Once upon a time in America, being a rich celebrity was considered its own reward. A whole television franchise was devoted to their fabulous lifestyles, houses and airplanes. No one suspected that anything was lacking in the lives of tech billionaires, Hollywood moguls or famous talk-show hosts.
Then came Donald Trump, and suddenly the wealthiest .01 percent was confronted with a new standard of personal achievement to be measured against. Increasingly they are being asked, often but not exclusively by themselves, “Are you running for president?”
The latest household name to be mentioned in the same sentence as “2020” is the inescapable Oprah, who if elected would be the first woman president, the first one-name president, and in many ways the natural heir to President Trump: a household name steeped in tabloid culture, prone to eschewing fact-checking in the cause of a higher, or more marketable, truth. She could, for instance, expand Trump’s crackdown on crime by undocumented aliens to include alien abductions.
To be fair, it’s not clear that Oprah is seriously, or even casually, considering running for president; the speculation stems from an interview with David Rubenstein on Bloomberg Television that was recorded in December but just aired Wednesday. Rubenstein asked, “Have you ever thought that, given the popularity you have, [and] we haven’t broken the glass ceiling yet for women, that you could actually run for president and be elected?” Oprah seemed nonplussed by the question, admitting that “I never considered the question, even the possibility … I just thought, I don’t have the experience, I don’t know enough … now I’m thinking, oh!” — an answer that could be merely equivocal, or a subtle plug for O, the name of her magazine.
Another name from the media world getting some attention this week is Robert Iger, the CEO of the Walt Disney Company, whose “Hollywood friends” are said to be “nudging” him toward a race, according to the Hollywood Reporter. As recently as last June, the Los Angeles Times ran an article asserting that “Disney’s new theme park in Shanghai may be the capstone to CEO Robert Iger’s career.” But he may have his eye on scaling greater heights than Splash Mountain. Iger, according to the Hollywood Reporter, has consulted with publisher and former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg (a billionaire who has flirted with a presidential run himself) about the practicalities of making the transition from media heavyweight to political novice. Although not as rich as Trump (or Oprah), Iger was paid a reported $44.9 million in 2015.
One billionaire known to be at least toying with the idea is Dallas Mavericks owner and “Shark Tank” host Mark Cuban, who has had a years-long off-and-on Twitter feud with Trump and, according to the New York Post, is the potential rival that the president most fears. Undaunted by Trump’s taunts about his golf game, his looks, and his intelligence, Cuban gave a not-quite-Shermanesque reply (“We will see”) to a question from Business Insider about a possible future run. Trump beat two Cuban-Americans — Sens. Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz — in the Republican primary last year, but Mark Cuban, who was born in Pittsburgh, is actually Jewish. A recent poll showed him almost neck-and-neck with Trump, despite his relative obscurity. “I think Cuban is pretty competitive given his comparatively low level of name recognition at this point,” Tom Jensen, the director of Public Policy Polling, told the outlet.
If none of those make a run, perhaps there’s an opening for Howard Schultz, the CEO of Starbucks. Schultz raised the possibility of running for president — an idea that presumably came as a surprise to most Americans — while at the same time renouncing the ambition in a 2015 op-ed in the New York Times that didn’t exactly set a high bar for modesty: “Despite the encouragement of others, I have no intention of entering the presidential fray. I’m not done serving at Starbucks. Although we have built an iconic brand while providing even part-time employees with access to health care, free college education and stock options, there is more we can do as a public company to demonstrate responsible leadership.” Schultz is stepping down as CEO this spring, although he’ll remain with the company as executive chairman. As the Times reported, “At an all-hands employee meeting at the company’s headquarters on Thursday, Mr. Schultz was greeted with tears and a standing ovation. ‘For me, perhaps there are other things that are part of my destiny,’ he told them.”
If America is ready for a president in a hoodie, then Mark Zuckerberg may be ready to heed the call to serve, considering that he will turn 35 — the age requirement for president — a full year and a half before the 2020 elections. Zuckerberg, the billionaire co-founder and chairman of Facebook, is embarking on a 50-state “listening tour” this year and authorized an SEC filing that would allow him to retain control of the company even if he were “serving in a government position or office.” And Zuckerberg, who was raised Jewish but long identified as an atheist, wrote on Facebook recently that “now I believe religion is very important.” (He didn’t specify which religion but said he was celebrating Christmas with his family.)
The events have caught the notice of political professionals, including the sharp-eyed observers of the Hill: “Donald Trump’s victory changed the narrative in American politics,” said Texas-based Republican digital campaign strategist Vincent Harris. “We’ve seen a complete blending of entertainment and politics in America, and a potential Zuckerberg candidacy would play very well into what the public has come to desire.” Not only that, but he would have access — at least until he became an active candidate — to an incomparable trove of real-time information on what the public wants, thinks and talks about. And given Silicon Valley’s stake in immigration reform, which Zuckerberg helped formalize as a founder of the advocacy group FWD.us, his platform isn’t just about awkward encounters with college acquaintances anymore.
So did Trump’s unlikely success plant the seed of his own undoing, at the hands of an even more ambitious and famous, perhaps even richer, outsider candidate in 2020? The public will decide, but there’s an alternative view that the chaotic first few weeks of his presidency — if they set a pattern for the next four years — will make a strong case for a candidate whose résumé includes more time in public office and less in front of a TV camera.
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