Tom Steyer says that one of his favorite poetry lines of all time is a question that Mary Oliver poses in “The Summer Day”: “Tell me, what is it you plan to do / with your one wild and precious life?” That’s a question that the successful hedge fund founder has been asking himself over the last decade, as he left the financial world and became a funding juggernaut in Democratic politics.
Though he flirted with the idea of running for office in 2018, as the Californian has in previous cycles, Steyer is instead focusing on two separate projects this year: spending $30 million through his super PAC, NextGen America, to help Democrats win back the House and continuing a campaign for President Donald Trump’s impeachment.
The list of reasons Steyer believes in the latter crusade is long, but he says the “big one” is that Trump potentially obstructed justice in firing FBI director James Comey. In mid-January, TIME sat down with Steyer – on a trip in his Chevy Volt – to talk about his efforts this year, his plans for the future and what brought him to this point.
The interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.
You’ve said you’ll spend more $20 million on the impeachment campaign. Why are you pushing so hard?
The name of that campaign is ‘Need to Impeach,’ not ‘Like to Impeach.’ And that’s our point. We aren’t taking this lightly. We really honestly feel Mr. Trump is a danger to the American people, and [impeachment] is something that only the will of the American people can make happen. They need to understand how big the threat is … I mean, it’s a long process. Nixon, from the time they started talking about impeachment until the day he resigned, was two and a half years. Getting rid of the duly elected president of the United States is a huge deal.
How long will you keep at it?
I think it’s a question of events. Everybody’s assuming some sort of stasis but we’re not assuming stasis. The one thing we can be sure of is there won’t be stasis, right? … Do we have a fit president? We’re now having a national debate on this question, partly as a result of [Michael Wolff’s Fire and Fury]. Partly the result of the Mueller investigation … The chance that nothing happens between now and Election Day around this question of fitness is zero.
Will you be happy if this doesn’t lead to impeachment but leads to a bigger national conversation – or discussion in Congress?
That’s not success. I think everyone has tried to look through our campaign and see what the ‘real’ campaign is. There’s nothing to look through. Everyone is looking for the subtext, and it’s just text.
Some people have suggested that the project is part of you building a resume to run for office.
All last year people asked ‘What are you going to do?’ And I said I’m going to try to figure out the thing that has the maximum positive impact. And they’re like, ‘Now you can tell us what you’re really going to do.’ No, really, that’s what I’m going to do! And I was telling the truth.
Have you ever run for an elected office?
Not since high school.
What did you run for?
I think I ran for president of the student body.
Did you win?
I think I did.
Do you remember what your platform was?
I think I do. First of all, I’m class of 1975 in high school. And my high school was just going co-ed. And I was in a boarding school. My platform was what was then called parietals, that boys and girls should have the right to visit each other’s rooms. … If people had asked me the subtext, I’d say ‘Subtext?! There’s no subtext. There’s text.’
How much desire do you have to be a candidate, in the arena, now?
I see it differently, and I know that this is frustrating for everybody. I’m super ambitious about having an impact, and unabashedly so. I want to have a positive impact. And I think we’re making up a way to do that, and I don’t think that’s weird because I live in San Francisco, California. So, to me, it’s like everyone keeps saying, ‘Why aren’t you running a punch card computer company?’ And I think, I’m going to run a punch card computer company if that’s the best thing I can do, but not if it isn’t. And that’s the point.
I look at it and I say: What is the issue going on in the United States of America? … To me, the issue is we are out of control and in crisis, pretty much across the board. Every single issue, out of control and in crisis. And so the question is what can people do about it? That’s the question I’ve been trying to answer. And I feel that’s the question that Americans have answered lots of times in the past. In normal times, the answers are normal. And in abnormal times, the answers are not normal.
I know you’ve said many times that you’ll do whatever makes the biggest impact for the progressive cause. But I’m curious about your willingness to run for office. It seems like you’re keeping that at arm’s length.
Well, you might be right. But that isn’t my problem … It didn’t seem like the effective path this year. Okay, here we are. What can I actually do? What can actually make a difference? And my feeling was there’s no one else who is going to do what we’re going to do if we don’t do it. There are plenty of people who are going to run for office.
One theory out there is that this is all an exercise in preparing to make a run at the White House in 2020.
[He laughs.] All I can tell you is none of the people who are saying that have a clue what’s going to happen between now and Nov. 6, and neither do I. I mean, think about it. There are so many different ways this world could look and we are so intent on it looking a good way on Nov. 7, 2018, that I say anyone who is thinking about that stuff at this point – that means you’re not thinking that hard about November 2018. If you’re trying to respond to the needs of the United States, you’re not doing that. You’re thinking about your career. It’s like, to hell with you. And that’s my honest attitude about that.
In politics there is often a subtext, so it’s not surprising people are looking for one in the impeachment campaign.
That’s true, but I’ve been saying since [Election Day]: this is not normal. This is not a normal guy. This is not a normal circumstance. Anyone who is treating it that way is missing the point, and you’re eventually going to figure it out. So we’re very interested to see how fast people figure it out.
I had some horrible conversations in November 2016, where some of my close friends [who are progressive Democrats] said to me, ‘You are delusional,’ in thinking that this was as bad as I said it was. They wanted to treat it like George W. Bush. They said, ‘You’re blowing this out of proportion. You have no idea what you’re talking about. You sound crazy.’ They now deny they said that.
What was the first thing Trump did after taking office that you pointed to as evidence for your argument?
God, I don’t remember. The travel ban was ridiculous. His dystopian inauguration was ridiculous. I think to me, the giveaway was who he put up for Cabinet. I mean Jefferson Sessions? Pruitt? The whole thing. Crazy. I mean, Mnuchin? Zinke?
You started making a political name for yourself by fighting climate change. But then you went broader on progressive issues, changed the name of your super PAC from NextGen Climate to NextGen America. Why pivot?
One of the things I’ve learned is that I thought in 2010 that climate change would be like World War II. It’s a threat to everybody in the country. That’s what America does best, come together over real threats. It was not question of geography or background or income level or partisanship. We all do it together, we’re better for doing it together, we tell the truth, we come up with the solutions. That’s America – not so fast. We deny the facts. We try and swallow the science. We keep trying to make money. I was really surprised. Maybe I’m naïve.
So do you now think Americans are both those things, driven by money and also by a desire to confront problems for the good of all?
No, I think the American people are with us. I think the Republican party has been captured by donors whose bottom line is tied to burning fossil fuels, and I think they are personally pursuing a devastatingly dishonest and corrupt policy that has cost the United States over $300 billion this year in climate-related disasters. That’s where we are. And they’re still denying it and trying to scrub their websites of the words. It’s amazing.
So, my point is, the first things I did were all bipartisan. And it was beaten into my head with a stick. ‘No, we’re not going with you.’ And I realized OK, that isn’t the way this works. And maybe that isn’t the way it should work. That actually this is something that we’re going to have to put in the context of a broader mission, which is good – that there’s a different way of thinking about this in a justice framework that is better than the way I was thinking.
In some ways, you’ve embodied those two American mindsets. When you were at your hedge fund, Farallon, you made investments in coal-related projects, energy companies. Since then you’ve worked hard and spent a lot of money raising awareness about the dangers of fossil fuels. How do you feel about that now?
I see that as just – I hadn’t realized the problem. Over 10 years ago, I thought, ‘Oh my gosh. We should be dealing with this.’ And that’s when I started giving away money for research … I realized the problem was gigantic, but I still thought we would handle it in a normal American way. And we just haven’t. It’s 10 years later and all I’m really saying to people is: Go through the thought process I went through. Do the math. Face the facts and figure out how to participate in a solution. Do I wish I had figured it out sooner? Of course I do. But I figured it out when I did, and I acted on it, and I’ve tried as hard as I could to be part of the solution. There are lots of things I wish I’d figured out sooner. That’s just life. You know, you figure out stuff when you can and try to do the right thing and keep going.
I wanted to ask about labels. In headlines you often get summed up as an environmentalist or California billionaire. In your ads for the impeachment campaign, you simply identify yourself as a ‘citizen.’ What would you like people to use when they talk about you?
The thing I’m proud of is being an active citizen. I’m not running away from the fact that I had a long business career, because I learned a bunch from it and I worked with some really good people and I think I’ve learned an amazing amount about this particular government and what we’re doing now. Honestly. I feel like I listen to people talk about the tax plan and think, ‘Wow, you guys don’t know taxes or economics, do you? Because what you’re saying is stupid.’ … In terms of what I’m doing now, what I’m enjoying, is the chance to try to make a difference.
Another term that gets used is megadonor, especially when people are describing you as a liberal counterweight to the Koch Brothers.
I don’t really know what a megadonor is. I feel like it’s super misleading, that people think I give huge amounts to campaigns. By the way, we don’t. It’s illegal. What we do is run a grassroots campaign, to broaden democracy, to engage people and try to get more people involved in the system, so we get better answers. … So that’s not the one I’d choose. But I don’t spend a lot of time worrying about it.
What do you think about the comparison to the Koch Brothers?
I think that’s very misleading. First of all, I get the point that there’s too much money in politics, and I agree with it. I think there should be reform, and what we’re trying to do is take away the bad part of money in politics as much as we can by being transparent. I think the Kochs are not transparent. And when was the last time you sat in the back of a Volt with Charles Koch?
We have an open agenda, which is to make a positive difference, and they have an open agenda too, which is to change the laws to help them. It’s like they have some cockamamie philosophy that screwing everybody else on their behalf is actually good for the other people.
Where did you get the desire to transition from a life in the financial world to a life in politics?
I think of that as a traditionally American thing … I was trying to get out of [the financial world] for a long time. I was trying to leave Farallon for eight years before I left. [It took a long time] because I liked investing.
What did you like about it?
It was like figuring out puzzles with infinite variables. I still do puzzles every day. A couple crosswords a day, number puzzles … My mom was good enough at crosswords that she started to do the Times in ink and started to think it was too easy.
Would you say you’re more like your mother [who ran volunteer programs in public schools and worked as a news producer] or your father [who was a partner at a New York City law firm]?
My mother is very ballsy. I would say the job that I did, in some ways, at Farallon, was more like my dad. But starting the company and being a rebel is definitely much more like my mother.
And they came from different religious backgrounds, one Jewish and one Christian. Do you consider yourself a religious person?
Very … My feeling about it is that one of the big points of life is trying to be part of the positive life force. Really. And that whatever you can do to get yourself into that, I’m in favor of. People use different means. They say you can do it by taking a hike. Some people do it by their relations with dogs and horses, and I understand that too. I feel like going to church does that for me … [to be] forced to look at life more broadly and to think about things, put in perspective – what the point is of life and what you’re trying to do while you’re here.
You grew up in New York and now live in California. What do you think about the notion that there are two Americas – a coastal one and an inland one – that are disconnected from each other?
I don’t think that is an unsolvable problem. I do see it and I do go to the middle of the country and I understand why it would be so scary to be living there in the 21st century, with the information and technology going so fast, with the globalization happening so fast and with the physical world deteriorating the way it is. That’s really, really scary if you’re living in Fort Wayne, Indiana.
Now can I put it in context? The people in Fort Wayne, Indiana, are not stupid and they are very hardworking, so the idea that they can’t succeed in the 21st century or that there should be a divide or there must be a divide, I reject. The question I ask is what can we do to connect the people in Fort Wayne to the people in Silicon Valley and New York and Boston and D.C.? What can you do so they can hook into the parts of the world that are taking advantage of the information technology revolution and globalization and are actually dealing with the issues of the 21st century successfully? Instead of telling those people that we’re going to go back to the 20th century and everything is going to be great.
Bullshit we are. That’s a big lie, that we’re going to go back to coal and manufacturing. It’s a delusional lie, it’s wrong, and the fact that Trump made that lie and got away with it is totally understandable because he’s addressing real fears and real problems, but he’s giving them a fake solution. And there are real solutions, but they involve education and broadband and, believe it or not, good roads.
There seems to be bipartisan agreement that American infrastructure, including here in California, could use updating.
Infrastructure is just a word. People love to use it in Washington, D.C. But they literally think that making an investment is a good thing. That’s idiotic. Making a smart investment is a good thing. Making a dumb investment is a waste of money. They don’t even know that there’s a difference … But there’s no reason for that divide. [Even with the disruption from automation] there will be tons of jobs. The second question is, if we’re going to create service sector jobs and healthcare jobs, why do they have to pay $11 an hour? Did God decree that? No. We set it up that way. That’s a structural failure of the labor market. We can set it up a different way.
In an ad about the Republican tax plan that recently passed, you said that it would benefit you personally and that was proof the system was rigged against middle class Americans and the plan was bad. As a billionaire, is it hard to have real empathy with the general population, when you will never have to struggle financially?
Never is a long time. And no, I don’t think that’s hard. I read the headlines too. I know that’s how people like to characterize me but that’s not how I think of myself. I’m not pretending to empathize with people. I’m a person too … A big part of thinking about systems and people and incentives is understanding other people and being able to put yourself in their place. When I was going to college, I spent one summer [in Nevada working on a cattle ranch and another in Oregon picking fruit]. And it was intentional. I try to make it a point that I get to see people in different parts of the country doing different things and learn from them about how the world looks from their vantage point.
Have you met Trump?
What would say to him if you did?
What is there to say? … There’s no reason to say anything to someone who is not going to hear what you have to say. He’s not going to hear what I have to say. I have nothing to say to him.
This guy is cracking up and that’s the truth, and what people don’t understand is it’s not going to get better. I’m not trying to be rude. He is troubled and it is not going to get better, it just isn’t … Everyone who expected him to revert to normalcy, pivot to decency, it’s not going to happen.