Of all the advantages Mike Bloomberg brings to his attempt to buy the presidency, the most important—aside from his wealth itself—may be how difficult his wealth is to imagine. Let's say you had a million dollars: Bloomberg would have around $61,800 for every dollar you had. For every dollar bill you could lay down in the street, he could lay down six miles’ worth. He could do it a million times.
The same way a black hole is detected by its effects on the objects and space around it, Bloomberg’s wealth is best described by the ways it distorts political reality. It’s one thing to note that he’s spent more on TV ads than the rest of the Democratic field combined. But it's more telling that a major news operation declared it won’t investigate presidential candidates due to his entry into the race, or that he’s hiring so many staffers that local campaigns are struggling to fill out their own staffs. The newest and dumbest curvature of space-time, of course, involves the elderly oligarch emerging in the direct messages of Instagram users as a bizarre caricature of a sentient brand account, successfully offering to pay influencers to post memes deriding him as a desperate and out of it fool.
This is in some ways a measure of just how much money the campaign has to spend, and as the Times’ Charlie Warzel wrote, it’s also clearly a function of a Bloomberg strategy to become as omnipresent as possible, at any cost. Will it work?
"I think it's obviously stupid and ineffective," said David Oks. "Bloomberg is pretty clearly being taken for a ride by his campaign staffers. They're throwing huge sums of money at the wall for these dumb, obviously artificial stunts—he can afford it, but it's pretty hilarious to see how dumb the campaign is. Honestly just a disgusting phenomenon, shows how sick American life is."
(The Bloomberg campaign did not reply to an email requesting comment.)
Oks was one of the teens behind Mike Gravel’s surreal 2019 presidential campaign, which in some ways prefigured Bloomberg’s experiment in irony poisoning. (Its successor, the Gravel Institute, claimed yesterday to have sold out to Bloomberg.) Like any good joke, it worked on a few levels. First, there was the dissonance inherent in the 89-year-old candidate’s account tweeting like a teenager, ruthlessly mocking sad-sack candidates and Democratic Party hacks. Second, there was the positioning of the candidate as a brand like any other (a depressed snack-cake brand, say). Finally, there was the fact that it wasn’t really a joke at all—if not a viable candidate, Gravel was a serious one, an accomplished man preaching peace and human dignity. His campaign wasn’t any more ludicrous than, say, Michael Bennet’s. That was the point, or a point.
If the Bloomberg joke is pretty rancid in comparison, that’s because of the differences involved. Rather than human dignity, Bloomberg is promoting soft authoritarianism; rather than sincere and enthusiastic teens, Bloomberg is working with the guy who runs Jerry Media, best known for its involvement in the Fyre Festival debacle and for becoming a meme empire on the back of other people's work. The cynicism and phoniness of the effort are impossible for anyone to miss, as any run through the comments on any of the influencer accounts Bloomberg paid to post will confirm. That’s a reason to think it won’t work on any level past, perhaps, marginally raising awareness of an already impossibly famous plutocrat. There’s probably a lesson there, though, if not one that matters for Bloomberg.
"These kinds of ironic or metatextual humor," said Henry Williams, another of the teens behind the Gravel campaign, "you can't lean on that as being—that's not your politics. That’s not your hearts and minds strategy. It might be effective for getting attention, briefly. It might get people to pay attention to what you're working on, it might make people laugh, or it might make them angry, which is useful in engaging and mobilizing people, but what it is not is an effective way of building power.
"A lot of the failure of the so-called dirtbag left has been the inability to translate online anger into real power in the real world. I think that the Sanders campaign has been learning some hard lessons about the relationship between intense online support and media coverage, and I think that a lot of it has been disingenuous and unfair. But it’s not untrue that there's a very different way of talking and acting online than in real life. And so my view is that you’ve got to be careful with this stuff."
It’s a fair point. Oks has a different takeaway.
"It is good," he said, "to know that all these mediocre Instagram meme accounts immediately shill for a racist for a bit of money."
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