Billionaire backlash: Elite figures rally behind Trump in 2024 election

Billionaire backlash: Elite figures rally behind Trump in 2024 election

In the whirlwind of the 2024 presidential race, familiar faces emerge with a twist. Trump’s backers aren’t just blue-collar workers but also elite moguls like Elon Musk, Ken Griffin, and Larry Ellison. As Biden’s policies threaten their wealth, they’re drawn to Trump’s promise of stability. From fundraising to social media spats, their support signals a seismic shift in political alliances. Is this a rebellion against elitism or a strategic safeguard for the billionaire class?

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By Brad Stone

The 2024 presidential election, pitting Joe Biden against Donald Trump, may feel like a tiresome rematch of should-be retirees facing off once again with the future of the free world at stake. But something feels different and hard to explain this time. Trump’s most visible supporters are no longer angry blue-collar workers from red states wearing MAGA hats and waving “drain the swamp” signs at rallies. They’re some of the most successful businessmen in the country, expressing their grievances online, fretting about immigration and the war in Ukraine and slinging around doubts about Biden’s performance and age.

Elon Musk, Citadel founder Ken Griffin and Oracle Corp. co-founder and Chairman Larry Ellison, among others, are either overtly or quietly embracing the GOP nominee for president and the prospect of returning to the political turbulence of the Trump era. In other words, some of the same people who’ve seen their wealth grow propitiously in the past few years and benefited from the stability of the status quo are now among the loudest voices trying to upend it. “A number of them come from the tech world, and part of their success is based on disruption,” says Charles Myers, chairman of Signum Global Advisors and a Democratic political adviser. “They think our country and politics needs radical disruption, and the chaos around that is intoxicating to them.”

Evidence of this revolt of the winners is getting hard to ignore. Cantor Fitzgerald LP Chief Executive Officer Howard Lutnick and hedge fund manager John Paulson are hosting a fundraiser for Trump in April, Bloomberg News reports. Activist investor and Walt Disney Co. foil Nelson Peltz endorsed Trump in an interview with the Financial Times. Even plutocrats like hotel developer Robert Bigelow, who initially spurned Trump to become Florida Governor Ron DeSantis’ biggest donor during the primary, have reversed course to back his candidacy. And Griffin, a supporter of DeSantis and former South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley in the GOP primary, said on CNBC on March 12 that “for investors, overall, a Trump administration is good for our capital markets. It encourages the sense that government is aligned with you and not opposed to you.” Griffin stopped short of endorsing Trump, as did Jamie Dimon, the CEO of JPMorgan Chase & Co., who in January called Trump “an amazing political figure.”

Eight years ago venture capitalist Peter Thiel stood practically alone among tech leaders with his contrarian bet on Trump. Today some of the most surprising Trump-friendly voices emanate from Silicon Valley, once the bastion of socially permissive libertarianism and a reliable source of support for politicians such as Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama. Oracle’s Ellison dined recently with Trump on multiple occasions, Puck reports, though he hasn’t yet donated to Trump’s campaign. Other tech leaders, including venture capitalists David Sacks and Marc Andreessen, who have not formally endorsed a candidate, regularly excoriate Biden and his policies on X, the social network formerly known as Twitter.

Then there’s Musk, whose political transformation from green Democratic Californian to vituperative anti-woke Texan has been on vivid display. “Just to be super clear, I am not donating money to either candidate for US President,” he posted on X on March 6. But he posts daily screeds against what he calls the “woke mind virus” and espouses the conspiracy theory that Biden is allowing illegal immigration into the US to create a permanent Democratic voting bloc. In an interview in mid-March, Musk told Don Lemon he was “leaning away from Biden.”

The simplest and easiest explanation for this blowback is materialistic: They’re acting on a barely concealed fear that a majority might be coming for their wealth. Biden has, in fact, explicitly threatened this. In his State of the Union address, he called for a 25% billionaire tax on the assets of any individual worth more than $100 million—not just their annual income or capital gains. He also described plans to raise the corporate income tax rate, from 21% to 28%, and to roll back the Trump-era tax cuts for the rich, which he blamed for ballooning the federal debt.

Biden’s agenda goes far beyond tax cuts. He’s working to undo the shift to pro-capital, anti-union policies that began with Ronald Reagan in the 1980s, which many economists blame for widening inequality. Biden visited the picket lines of the United Auto Workers during its bitter 46-day strike last fall, then recognized UAW President Shawn Fain during his speech before Congress. The union recently announced an effort to organize electric-vehicle maker Tesla Inc.

The Biden administration has also aggressively reviewed and blocked mergers and acquisitions, another posture that likely doesn’t endear it to business leaders. “You do hear them complaining about [Federal Trade Commission Chair] Lina Khan and the antitrust enforcers,” says Nidhi Hegde, managing director of the American Economic Liberties Project. She notes the irony that “while this pro-competition agenda has really taken off, many of the antitrust cases against Big Tech were instigated under Trump.

Those are some of the rational reasons that some Wall Street and tech leaders may be warming to the previous incumbent. But there are probably a few emotional factors, too. Being contrarian and outrageous on social media may be genuinely thrilling for people who have the resources to buy and experience anything they want. “They love annoying and angering people who are annoyed and angered by Trump,” says Jeff Hauser, executive director of the Revolving Door Project, a group that tracks executive branch appointees.

There’s also an element of revenge for a group of people who—regardless of their affluence—have come to see themselves as victims. Trump’s victory in 2016 increased scrutiny of tech companies inside and outside Washington and led to an unforgiving reappraisal of Musk and other tech leaders. “The tech titans’ fall from grace in the eyes of the broader culture has helped drive their angry backlash against Biden and the Dems,” Hauser says. “They think they have been tongue-tied and disrespected.”

Much of this swell of support for Trump feels tinged with real anger and a palpable tension between the über-wealthy and other elites in politics, academia and the media, who view each other with increasing disdain. Musk, Andreessen and hedge fund magnate Bill Ackman, another vociferous tweeter who’s predicted an easy Trump victory, aren’t just critical of Biden. They also fulminate against the mainstream media, which tends to point out Trump’s lies and threats to democracy, and against the top universities, which they claim have adopted dangerous stances on issues ranging from antisemitism to diversity, equity and inclusion.

In that way, the billionaires aren’t all that different from Trump’s main constituency of less-educated working-class White households. Both groups tend to see a conspiracy by far-off elites who are out to deprive them of influence, expropriate their money and squander America’s advantage abroad. Supporting Trump, and even defending and extolling his unpredictable governance and involvement in the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the Capitol, is their way of flipping the proverbial bird to this real or imagined establishment. On the other hand, cozying up to the potential next president and protecting their economic interests is probably also just a really smart hedge.

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