The Miseducation of Howard Schultz

The billionaire and would-be presidential candidate learned the wrong lesson from Donald Trump’s success in politics.

Mike Segar / Reuters

It’s a good bet that the press is making too much of Howard Schultz’s presidential trial balloon. The former Starbucks CEO isn’t officially in the race, doesn’t have anything resembling a coherent platform, and has no prior experience in politics. Moreover, there’s little reason to believe a third-party run would work.

The problem is that Schultz’s rollout has been so clumsy that journalists find it irresistible to mock him. He doesn’t seem to know anything about political polarization, or history, or how primary elections work. In fact, Schultz is a little reminiscent of Donald Trump four years ago. But it’s only on the surface: Schultz’s bumbling shows that the roots of Trump’s success remain misunderstood, including by Schultz himself.

Back in August 2015, when Schultz flirted with running for the 2016 Democratic nomination, I wrote a mocking article pointing out some of the similarities between Trump’s and Schultz’s biographies: outer-borough boys made good; billionaires; lack of political experience; a disastrous stint owning a sports franchise; a history of donating money to both parties, etc. I wrote that Schultz, if he ran, would likely fail “for the same reason Trump will probably come up short.”

I was, of course, wrong about Trump, and will now pause for a heaping bite of crow. (Delicious!) But one reason I and others were skeptical of Trump was that we’d seen a succession of rich putzes over the years who figured that since they were successful in business, they’d be able to succeed in politics too. Then they’d flame out ignominiously. Trump was the one in a thousand who was able to pull it off. His success is likely to convince even more rich putzes that they can do the same thing—when in fact the nascent Schultz campaign is demonstrating why they can’t.

If the parallels between Trump and Schultz were notable four years ago, the Schultz press blitz suggests that they go beyond biographical details. Schultz has shown that, like the president, he combines strong opinions on politics with a lack of information or sophistication about it. Like Trump, he has often not bothered to vote. Like Trump, he’s running on an inchoate nostalgia for a golden past that didn’t really exist. On Wednesday, Schultz said his favorite president of the past 50 years was Franklin D. Roosevelt, who died 74 years ago. He also said Ronald Reagan was the greatest Republican of the past 50 years because he never took his jacket off in the Oval Office, which isn’t true and is, moreover, a ridiculous reason to rate a president highly.

Because Trump has governed so extremely, it’s easy to forget that he ran as a centrist, and was even to the left of Hillary Clinton on some issues. That’s Schultz’s game, too. His political ideas, insofar as they exist, are mostly borrowed from the Democratic Party, but as Vox’s Matt Yglesias notes, he’s to Trump’s right on a few issues. And like Trump, Schultz is styling himself as a truth-teller, the guy who will say what the other politicians won’t.

But that’s where Schultz stumbles. As a candidate (and since, as president), Trump was willing to say out loud things that a sizable chunk of Republican voters held to be true or were willing to ignore, but that GOP leaders either didn’t believe or had insisted were verboten: Mexican immigrants are rapists, free trade is bad, China is stealing your jobs, there were lots of good people among the white supremacists marching in Charlottesville, etc.

Schultz appears to be trying to be over-the-top combative like Trump, calling Medicare for All and doubts about a third-party candidate’s prospects “un-American.” Just as Trump arguably ran out of personal pique, Schultz says he’s running as an independent because he was offended by Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s call for a 70 percent marginal tax rate. Like many of the things that Trump said during the 2016 campaign, these are nonsensical or wrong or misguided. Unlike the things that Trump said during the campaign, however, there aren’t voters out there who have just been waiting for someone to tell them that it’s okay to oppose single-payer health care, or that third parties are good, or that taxing the super-wealthy is bad. Some of these beliefs are popular, and others less so, but none of them is edgy or illicit.

Neither Schultz nor any of his billionaire peers is going to be able to match Trump, because they don’t have the right views—they probably don’t think there were good people in the Charlottesville ranks. And even if they did, they would be unwilling to say them out loud because of the reputational damage they’d sustain, whereas Trump is immune to shame.

That leaves Schultz trying to replicate Trump’s success while advocating for milquetoast views with no clear constituency. Not only is Schultz pushing on a locked door, but there’s no one on the other side.