the national circus

Howard Schultz May Be Even More Disingenuous Than Donald Trump

At least he’s bringing people together. Photo: JASON REDMOND/AFP/Getty Images

Most weeks, New York Magazine writer-at-large Frank Rich speaks with contributor Alex Carp about the biggest stories in politics and culture. Today, Howard Schultz’s bid for the White House, what to expect in Stacey Abrams’s State of the Union response, and two more insider accounts of Trump’s path to the White House.

Since former Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz announced that he’s interested in a “centrist independent” run for the White House, he’s been the target of criticism everywhere from the White House to his own book signing. Is there no room for a centrist in the race, or is he just the wrong one?

Sometimes I wonder if there is such a thing as “centrism” in our politics anymore beyond its use as a branding strategy for pundits and out-of-work politicians hustling to be hired as talking heads. As Margaret Sullivan of the Washington Post wrote this week in response to CNN’s hiring of John Kasich and CBS’s of Jeff Flake, networks love the television-news equivalent of elevator music — “the smarmy centrism that often benefits nobody” but “won’t offend anyone.” Yet along comes Howard Schultz to prove that even in these polarized times, Americans from Donald Trump to Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez can still rally in the center in support of a shared conviction: Schultz’s potential third-party presidential candidacy is a ludicrous exercise in plutocratic ego that is of benefit to no one except Trump.

So let’s give Schultz credit for bringing the country together, even if only in its bipartisan detestation of him. And let’s not fault Schultz for having zero qualifications for the White House now that Trump has obliterated the notion that qualifications are required. Still, Schultz’s inadequacy for the presidency is more galling than Trump’s. The incumbent charlatan-in-chief is nothing if not unabashed in advertising his moral unfitness, parading his ignorance, and spewing his contempt for democracy at every opportunity. Schultz, by contrast, is a fount of disingenuousness, wrapping his entitlement and narcissism in the cloak of high-minded ideals and furrowed-brow civic concern. Some will recall that his idea of solving America’s racial woes the year before Trump’s election was to have Starbucks baristas write “Race Together” on his customers’ coffee cups — a scheme that he purported would generate conversation and reconciliation but whose only real point was to trigger an ad campaign intended to boost Starbucks sales and float Schultz’s political ambitions. In the same vein, Starbucks rolled out a voter participation drive in 2016. “It’s not just about who will be the next occupant of the White House,” Schultz preached at the time. “More Americans should participate in all elections, even those for city councils and school boards.” This week the Seattle Times reported that since 2005, Schultz voted in only 11 out of 38 elections.

Unlike Trump, Schultz did make rather than inherit his billions. (And also unlike Trump, Schultz actually can prove he has his billions.) But in his own way he seems almost as ignorant as Trump about politics. A self-described “lifelong Democrat,” he says he is not running as a Democrat because the party has no place for centrists like him — which may come as news to Joe Biden, Michael Bloomberg, Beto O’Rourke, and John Hickenlooper, among others contemplating presidential candidacies. Schultz also seems to think there’s a majority of America that shares his alienation from both political parties, when in fact Pew polling shows that only 18 percent of Americans have an unfavorable view of both parties and only 16 percent share Schultz’s view that both are “too extreme.” For that matter, he doesn’t know that the polling term “Independent” refers not to “moderates” or “centrists” but to unaffiliated voters who are quite partisan, whether left or right. But why should he worry? The Washington Post reports that Schultz has been promiscuous in hiring pollsters and strategists (including the former Obama hand Bill Burton and the former McCain-ite Steve Schmidt), all of whom are happy to take his money and reassure him that he knows what he’s talking about.

No third-party candidate can win the presidency, even if he’s Theodore Roosevelt. All Schultz can do is siphon votes away from the Democratic ticket, much as Jill Stein did in 2016. Stein, we now know, was a useful idiot for the Russians in their scheme to help facilitate Trump’s victory. Schultz may be less innocent. In recent years, Starbucks has been making deals in Russia, where its outlets have proliferated. For all we know, there was a plan to place a Starbucks in Trump’s ill-fated Moscow Trump Tower to match the one in Trump Tower on Fifth Avenue. Time for another Steele dossier!

The Democrats have tapped Georgia’s Stacey Abrams to respond to Trump’s State of the Union next week. What’s on the line for Abrams, and for Trump, in this rescheduled address?

Abrams is, along with O’Rourke and Florida’s Andrew Gillum, a Democratic politician who found national stardom by losing a red-to-purplish state race in 2018. She lost the governorship narrowly to a Georgia secretary of State with a history of hostility to minority voting rights. Her popularity at home remains high, and it’s possible she could defeat the man who beat her, Brian Kemp, in 2022, or perhaps knock out the freshman Republican senator David Purdue when he’s up in 2020. On State of the Union night, her No. 1 mission must be not to make a fool of herself in a role that has proved an embarrassment for the likes of Bobby Jindal, Tim Kaine, and Marco Rubio. (Does anyone even remember who responded to Trump last time? Joe Kennedy, a young Massachusetts congressman who came across so blandly that he managed to drain the luster out of his hallowed family name.) My advice to Abrams would be to keep it simple: Explain her party’s border security and immigration policy with clarity, passion, brevity, and a sense of humor.

In his previous State of the Union, Trump droned on for 80 minutes, reading robotically from a teleprompter and promising those who had not fallen into a coma that he was shepherding “a new American moment” that would include a $1.5 trillion infrastructure plan. Since then, countless “infrastructure weeks” have come and gone under that bridge to nowhere. This time around, perhaps Trump will revert to full MAGA mode, railing on about the wall and threatening another shutdown and/or a declaration of a national emergency to get his way. Given that a large majority of Americans disapprove of both these tactics, and that most Americans really don’t care about the wall, it’s all so much stale hot air. Stacey Abrams’s biggest problem may be that much of the audience will have fled by the time her big moment arrives.

Two new books recounting time spent in the Trump campaign and White House came out this week, written by Chris Christie and Cliff Sims. Is there still an appetite for these stories?

It’s hard to tell. They’re both instant best sellers but that’s meaningless. So was Omarosa’s tell-all of last summer, Unhinged, whose sales collapsed the second week, despite the considerable publicity boost of an avid Trump Twitter rampage much like the one he’s been aiming at Sims and his book. Since then Omarosa seems to have vanished into a witness protection program. Christie and Sims could well follow her to oblivion, joining Trump’s original press secretary, Sean Spicer, another White House memoirist who seems to have vanished into a black hole after a brief flurry of speculation that he might land a gig on Dancing With the Stars.

Meanwhile, a thought experiment: Can you imagine who in his or her right mind would listen to the audiobook of Christie’s Let Me Finish — ten hours’ worth, read by Christie himself? It makes me feel a little better about life that quite honestly I cannot.

Howard Schultz May Be Even More Disingenuous Than Trump