“Should be required reading in every classroom.”Judith Malina, founder of Living Theater
“Shut up! You are not helping the President get re-elected. You are making the Republican Party look like a bunch of out-of-touch elitists! Assholes!”Email from an exasperated Republican
“Some people call you the elite,” George W. Bush joked to his wealthy funders, “I call you my base.” Whether candidate Bush meant it as a joke or not, the Billionaires for Bush (B4B) campaign used humor, street theater and creative media actions to show the country how true the quip was. Working to expose how the Republican Party serves the interests of the super-rich, the Billionaires also addressed the broader issues of economic inequality and corporate greed.
An early version of the campaign in 2000, “Billionaires for Bush (or Gore),” had spread virally via the internet and mainstream media exposure. It rebranded itself for the 2004 election, taking as its crusade the defeat of Bush. The New York City chapter took the lead, assembling talented volunteers, among them professional designers, media producers, and actors. It then put the campaign pieces in place. A stylish logo swapped the Republican elephant with a piggy bank stuffed with bills. Satirical slogans — “Repeal the First Amendment,” “Free the Forbes 400,” “Corporations are people too” — adorned bumper stickers, buttons, and a slick website, mimicking the look of Bush-Cheney propaganda. A songwriter produced tuneful renditions of what the super-wealthy really think, performed by meticulously rehearsed singers. The members themselves adopted personae, with names and
costumes to match, spoofing iconic versions of the .01 percent: the Monopoly-style robber baron (Phil T. Rich), the dim-witted heiress (Alexis Anna Rolls), the trust-fund fuck-up (Monet Oliver D’Place), and so on.
Soon, the Billionaires could be found talking down to “the little people” at Bush-Cheney campaign events, left-wing rallies, and street corners. They could also be found all over the mainstream media, garnering thousands of hits, including multiple features in the New York Times and on network and cable TV. Even the chant “Watch more Fox News, then you’ll share our right-wing views!” made it to air… on Fox News.
Media coverage was generated by carefully planned hoaxes, such as the appearance, to a throng of adoring billionaires, of a Karl Rove impostor at a GOP fundraiser. Other times, the campaign outsmarted the authorities to attract the media glare, such as when it held a croquet match on Central Park’s “Great Lawn,” from which a half-million anti-Bush demonstrators had been banned by New York’s mayor. The media was smitten by the Billionaires’ glamour and charmed by their say-the-opposite-of-what-you-believe theatrics.
The campaign was designed to be participatory and national. The core idea was easy both to replicate and embellish. Activists could download the materials they needed to do local actions, while a field organizer helped set up chapters in swing states like Ohio. By late July the hundreds of B4B “billionaires” from thirty states who showed up to protest at the Republican National Convention far exceeded the number of actual billionaires working hard for their President.
Deflated by Bush’s victory, the B4B idea nonetheless lived on, generating spin-off campaigns such as Billionaires for Wealthcare, active in the health care debates of 2008-9. Often feeling in 2004 like a clever joke in the wilderness, the campaign in fact anticipated many of the core concerns of Occupy Wall Street and other “Great Recession”-era activism.
B4B pulled off tricky balancing acts. It was a highly disciplined media campaign that was also able to invite creative participation and grow virally. It had a scrappy, DIY feel but used high-production values, tight messaging, and sex appeal to wow the media and audiences alike. It addressed serious issues with irony, humor, and camp. The result was an entertaining and accessible vehicle for speaking about realities of American life often ignored in public discourse. The costuming and alter-ego-tripping was also empowering for the group itself: no matter one’s station in life, one could become someone important and “fabulous” — it was like drag for the middle class. For all these reasons, the campaign inspired in its participants an extraordinary level of commitment — to their “characters” and to the larger struggle for justice.
Well-crafted actions, occurring simultaneously in disparate locales, amplified the campaign’s sense of unity, power, and reach. The B4B repertoire of distributed actions included Cheap Labor Day, “Education is not for everyone Day” at the beginning of the school year, and others. “Dick Cheney is Innocent Day” began as a national day of action featuring coordinated, candle-lit vigils in front of Cheney’s VP residence in D.C., state capital buildings, an official Cheney speaking engagement in Milwaukee, and outside the Fox News windows in Times Square. Flyers were produced listing all of ol’ Dick’s many crimes (but protesting how baseless they were, of course!) and made available for easy download, alongside a national press release
The Billionaire spectacle was a mindbending double- or triple-take: apparent Bush supporters, spewing over-the-top pro-Bush rhetoric, were really Bush opponents, who made the Republicans appear both venal and ridiculous. Some observers remained fatally confused as to the group’s message. Occasionally, true conservatives begged the Billionaires not to make Bush look bad by being so brazenly pro-rich. Most people, however, soon got the joke: that the Republicans, despite their populist rhetoric, are a party of, by, and for the wealthy. Sometimes the Billionaires “jammed” the earnest culture of the political left. Retorting “This is what plutocracy looks like!” and “Whose Street? Wall Street!” to familiar lefty chants, the Billionaires suggested that progressive advocates of We the People had little inkling of the wealth and influence they were up against. The Billionaires tried to speak truth to — and about — power.
The Billionaires were distinguished from other anti-Bush activists by their upper-crust look and ironic messaging, which denounced the Republicans through parodic expressions of reactionary principles. As something new and different, the campaign avoided the media’s boredom with covering angry protesters protesting, well, angrily. The result was media exposure of B4B messaging vastly disproportionate to the group’s size and resources.
Politicians often avoid any direct reference to their ultimate agenda, especially when their plan is to plunder. The activist must expose their true intent. This “unmasking” was central to B4B shtick, and was the basis for particular actions. In 2005, the Billionaires joined the fight against Bush’s plan to privatize social security, which would have been the biggest shift of public capital in history. To dramatize this outcome, Billionaires for Bush auctioned off Social Security in the most public forum available: eBay. The auction limited bidding to Wall Street bankers and casino operators and broke down the numbers on exactly what was to be gained by the wealthy and lost by the rest. Though eBay quickly took down the auction, more than 25,000 people visited the sale, and bidding peaked at $99,999,999. For days, media coverage continued to spread the message: “Billionaires for Bush auctioned off Social Security on eBay.”