Narcissism was in the air in Washington. On a February night a few hundred yards from the White House, Tom Steyer, the hedge fund billionaire and political activist, had taken over three rooms at the National Press Club for a panel called Presidential Mental Health & Nuclear Weapons. On the dais, two psychiatrists, a psychologist, a Jungian author, and a warhead-security specialist were settling into blue chairs in front of a blue curtain. They were there to discuss the matter of Donald Trump’s ego. But Steyer, stepping to the lectern by their side, was unmistakably the star of the show. Applause broke out. He smiled and locked eyes with people around the room. Fans following the Facebook livestream sent thumbs-ups by the thousands as he and the five speakers set about explaining why Trump’s sadism, paranoia, unpredictability, and self-obsession make him ill-suited to nuclear weaponry.
Steyer has commanded the spotlight before. His fund, Farallon Capital Management, made him a finance kingpin, and he became a darling of environmentalists after quitting in 2012 to fight climate change full time. His third act began six months ago, when he paid for and starred in his first nationwide ad agitating for Trump’s impeachment. If you’ve watched cable news recently, you’ve probably seen him, 60 years old with a healthy tan and a look of grim concern, staring into your soul.
“I’m Tom Steyer, and like you, I’m a citizen who knows it’s up to us to do something,” he says in the first spot, his voice gravelly and grave. He’s sitting by a fireplace wearing a folksy-billionaire midnight-blue denim shirt. His name comes on screen above “American Citizen” in smaller letters. Strings murmur eerily as the camera closes in. “People in #Congress and his own administration know that this president is a clear and present danger,” Steyer says. Within four months of the ad’s first airing, 5 million people had joined his campaign, Need to Impeach, providing names for an impeachment petition and email addresses for his budding list.
Steyer isn’t the first to claim there are grounds for booting Trump from office, but his enormous pools of wealth, outrage, and ambition mean he can do more than the members of Congress responsible for impeachment proceedings: He can spend the money required to stoke a fire and fan its flames until a real chance to burn down the administration presents itself. Thus far, he’s pledged about $40 million for Need to Impeach and an additional $30 million to get millennials into voting booths in November. He views himself as the leader of a movement to deliver America from evil—not one of those billionaires who cut checks merely to buy influence in Washington. Never mind that Steyer spent more on disclosed donations during the 2014 and 2016 election cycles than anyone else, according to the Center for Responsive #Politics.
His spending over the past year has bought him at least three kinds of opponents. The first are supporters of Trump, the celebrity-king who’s survived bedlam, bankruptcy, and scandal that would have wiped out, or at least embarrassed, mere mortals. To them, Steyer is a younger George Soros, pulling strings from the shadows. The second are fellow Democrats who think his fixation is distracting at best and harebrained at worst. They point out that no president has been removed via impeachment, that Democrats don’t have the congressional majority they would need to initiate the proceedings, and that polls show less than half the country wants them to try. Steyer’s third set of opponents are skeptics who see his vast resources as the symptom of a disease, not its cure. Does America, they ask, need one billionaire to save it from another?