The Billionaires vs. Donald J. Trump

As a billionaire president-elect stocks his cabinet with wealthy people, or those friendly to the rich, there’s another slice of the far upper class that is boiling with anger at the once unfathomable prospect of a Trump administration. These wealthy givers are getting ready to do everything they can to derail a Trump agenda that’s shaping up to be even more hardline and conservative than anyone expected.

Before saying more, it’s worth noting that America’s wealthy are more politically divided than at any time in history. Voters making over $250,000 evenly split between Clinton and Trump, and the same probably holds further up the income ladder. Today’s class allegiances are downright bizarre, and defy the textbook idea that politics is about “who gets what.” A billionaire candidate who wants to slash taxes on the rich, along with labor protections and healthcare for the working class, clinched victory by capturing a majority of voters without a college degree. And now, as he moves to put his agenda into action, some of his most powerful opponents will be billionaires and multi-millionaires. Politics in America have long diverged away from neat class lines, thanks to race and culture issues, but things seem more weirdly upside-down now than ever before.

Who are the wealthy opponents that a Trump administration may face? Let’s look at a few of them.

Michael Bloomberg. Forget the fact that Trump’s ignorance and sloppy operating style is anathema to Bloomberg’s vision of effective governance based on reason and data. The biggest impetus for the former New York mayor to oppose Trump is that the new president threatens to reverse gains on climate change that Bloomberg has invested a fortune in bringing about. In particular, Trump is gunning to stop implementation of the Clean Power Plan that Obama put in place through the EPA and which has dovetailed with the Bloomberg-backed Beyond Coal campaign to close dirty power plants. Look for Bloomberg to fight this rollback attempt with millions of dollars in new giving.  

Warren Buffett. The second richest man in America has open contempt for Trump and more of his wealth will find its way into the fight against the next president’s agenda than you might think. While most of Buffet’s fortune is pledged to the Gates Foundation, he’s also giving hundreds of millions of dollars a year to foundations controlled by his children, and has the ability to increase that flow of money if he chooses. One of these foundations, the Susan Thomas Buffett Foundation, is the largest supporter of reproductive health in the United States. It will play a critical role in pushing back against the coming attack on Planned Parenthood and abortion rights.

Tim Gill and Jon Stryker. These two wealthy leaders in the fight for LGBT rights are already mobilizing for a scary new era that challenges both past and future gains. While marriage equality is unlikely to be rolled back, progress on a broader agenda of LGBT equality across all spheres of American life now faces new obstacles. Gill, a savvy philanthropist and determined political operative, can be expected to double down on his current work. Stryker’s Arcus Foundation has lately focused more globally after helping to secure gains in U.S. LGBT rights. It wouldn’t be surprising if Arcus now pivoted back to invest more heavily in America.

Dustin Moskovitz. The Facebook co-founder and his wife Cari Tuna emerged as top Democratic donors during this election but it’s not known if such giving will continue. The couple’s philanthropy has been non-ideological and pragmatic, but they have also supported several causes that are under new threat in a Trump era, including criminal justice reform, LGBT rights and animal welfare. Most younger tech types don’t like to take sides in what can seem like yesterday’s stalemated ideological battles. But if Moskovitz and Tuna really care about their causes, they may not have a choice. Certainly, they have cash to spare to fight Trump, with a net worth that now stands at $9.7 billion. 

Pierre Omidyar. The billionaire founder of eBay is not a major campaign donor and not typically considered a partisan player. But few billionaires have been keener to challenge the surveillance state and preserve the openness of the Internet. Omidyar-backed groups, like First Look Media, are likely to be on the front lines of the fight to stop a rollback of net neutrality and new encroachments on civil liberties by a Trump regime filled with security hardliners. Likewise, the grantmaking of Democracy Fund, a bipartisan group bankrolled by Omidyar, will become all the more critical in standing up for the integrity of our political system at a moment that it's widely expected to face new stresses.  

Julian Robertson. The retired hedge fund billionaire is a Republican who supports parts of the Trump agenda such as school choice. But he’s also a strong environmentalist and few donors have invested more in fighting climate change. Most notably, Robertson is a top backer of the Environmental Defense Fund, an organization deeply involved in pushing and defending the Clean Power Plan and other Obama policies. Like all environmental groups, EDF now finds itself in the fight of its life, with the clock on climate change running out. Our bet is that its most generous donor, Robertson—who’s 86 with a $3.6 billion fortune—will step forward in a big way.  

Herb Sandler. A retired banker, Sandler is no longer a billionaire, but he’s still extremely wealthy and has been a leading funder of progressive groups in recent years, including the Center for American Progress, the ACLU, the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities and others. He’s also given tens of millions to fight climate change and advance environmental goals. An ongoing flow of Sandler funding will be key to bolstering the progressive infrastructure under Trump and it could well be that this flow will increase. After all, the stakes have never been higher for everything that Herb Sandler cares about.

Howard Schultz. The retiring CEO founder of Starbucks has a $3.1 billion fortune, and now, more time on his hands. He also has deep contempt for Trump and quite possibly has political ambitions of his own. Schultz, who grew up in the projects in Brooklyn, is publicly advancing a narrative about capitalism and the American dream that is sharply at odds with Trump’s harsh vision. In a way, Schultz is a perfect lead critic of Trump: a high-profile entrepreneur who wasn’t born with a silver spoon in his mouth and believes that a successful business should “bring everyone along” with decent pay and benefits. Look for his growing philanthropic operation, the Schultz Family Foundation, to play a role in supporting this critique and elevating Schultz's profile. 

James Simons. The billionaire hedge funder gave millions to elect Hillary Clinton, but his philanthropy is decidedly non-ideological, focused on advancing basic science. However, some of Simons' vast fortune—which now stands at $16.5 billion—is being passed down to the foundations of his three children, all of which engage in grantmaking to support progressive causes. Nat Simons’ Sea Change Foundation is among the top backers of groups fighting climate change, while the foundation that Liz Simons runs with her husband Mark Heising is also involved with this work, and has specifically given to advance Obama’s Clean Power Plan. We’d expect that with Trump in power, the flow of Jim Simons’ money to bankroll his kids’ activist philanthropy will only increase—maybe dramatically.

George Soros. It goes without saying that Soros and his Open Society Foundations will be at the forefront of resistance to Trump. So much of what OSF has supported in recent years is now at risk, such as its work to humanize the criminal justice system and repeal draconian drug laws. Already, OSF announced that it is setting up a $10 million rapid-response fund to combat a rise in hate crimes. In the years ahead, OSF will be everywhere in the fight against Trumpism.

Tom Steyer. It’s not clear what Steyer’s next move will be in his ambitious effort to remake the politics of climate change, but his group, NextGen Climate, has already mobilized to fight Scott Pruitt’s nomination to be the next EPA administrator. Look for that organization to fight Trump’s climate agenda at every step, with an eye on 2018 and beyond. More broadly, Steyer’s long-term effort to change voters’ consciousness on climate could actually get a boost from the horrors of a Trump era, helping politicize younger people and others who grew complacent under Obama. This is another donor likely to open the spigot even further.

Donald Sussman. He's no billionaire, but the hedge funder was one of the biggest political donors in the 2016 cycle, giving $39 million. Sussman is also closely involved with progressive causes as a partner in the Democracy Alliance and used to be married to former Common Cause president Chellie Pingree. We don't know what this mega-donor has planned, or what he might do on the philanthropy end of things, but it's hard to imagine Sussman would spend so much money to stop Trump's election and then not fight equally hard against his far-right agenda. 

Hans Wyss. The Swiss-born billionaire tends to fly under the radar. But he’s pledged to give away most of his $6 billion fortune and has lately emerged as an important backer of progressive causes. He sits on the board of the Center for American Progressive and heavily funds environmental work. 

***

This is just a partial list, off the top of my head, of wealthy funders who are likely to mobilize against a Trump administration. Plenty of other rich people will line up to fight a president that poses a threat to progress on so many different issues. Over a decade ago, President George W. Bush's scary presidency activated a whole bunch of new progressive donors and galvanized existing donors to step up their giving. My guess is that we'll see something similar this time around, but at a larger level. Trump doesn't just appall traditional progressives, but also many in the center who are worried about his competence in foreign policy, his respect for the constitution, and so on.

Of course, also, the far-upper class is much richer today than it was in, say, 2004. Many top progressive donors have seen their net worth double or triple since that time. Some have also turned away from work to focus more on giving. Now, with everything on the line, you can bet that more than a few mega-givers will look to hit Trump as hard as they can. 

Related: