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Americans feel as bad about billionaires today as they did during the 2009 recession

One theory: It has less to do with Elizabeth Warren and more to do with Donald Trump.

President Donald Trump speaking from behind a podium.
President Donald Trump speaks on February 13, 2019, in Washington, DC.
Michael Reynolds/Getty Images

Billionaires are on defense these days — academics, liberals, and even some billionaires are questioning whether they should even exist. And it appears that a lot of Americans agree.

People feel as negatively about billionaires as they did during the throes of the global economic crisis, according to a new social media sentiment analysis prepared for Recode by Crimson Hexagon. About three-quarters of opinionated posts about billionaires have been negative recently — similar to what the conversation was like around 2009.

Crimson Hexagon looked at public social media posts that used the word “billionaire” over the past decade, on Twitter, Tumblr, and Reddit as well as on a variety of other blogs, comment sections, and forums. The consumer insights company measured a total of nearly 80 million posts globally that had clear negative or positive sentiment, rather than ones that were simply informational.

As the world grew out of the recession, we got more comfortable with billionaires: Around 2014, half of the sentiments expressed were positive. You were as likely to see a positive post about billionaires — maybe about how they’re using their money to change the world, or how they’ve become titans of their industry — as you were to see a negative post.

For about four years, our online opinion was pretty settled. Here’s one theory for what happened next: Donald Trump.

At around the time that it was becoming clear that he would be the Republican presidential nominee, the conversation about billionaires turned sharply negative. It would continue to fall dramatically all the way through about the time of his inauguration.

That makes sense — at least in the US — for a few reasons: You’d think that Trump is the billionaire that is by far the most etched into our public dialogue these days. Sure, we talk about Warren Buffett or Carlos Slim or Michael Jordan when they’re in the news, but Trump is the news. He dominates the conversation on social media.

Plus, Trump’s campaign was very much about billionaires. He was talking about how he made his money. He was attacking other billionaires (Sheldon Adelson, Charles Koch, Michael Bloomberg.) And Hillary Clinton was attacking him as an out-of-touch billionaire during the general election, when public sentiment about billionaires continued to fall.

After Trump’s win, and especially over the last year or so, others on the left have escalated this anti-billionaire rhetoric. Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA), a 2020 hopeful, is calling for a wealth tax. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) is calling for top marginal tax rates as high as 70 percent.

And at a time of massive wealth inequality, even Bill Gates — until recently the richest person in the world — is open to the conversation.

“I think it’s fascinating that for the first time in my life people are saying, ‘Okay, should you have billionaires?’ ‘Should you have a wealth tax?’” Gates told Forbes. “I think it’s a fine discussion.”

But even if the politics are changing, that has yet to be registered online: Public sentiment over the last year has gotten more negative, but only slightly.

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