The Corner


No-Hope Presidential Candidates and the Emperor’s New Clothes

Rep. Eric Swalwell speaks during the second night of the first Democratic presidential candidates debate in Miami, Fla., June 27, 2019. (Mike Segar/Reuters)

Today’s hot rumor is that Representative Eric Swalwell — the trying-too-hard, gun-confiscation-promoting, nuclear-strike-on-Americans endorsing, Biden-death-speculating white man who’s running to increase diversity —  will quit the presidential race today.

But Tom Steyer, the billionaire who financed a campaign calling for Trump’s impeachment, is reportedly jumping in. To paraphrase Andy Warhol, in the future, everyone will run for the Democratic presidential nomination for 15 minutes.

There are a lot of reasons why no-hopers jump in, but a big one is the fact that the vast majority of elected officials and wealthy people live in a bubble, where they are surrounded by brown-nosers who tell them their ideas are brilliant and constantly tell them things like, “Of course the American people are yearning for inspiring leadership like yours, sir.”

The moment you become an elected official, people start to look at you a little differently. Occasionally you’ll encounter protesters or an angry crowd at your town hall, but by and large, people usually seem happy to see you — particularly people who come into your office in government. Many of the people you encounter ask for favors or describe problems in their community and hope you are the one who can fix them. Often you are indeed a person who can help them — whether it’s getting the town zoning board to move a little faster or get that pothole filled, or help enact that legislative change your company has been hoping for, or even just get one of those nifty U.S. Capitol flags. You also become a valuable friend and a potentially dangerous enemy. Until you’re out of office and can no longer use the levers of government to help friends and punish foes, it’s best to avoid irking you too much.

When a person becomes wealthy and powerful, he starts to lose honest voices from his life. If he runs a business, a significant portion of the people he encounters work for him and are dependent upon him for their livelihood. They may still express disagreements with him, but only up to a certain point, and almost always delicately. When discussing something as central to your identity as, “Should I run for president? Am I qualified to be the next commander-in-chief?”, very few employees will speak bluntly and answer, “Sir, very few Americans have heard of you, your success in business does not necessarily mean you will govern effectively, you’re nowhere near as charismatic and persuasive as you think you are, and you will probably flounder.” Like in the fable of the emperor’s new clothes, everyone is afraid of upsetting the powerful man by telling him an inconvenient truth.

The upshot is that a significant number of wealthy and powerful people are somewhat delusional and are surrounded by people who help maintain their delusions. (In the era of kings and queens, only jesters could tell the truth. Notice how often the heroes in comedy are the irreverent fools who tell off rich snobs — the Marx Brothers, Bugs Bunny, the guys in Caddyshack, most of Eddie Murphy’s characters.)

We enjoy mocking Swalwell as a ham-handed doofus who keeps coming in at “zero” in almost every primary poll, but no doubt in his career as a prosecutor and three terms as a congressman, he’s encountered hundreds of people who he helped in one way or another and who told him that he was just swell. He represents a D+20 district in Alameda, so most people in his home district probably think he’s terrific, or at least want to stay on his good side. The only people who point out his flaws are people like us, and he can easily tell himself that we’re just a bunch of right-wing maniacs, jealous of his obvious intellect, talents, and raw charisma. So if he does depart the race, we can laugh at Swalwell but probably ought to feel a tiny bit of sympathy for him (and probably for Steyer, and Moulton, and Bullock, and Ryan, and most of the rest). He’s probably genuinely surprised and deeply disappointed that despite what everyone around him said, his campaign never even came close to catching fire.

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