Every July, the world’s movers and shakers frolic in a tiny town in the U.S. state of Idaho. Adults can indulge in fly-fishing or simply engage in talk around a campfire while their children enjoy ping-pong tables and water pistols. For adventurous souls, there are rafting expeditions. Global media czar Rupert Murdoch once fell out of a raft but managed to reach the riverbank.
The family atmosphere of the Allen Conference in Sun Valley is deceptive. The real focus is business. Attendees this year included former New York mayor Michael Bloomberg, Disney boss Bob Iger, Colorado governor John Hickenlooper and Muhar Kent, chief executive of Coca-Cola.
For an entire week, disputes are resolved and deals negotiated, like the sale of the Washington Post newspaper to the head of Amazon, Jeff Bezos. In 2009, Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg met Cory Booker, the mayor of Newark, N.J., and then donated $100 million (€91 million) to the city’s schools. Early internet pioneer AOL laid the groundwork 16 years ago in Sun Valley for one of the most incredible purchases in economic history: the takeover of the Time Warner media company.
No journalists, no news briefings – the annual Allen Conference is as secretive as its organizer, Allen & Co., the New York investment bank that has been pulling strings in the U.S. economy for almost 100 years.
For some in the United States, money is a measure of standing in the eyes of God: the more, the better.
The bank helped Google go public. A few months ago, it mediated the sale of LinkedIn to Microsoft. Its chief executive is Herbert Allen Jr., but he’s is anything but a household name. Few photographs of the billionaire exist.
Mr. Allen’s conference is one of the most elitist meetings in America. And it confirms all the clichés that distrustful observers associate with those at the top: deals behind closed doors, entrepreneurs holding hands with politicians, and clueless journalists.
More than a few Americans feel betrayed by such an establishment. They see gridlock in Washington and the suffering of the middle class, and they lose faith in the American Dream.
It’s also this disappointment that drives them into the arms of Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump. He thunders: We have the chance to throw out the current global elite. And he thus attracts plenty of electoral support.
At first glance, Mr. Trump’s political success seems surprising. The man who is called a billionaire by many isn’t exactly an outsider in American society. But he has never been invited to Sun Valley.
This raises a question: Who actually are the American elites? It’s a difficult and complex question. And a politically explosive one.
No doubt about it, Hillary Clinton is part of the establishment. She could soon enter the White House – but more in spite of than because of her husband, former president Bill Clinton. In almost all surveys, she is almost as unpopular as Mr. Trump: 57 percent have a negative opinion of her. She is said to be “untrustworthy” or even “corrupt.” Even those voting for her have little enthusiasm: 68 percent of Clinton supporters would be “relieved” at her victory, but only a quarter would be “enthusiastic.”
Reports of payments by foreign countries to the Clinton Global Initiative foundation, lucrative speeches for companies, and deleted e-mails prove to many Americans that she is too close to the center of power.
This is what Mr. Trump is alluding to when he repeatedly mentions her “30 years in national politics.” A voter named George Wolf explains his distaste for Ms. Clinton in this way: “I can’t stand it when politicians make money.” The 73-year-old intends to vote for Mr. Trump even though Mr. Wolf actually doesn’t like the candidate because of his “childish” statements.
Ever since its founding, the United States has been quarreling with hierarchies. Immigrants fled poverty and persecution in Europe – “the best guarantee for equality among people,” as Alexis de Tocqueville put it laconically during his travels through America almost 200 years ago.
Principles of equality still mark the country. The early immigrants were happy to leave princes, counts and dukes behind. The settlers believed that community was more important than a bishop or pope. The immigrants longed for real democracy.
Even today, many positions in local administrations are filled via elections. Police chiefs and sheriffs and candidates for such offices regularly have to put themselves up to votes. This high degree of political control might seem unusual to Europeans, but it has effectively prevented the rise of an administrative, bureaucratic elite in America.
Even the all-powerful president initially had problems. Americans deeply distrust a strong executive. One of the founding fathers, Alexander Hamilton, was regularly accused of betraying the country to England. He and his Federalist Party were said to want to reinstate a king because they advocated wide-ranging powers for the president such as the right to collect taxes.
With America’s rise to economic power, Americans’ views changed.
At the beginning, for example, some groups fought against the creation of a standing army. They feared the expense and were concerned about the independence of the individual states. Today, Republicans constantly call for higher defense expenditures.
For a time, America seemed to long for a sort of aristocracy. Some observers explain political clans such as the Kennedys with the yearning by Americans for bluebloods.
Such nostalgia has limits, however, as Jeb Bush learned in this presidential electoral season. The brother of former president George W. Bush and the son of ex-president George H.W. Bush didn’t have a chance against Mr. Trump in the primaries.
Elites in the United States are more strongly defined by money than those in Europe. In America, material success isn’t despised but is something that can be displayed and admired. For some in the United States, money is a measure of standing in the eyes of God: the more, the better.
For almost 250 years, Americans have been earning lots of money. Early in the country’s history, through agriculture. Then gold and oil, and later through cars, machines, films and software.
America’s economic elite looks like a grab bag of odd treasures.
John Rockefeller was the son of a swindler, but with Standard Oil he became the richest man of all time. Thomas Edison was hard of hearing, the youngest of seven siblings and early on handled telegrams at a train station. Then he invented the incandescent bulb and founded General Electric. In 2000, the conglomerate was the most valuable company in America.
Today that title is claimed by such companies as Amazon, Google and Facebook. Fifteen years ago, these firms were in their infancy or didn’t even exist. Mr. Rockefeller and Mr. Edison have been replaced by Mr. Bezos and Mr. Zuckerberg.
Despite all the various routes of upward mobility, there are traditions and institutions that integrate up-and-comers into the establishment. The paths include elite universities such as Stanford in California, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Boston and Princeton near New York. Their alumni networks have, in some cases for centuries, granted access to jobs, careers and venture capital.
Take Mr. Zuckerberg, for example. With the social network Facebook, he became a billionaire with breathtaking speed. The 32-year-old is a newcomer to America’s elite society but is already an established part of it. He studied at Harvard, where he got the idea for Facebook, and was active in the Alpha Epsilon Pi fraternity. As his chief operating officer, he chose Harvard graduate Sheryl Sandberg, who formerly worked for Larry Summers at the Treasury Department.
Even Tea Party and right-wing agitators such as Ted Cruz are well-connected.
Mr. Cruz, a Republican, put up a protracted fight against Mr. Trump in the primaries. Listening to Mr. Cruz’s proposals, such as doing away with the U.S. Federal Reserve system, one would scarcely expect that he graduated with honors from Princeton and the Harvard Law School.
And then we come to Mr. Trump. His background? The real-estate mogul attended Fordham University in New York, then switched to the famous Wharton School in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.
After four years of undergraduate studies, Mr. Trump earned a bachelor’s degree.
Thomas Jahn is one of Handelsblatt’s New York correspondents. To reach the author: firstname.lastname@example.org