Michael Bloomberg on Brexit, Trump and the US Presidency / Telegraph Magazine
Seven metres below the City of London’s newest building, the £1 billion European headquarters of the financial data and media giant Bloomberg, lies the newly restored and faithfully reconstructed remains of what is probably London’s oldest building: a Roman temple dedicated to a virile, bull-slaying young deity called Mithras.
This ‘Mithraeum’ has been open - free - to the public since early November, and a short sound-and-light show transports visitors back to the 3rd century AD when the temple was in the heart of Londinium, a prosperous outpost of the mighty Roman empire that was built on trade and full of foreign merchants and sailors. A wooden writing table recovered from the site records that Tibullus owed Gratus 105 denarii for various goods, and is thus the City’s earliest financial document.
What the all-male cultists who worshipped and feasted in the temple at that time could never have foreseen is that within another century or so the Roman empire would have collapsed, and Londinium would be all but abandoned for half a millenium. There is, these remains seem to suggest, no rule that says cities, cultures and civilisations will inevitably endure.
Eighteen hundred years later Bloomberg’s dazzling new state-of-the-art headquarters now stands, as the Mithraeum once did, in the heart of a seemingly flourishing, cosmopolitan London – a veritable temple to globalisation.
So I ask Michael Bloomberg, the company’s founder and chief executive, whether - as Donald Trump’s America cools on free trade and international alliances, and Britain prepares to quit the European Union – our own Anglo-Saxon civilisation might also be facing decline. Somewhat to my consternation, he suggests it is.
“I think it’s very worrisome,” he says as we sit in a large, open-plan office on the building’s sixth floor. “We are in a world where because of technology you have to interact with everybody else, and if you try to cut yourself off it’s really hard to see how you can thrive. ‘Survive’ is probably overstating it, but certainly ‘thrive’.”
Warming to the them, he tells me he has recently returned from China where people are proud of their country. They smile while westerners grimace. “I really am worried about it. I don’t want to take anything away from China, but they are ascending, and it’s hard to argue that western Europe, including the UK, and North America, particularly the US, less so Canada and Mexico, is doing the same thing.”
It is not just that the US and Britain are pulling up their proverbial drawbridges. At various points in our hour-long conversation he laments the breakdown of bipartisanship in America, the lack of civility in public discourse, the disparagement of experts and experience, the pervading culture of blame, the increasing sensationalism of the media, the decline of public health and education, the baleful effect of television and fast food on family life, and the amount of time people spend “playing Angry Birds on their I-phones rather than communicating”.
It is not too late to save ourselves, he says, but “we’re heading towards a world that’s not a good one – not a place you would want your kids to grow up in.
Bloomberg is short, dapper, courteous and in remarkably good shape for a man of 75 – hours before our interview he had flown overnight from New York to Luton in his private Falcon jet, freshened up at his house in Cadogan Square, then taken the tube from Sloane Square to Mansion House to preside over the Mithraeum’s opening ceremony at 10.00am.
He is a spectacularly successful businessman who, since being laid off by Salomon Brothers in 1981, has amassed a $48 billion fortune by providing the financial world with instant market data on Bloomberg terminals. He is now the world’s tenth richest person though – monogrammed blue shirt apart - you would never know it. He has no airs and graces. He has no private office in the new open-plan headquarters– just a desk in a pod like everyone else’s. Studiously egalitarian, he dislikes titles and insists that even the lowliest of his 20,000 employees around the world call him Mike.
He was also a very successful, three-term centrist mayor of New York. In 12 years from January 2002 he helped it recover from the 9/11 attacks that destroyed the World Trade Centre, steered it through the financial crash of 2008, balanced its budget and transformed the Big Apple into one of America’s safest and cleanest cities. For good measure, he declared war on trans fats, smoking and fizzy drinks, and refused to take a salary.
Today Bloomberg has a new role. He is the anti-Trump. In the absence of an obvious Democratic standard-bearer, he has become an – or even the - unofficial leader of the opposition, using his massive wealth to resist a president whom he has variously described as a con man, demagogue and insane.
Indeed Bloomberg is everything his fellow New York billionaire is not – a globalist, environmentalist, free trader, supporter of bipartisanship, immigration, gun controls, same sex marriage and abortion rights. He objects when I suggest he is the president’s polar opposite. “I am what I am. If he wants to go and be on the other side, he would be the polar opposite of me, thank you. I’m a little bit older than than him,” he quips. Besides, he adds, he and Trump do not disagree on everything: “He’s in favour of golf, and I’m in favour of golf too.”
Bloomberg is scathing about Trump. He refuses to call him a businessman, insisting he is a real estate developer who has never managed more than five people and is worth scarcely a quarter of the $10 billion he claims.
He laments Trump’s failure to assemble a good White House team - “if you don’t have a team you don’t do anything” - and says he will find it hard to do so now his administration is in trouble. He hopes Trump will abandon protectionism because “we have to have global trade if we’re going to provide jobs for the people that he says he’s going to help and the people who elected him”. He does not know what the president stands for because “most of the things he talks about now are 180 degrees the opposite of what he did before he ran for office”.
He accuses Trump of doing nothing to help the struggling blue-collar workers who voted for him and replies, when I ask if Trump has demeaned his office: “The level of discourse and what’s acceptable behaviour in terms of veracity and civility had gone down significantly, and it’s really worrisome.”
He is almost as damning about Brexit, which he recently called “the single stupidest thing any country has ever done”.
Bloomberg is an anglophile whose first wife, Susan, came from Yorkshire. His two daughters, Emma and Georgina, have British passports. He received an honorary knighthood last year for his charitable work, and is a patron of various British institutions including the Old Vic theatre, the Serpentine art gallery and Tate Modern. In 2015 he bought a £16 million mansion on Chelsea’s Cheyne Walk in addition to his Cadogan Square home.
He is saddened by the direction the country is taking. Far from creating a ‘global Britain’, as Boris Johnson and other leading Brexiters suggest, it is “going in exactly the opposite direction. If I had a country and 45 per cent of my exports went to one entity – in this case the EU – I would spend a lot of time caring and feeding that relationship,” he says. It will be will be the disgruntled blue collar workers who voted to leave that will suffer most: “In the name of those in need we always find a way to screw them.”
Brexit has also damaged Britain’s international stature, he continues. “It’s not the image I would want of pulling away from your biggest market and trying to close your borders...That’s not policy the rest of the world would think was attractive.” He tells me that a “large handful” of his employees in both London and New York have already asked to be moved to other countries because, those employees say, “they don’t like immigrants here”.
Bloomberg got to know Boris Johnson well when they overlapped as mayors of the world’s two great global cities. He spares Johnson the sort of criticism he lavishes on Trump, saying he was a good spokesman for London and enjoyable company, but it is clear that he prefers his more serious and experienced successor. “Sadiq Khan will make things work. He will run the railroad much better than Boris. I think Sadiq Khan is the right kind of guy.”
Bloomberg’s new headquarters in London are stunning. Designed by Norman Foster and reputedly the greenest commercial building in Britain – perhaps the world - it has a great circular vestibule called ‘the Vortex’ with swirling wood walls that evoke the eye of a hurricane, sweeping curved ramps between floors, huge specially-commissioned works of modern art and dramatic views of St Paul’s cathedral and the City.
It is designed to engender dynamism, openness and interaction amongst the 4,000 people who work there, and no expense has been spared, but would Bloomberg have built it had he known Britain would be leaving the EU? “Probably,” he answers a shade equivocally. “I still think that in the post-Brexit world the financial centre of Europe is going to be London. It will be diminished. It will be less profitable. It will be less valuable to this country, but it will still be London.”
Inevitably, eventually, the conversation turns to Bloomberg’s presidential ambitions.
A Democrat turned Republican turned independent, he was tempted to run as a third party candidate against Barack Obama and John McCain in 2008. He talks almost wistfully about how he wanted to run last year, recalling that he had employed campaign staff, assembled a brains trust and made commercials before concluding that the electoral rules made it impossible for an independent to win.
But what about 2020, I ask? How about seeking the Democratic nomination to take on Trump? He would be 78 by then, but his mother lived to 102 and he so robust that he still pilots helicopters and sometimes jets from New York to London and back in a single day. He opposes Trump’s policies “violently” - his word - and is already deploying his fortune actively to resist them.
As Trump pulls America out of the Paris climate agreement Bloomberg has rallied the country’s governors, mayors and corporate chiefs behind a pledge to meet the accord’s emission targets anyway. As Trump moves to revive the US coal industry, Bloomberg campaigns to close the country’s coal-fired power stations in favour of clean energy. As Trump cools on international alliances like the United Nations and Nato, Bloomberg has taken over the Clinton Global Initiative which brings heads of state, billionaire philanthropists, business titans, Nobel laureates and celebrities together in New York each autumn to seek solutions to pressing global problems.
Closer to home, as Trump refuses to tighten firearm laws despite the recent massacres in Texas and Las Vegas, Bloomberg is financing the gun control lobby and those few brave politicians who defy the National Rifle Association. He has also taken on the tobacco industry, and spent considerably more on philanthropic causes – $5 billion - than Trump’s entire worth.
“I’m thinking about running for president of my block association,” is Bloomberg’s first answer when I ask him about 2020. “I’ve worked at that for a long time,” he replies when I accuse him of evading the question. He stresses that he is very happy running his business, overseeing his philanthropic foundation and enjoying his family.
But finally he opens the door just enough to make clear that he has not ruled out a ‘battle of the billionaires’ next time round – and the chance to become America’s first Jewish president. “If God came and said ‘Would you like the job?’ I (would) think it’s a wonderful opportunity to change the world,” he allowed.