actors. His approach to issues such as trade, immigration, and the nation’s worsening fiscal state are consistent with these values.
Steyer comes out of a world over which individuals have little control. People are not solely responsible for their own misfortune; their personal successes are attributable to many others, not just themselves. He approaches his main policy interest, the environment and climate change, the same way. The negative economic effects of his proposals are to be observed, not experienced. This is another hedge. Steyer knows some people can be short the American economy and still win.
The Trump-Steyer contest is a microcosm of American politics today. In the Trump camp is traditional business, driven by a view of people as self-determined individuals who add value through their work. Exchange forges personal relationships and delivers social goods. The rich might be protected by their wealth, but understand their position is precarious. Many seek favors from government; many distrust it.
Affluent professionals and coastal economic elites identify more with Steyer — doctors, lawyers, scientists, show business, the tech world, even many on Wall Street. They see life as a kind of lottery with destinies not fully determined by talent and hard work. They are secure, not least because government is an employer, important customer, and often enforces rules enacting high barriers of entry to their fields of work. They trust it and believe it capable of empowering the lives of others.
The rich are not a cabal fleecing the country. They are as polarized as the rest of us.
Andy Taylor is a professor of political science at the School of International and Public Affairs at the N.C. State University. He does not speak for the university.