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Grande Delusions

Will Howard Schultz eventually wake up and smell the coffee?

Howard Schultz, the CEO of America’s most lukewarm new political startup, the Howard Schultz campaign for president, is laying out his new firm’s mission statement. Fresh off a multi-city Texas tour, he’s now on stage at the South by Southwest festival, in a heavily air conditioned ballroom on top of the Austin Convention Center full of disrupters and thinkfluencers. He’s here to be real with you. “Lets propose things that are true,” he says, “that are honest, that are sincere, and that are realistic.”

Schultz, who seems to have launched his presidential bid without reading the Wikipedia article on the Electoral College, is the sane man in the room, the one who is the judge of what can and can’t be done, who can readily distinguish between fantasy and reality when the clear sight of others has failed. So it’s peculiar when moderator Dylan Byers reminds him that there is some doubt, even among other would-be #disruptors, about whether the Schultz project is viable, worthy even of Series A funding, and Schultz explicitly frames his bid as a vehicle for self-realization.

“How many entrepreneurs are in the room today, and people told you your idea, your dream, could not come true?” Schultz stands up out of his chair, his first and only bout of passion. “We live in America, where our dreams can come true! Don’t let anyone tell you your dreams can’t come true. No one.” He would not allow “the pundits, the cynics” to get in the way.

When Schultz announced his interest in running as an independent candidate for president on the platform of “common sense,” some cynics, especially online, intuited darker motives in the move: Schultz was a blackmailer, perhaps, threatening to spoil the election unless the Democrats nominated someone he approved of. Instead, the main affect Schultz has brought to the campaign trail is haplessness. If he intends to spread the word of pragmatism and the free market, he is singularly bad at it. If his pitch is that billionaires have something special to offer the country by virtue of their success, he seems instead to offer an object lesson in the ways rich people can be ordinary and clueless. He communicates exclusively in platitudes, generalities, and motivational sayings that sound vaguely fascist, like: “Sometimes the difference between success and failure is will.”

Schultz is unaware of any of this. But it’s possible to form the suspicion, watching Schultz on the trail, that he’s a plant, embarking on a long-term project to discredit himself—and by extension the ultra-rich. Perhaps the coffee man is a fifth columnist, a comrade, a class traitor. Would it be the strangest thing to happen in the last few years?

If his pitch is that billionaires have something special to offer the country by virtue of their success, he seems instead to offer an object lesson in the ways rich people can be ordinary and clueless.

What Schultz offers ideologically, of course, is nothing new: when elected, he says, he’ll offer “evidence-based,” “common-sense” solutions to the “problems.” He’ll “disrupt the system with a centrist approach,” and box out the extremists. “There are good people on both sides of the aisle, and if they came together and left their ego and ideology out of the room,” the problems could be solved with the “right level of leadership” and with proposed solutions based in “reality.”

But what does it mean, in 2019, to bend to reality? Scientists are unanimous in the consensus that we are cooking the earth and they have known this to be the case for more than three decades. In Austin, Schultz picked the one issue whose barest facts most demand radical action to make the case that radical action is wrong to pursue. On one side, there’s money—rich men and women who benefit from the cooking planet. On the other, there’s people who like living in the world. Schultz foresees a compromise between the two in which both lose nothing—and he says it is other people who are dreaming.

Schultz is somewhat aware that interests control politics. Politicians have not allowed the government to negotiate with Big Pharma because pols take money from the industry. This is shameful, he says, and he is right. The answer to the problem is for him to become president, and then pass a thing through Congress that he has correctly identified as a thing that will be difficult to pass through Congress. He alone can maybe fix it.

He shows little awareness and little curiosity about how American politics works. At SXSW, he told the crowd that proof the Democratic Party had moved too far to the left could be found in the fact that Michael Bloomberg had come to realize that “there was no place for him in the Democratic Party.” (Bloomberg, of course, was a three-term mayor of New York who was elected twice as a Republican, then as an independent, and who has now re-registered as a Democrat.) He then held that he could potentially win because “lifelong Republicans do not want to re-elect Donald Trump, because of a lack of character, a lack of dignity, a lack of civility.” Yet Trump is the most popular president among Republican voters in recent history, maybe ever.

He would win these supposedly disenchanted Republican voters despite the fact that he had “been an advocate of being pro-choice my entire life”—even though that issue alone, and the promise of pro-life Supreme Court appointments, had been enough to secure Trump’s election in 2016. “I don’t think it’s going to be an issue for me,” he said. He threw out a best-case scenario, in which he and the two major-party candidates each garner a third of the popular vote. But because some states are heavily Republican, and some Democrat, there are three likely outcomes in that scenario—a Trump landslide, a Democratic landslide, or an election thrown to the House, which would choose either a Republican or a Democrat but not an independent.

Schultz was received poorly at the SXSW event—a mostly quiet crowd clapped politely whenever he said something particularly unobjectionable, before giving Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez a riotous reception later in the afternoon. But Schultz found a warmer crowd at a sculpture garden in south Austin, in front of a meeting for the Entrepreneurs’ Organization, a private organization for entrepreneurs and founders whose business make more than $1 million a year. Schultz’s two SUVs idled for an hour outside while a moderator asked him questions both about politics and his business. Here, Schultz was able to give real applause lines. These are his people.

He would win the supposedly disenchanted Republican voters despite the fact that he had “been an advocate of being pro-choice my entire life.”

The event’s focus on Schultz as a person and a founder was clarifying, in that it helped show that Schultz’s lack of awareness about politics is an extension of a wider lack of awareness probably endemic to the billionaire class. Schultz’s whole political project is dependent on his ability to convince voters that his net worth is proof of a natural ability that extends to politics. But strangely enough, Schultz’s favorite story about his coming-up is a story of luck, and someone else’s ability.

When he was starting out, he said, he had raised money to buy a small coffee chain. Somebody else—one of his own erstwhile investors—came in at the last minute with a bigger offer. Schultz told Bill Gates’s father, then a lawyer in Seattle. Gates, an imposing sort, fixed it by telling the investor to stand down. That’s the whole story. Schultz tells the entrepreneurs that “if it wasn’t for Bill Gates Senior, there’d be no Starbucks.”

Schultz is then prodded to tell us stories from his later tenure that show the abilities and insight he’d bring to the White House. Schultz tells one story about the Starbucks division in China. He’d appointed three Americans in a row to head operations there, with the belief that the Starbucks “culture” needed to be imprinted. They failed, and he eventually appointed a Chinese person instead. She succeeded.

The decision to “decentralize” the company was a momentous one, he said, but it sounds like something one of his baristas could have figured out quicker. Then there were the times that Schultz’s wife would pester him for details about his trips and work troubles after long days. After “a lot of therapy,” he quipped, he came to understand his wife wanted to feel like she was a part of the Starbucks story.

Earlier on in the talk, Schultz had told the audience that “I don’t think there’s anything harder than building a great enduring company.” That’s easy to believe. It’s doubtless the hardest thing he’s done. But there are many other difficult endeavors that Schultz, if he had even a minute capability of empathy and self-doubt, might consider. Is it harder to build a business than it was to pass the 1964 Civil Rights Act? More difficult than living in America as a single mother on minimum wage? For a camel to pass through the eye of a needle?

Until and unless his cockeyed scheme takes flight, Mr. Coffee is properly an object of pity, not fear. Schultz can’t conceptualize politics as a matter of unique difficulty, as a battle of entrenched interests with great consequences that dwarf himself and his abilities, because his wealth has deprived him of the ability to imagine much outside of himself. At a time when the debate over the care and feeding of billionaires as a class is getting louder, Schultz has dedicated himself to traveling across the United States at great expense of time and money to show people who he is and the ways in which wealth shuts people off. Thank you, Howard. Solidarity, brother.