Co-published by Fast Company
Tom Steyer and Donald Trump were both born in New York City, and both went on to legendary success in the business world. And that’s about where the similarities end. Indeed, in the respective realms of American billionaires and U.S. politics, Steyer and Trump virtually define the opposite poles.
While Trump amassed a fortune in real estate, giving very little away (Trump’s charitable foundation is still under investigation for fraud), then veered into right-wing electoral populism, Steyer – who made his money in hedge funds – has poured his wealth into progressive causes. He and his wife, Kat Taylor, signed the Giving Pledge in 2010 and have devoted their considerable resources to fighting climate change (Steyer heads the influential advocacy organization NextGen Climate, based in San Francisco) and economic inequality (Taylor runs Beneficial State Bank, which she and Steyer founded to invest in low-income communities).
In the wake of the election, Steyer – who had previously signaled his interest in California’s gubernatorial race – has vowed to spend whatever it takes to fight Trump and advance an alternative progressive vision. Anticipating Trump’s attack on climate change science, his first acts of dissent included copying the entire Environmental Protection Agency website and making it available to the public.
On February 1, NextGen Climate announced its intention to broaden its focus, releasing a video message from Steyer in which he says that Trump has “launched an all-out assault on the American way of life.” Accompanying the video is a survey that implores viewers to choose among 12 issue areas, from climate change and workers’ rights to racial justice, immigration and foreign policy – what his team has dubbed “crowdsourcing the resistance.”
Three weeks after Trump took office (and just before a handful of Republicans like Senator John McCain began to challenge the new president), Capital & Main sat down with Steyer at NextGen’s office in San Francisco’s Financial District for an animated conversation about the future of the Democratic Party, inequality and the existential peril of climate change in the Trump era.
Capital & Main: What has surprised you the most in the first three weeks of Trump’s presidency?
Tom Steyer: When you think about the attacks he’s made on the rights of Americans, the extreme radicals that he’s nominated, his willingness to flout the laws of the United States, it’s been made very, very clear in the first three weeks that fact-based, thoughtful dialogue between trustworthy counterparties is not in the cards. And we’ve seen zero pushback from within the Republican Party.
C&M: California’s seen as the place where the strongest resistance to Trump will happen, while the threat that’s looming over the state is the potential cutoff of tens of billions of dollars in federal aid. If Trump and Congress go through with that threat, how does California respond?
Steyer: Let me push back on a couple of parts of that question. It’s not federal aid. California pays out disproportionately into the federal treasury. This is not charity. This is not out of the goodness of their heart. We’re in a system where we, Californian citizens, pay federal taxes and the federal government provides services to citizens of California. The idea that because they don’t like what we think, they will cut us off and try and punish Californian citizens in the most basic ways — in terms of healthcare, in terms of education — as a way of trying to force us politically to do what they want, is completely unjust and will be litigated from here until kingdom come.
The second thing I’d say is this: It’s not just that we’re pushing back against attacks on the rights of Americans. We’re not just saying no. We have a better way of doing it. We are pushing forward the vision of an inclusive democracy. Nobody wants to resist more seriously than the people in this room, but the fact of the matter is, we know that California is not Fortress California. We need to make sure that we’re not isolated by the federal government. The majority of Americans don’t agree with this guy. The majority of Americans agree with us, and we need to make sure we’re reaching out to and connecting with those people.
C&M: When it comes to the question of ideology, and the question of identity politics versus class focus, what do you think the Democratic Party needs to do?
Steyer: Obviously what the Trump campaign was trying to do was to divide Americans. The point of the Democratic Party is we absolutely have to take into account all Americans. There’s no way to do that without including race and ethnicity because it’s so much a part of our past and it’s so much a part of where we are. We have a narrative that’s coming out of the Republican Party about who the true Americans are. One of the biggest points that we want to fight about is the people standing up to Trump, defending the interests of Americans over corporations, are the true patriots, period. That is a patriotic act that is entirely consistent with patriotic acts that have gone on over the last two centuries, and it’s really important that people understand who has built this country, who works hard.
C&M: Bernie Sanders’ Our Revolution is trying to move the Democratic Party towards an economic agenda that speaks more authentically to working families. Is that a direction that the party needs to move toward?
Steyer: There is an underlying fact about American life, which is that working people have gotten a decreased share of our profitability and our productivity for 40 years. That is the reason that we have the historic inequality that Bernie Sanders was talking about, and what in effect Donald Trump was talking about. They talked about it in terms of jobs, but actually I think if you look, we have relatively low unemployment. The truth of the matter is, we have incredibly low wages at a time when we have very high profitability for corporations.
When we talk about Bernie Sanders and fairness, there is really a question about the relationship of employers and employees. There is a false mythology coming from the Reagan era that somehow the market works, the market is efficient, the market is just. That’s absolutely false. Markets have rules [imposed on them]. As we all know, if this were 120 years ago, we could hire an 8-year-old for a quarter and make him work 14 hours a day, and he wouldn’t go to school. That’s not possible anymore. That’s just a rule. God didn’t come down and say that. We passed a law.
C&M: This was the thrust of Bob Reich’s book Saving Capitalism. There are rules.
Steyer: There are rules, and you know what? These guys have changed the rules. The right of working people to organize. You [try to] negotiate your salary with Walmart. See how that goes. It’s not going to happen. No working person is going to be able to out-negotiate all the lawyers of a multibillion-dollar multinational company. When you think about rules, you cannot ask individual working people to represent themselves and think they’re going to get a fair deal.
C&M: One of the great ironies of the 2016 election is that economic inequality was a front-burner issue in the presidential election and then we elected Donald Trump. How did that happen?
Steyer: People are under the gun. The rules are stacked against them. The [narrowest] special interests are absolutely the heart and soul of this administration and the Republican Party. There is no question that we have to explicitly fight back on behalf of Americans against special interests.
If you look at last year in California, we finally got overtime pay for farm workers. Have you seen a lot of people going out of business on these big farms since that horrible event happened? No. That’s just a rule. Everybody else has had that rule, but farm workers couldn’t get that for decades.
There’s a huge union-bashing effort…. I think it’s so ironic. Why are manufacturing jobs well-paid? Because people organized them 80 years ago and fought over the contract every [time it was up for renewal.] The people who want to absolutely take apart the labor movement are talking about how important manufacturing jobs are.
Tom Steyer photo by Helloaloe