“I’ve had a lot of people write to me saying, can I find some space on Necker Island? Can I send them, literally, on a one-way trip to space?” Sir Richard Branson half-laughs over the phone from New York.
But he knows America’s post-election panic is real. He’s alarmed, too.
“I’ve heard all sorts of things in the last few days,” he said, sharing his own unease, pausing for a cup of English breakfast tea. The Virgin Group mogul and Hillary Clinton supporter had made no secret of his fear of a Donald Trump victory in the months leading up to this week. Now he’s also wondering what the president-elect’s reign will mean for not only America’s future, but the rest of the world.
“I think it’s made a lot of people very sad and very worried—with good reason. There are things that all of us believe in, whether it’s tackling climate change or universal healthcare or looking after people like the refugees who desperately need help, or stopping automatic weapons...” he drifted off. “There are just so many things that a horrible cloud now hangs over.”
In some ways Branson is Britain’s answer to Donald Trump, or some approximation thereof: A multibillionaire businessman who enjoys soaking up the spotlight on the world’s stage, as famed for his outsized antics and knack for drumming up publicity as he is for co-founding and owning one of the UK’s biggest and flashiest branded conglomerates.
Instead of real estate and golf courses and casinos and fear-mongering political campaigns, the 66-year-old Branson has built an empire in the clouds, affixing everything from airlines to telecoms to media to commercial space travel with the Virgin name. His public persona is that of the world travelling adventurer-mogul, and while he earned knighthood in 2000 for his contributions to entrepreneurship, it’s his humanitarian, ecological, and philanthropic work in service of dozens of global causes that has also come to define the impact he will leave behind.
But it’s the Richard Branson who, for years in the 1980s and 1990s attempted to cross the Atlantic Ocean in the largest hot air balloon ever made, is the subject of the new documentary Don’t Look Down. Branson and his cohorts appear in the film detailing every ambitious attempt, misfire, failure, and public embarrassment incurred in pursuit of history—which he and balloonist Per Lindstrand did achieve, in 1987, by making the first transatlantic hot air balloon flight… even if it almost killed them.
Between that true tale of determination and a post-election blog entry he penned urging hope to Americans in the face of an uncertain future, however, Branson understands that go-get-‘em platitudes can only carry people so far at a time like this.
“President Obama put it well when he said the quote, ‘Tomorrow the sun will rise,’” he said. “I think that’s one approach. But I think equally we’ve all got to, if we’re in any position of influence, to use it to speak out, to fight for what we believe to be right, and to campaign.”
“When I started out in business as a 16-year-old, I started a magazine to campaign against the Vietnam War—which was an unjust war,” he continued. “And I think if people’s rights are going to be taken away in America we’ll need to see demonstrations of the size that took place when the Vietnam War was going on. The government is going to need to know that there’s a line that they can’t cross.”
As one of the business world’s more public champions of clean energy and environmental preservation, Branson urges his peers to use their position to battle the new eco-policies Trump’s presumed incoming administration of climate change deniers may seek to enact.
“We’re going to need to have business leaders speaking out telling the government that you cannot ignore 99 percent of scientists who say global warming is a threat, and risk the world being put in peril by reopening coal mines instead of creating hundreds of thousands of jobs in the clean energy sector, which would be good for our nation and good for the world.”
“You can’t destroy a universal healthcare system that is in its infancy, and was obviously by no means perfect, but was essential to so many people’s lives!” he said. “You need to do what the Democrats would have done, which is improve it and make it as near perfect as possible.”
Branson weighed in on the Brexit vote in his own country, a decision he’d warned would be “the worst decision the British public ever made”—and one that sent his business shares nosediving. “The people of Britain were misled by both politicians and by the popular right-wing press, The Daily Mail and The Sun, with facts that just weren’t true,” Branson offered. “Sadly, the British people will suffer. If it becomes a hard Brexit it’s going to be devastating for Great Britain, and it’s going to be very bad news for Europe. The real pain is still to come.”
Americans opposing Trump had been protesting, joking, and promising to flee The Orange One’s America even before their presidential nightmare became a reality. But Branson urges Americans to stand firm and stop entertaining the idea of running from the future under President-elect Trump. “I think people need to stay in America and fight for what’s right. And that’s the way forward.”
Sure, that might easy for a guy worth an estimated $5.2 billion to say. Branson could, after all, hop a Virgin flight out of town to hide out on the aforementioned Necker Island, his private Caribbean island home, or jettison himself into the stars on his $200,000-per-ticket Virgin Galactic suborbital space flight.
“I’m not an American. I sometimes feel as I am,” he laughed. “But I can speak on a lot of global issues. A lot of our foundations are global and a lot of the people who sit on our foundations are American. Issues are global.”
As a keen observer of the American presidential election, Branson predicts that the poor blue-collar voters who helped propel Trump into the White House will be sorely disappointed by the reality of his presidency.
“There are people who voted for change,” he empathized. “I don’t think a lot of them necessarily voted for some of the policies that Trump was espousing—but maybe some of them did. When you look at the surveys they just wanted change, almost for change’s sake. I’m not sure that the working-class person that voted for Trump is going to get the change that they hoped for.”
“Trump has said that he’s not going to tax the wealthy, not going to tax the one-percent,” he added. “I’m just not quite sure what he’s going to be able to do for the working-class man. Stopping trade agreements is likely to result in more expensive goods here in America, which will cost the working-class man a lot more money. Sending people out of America when you’ve got full employment at the moment in America is going to damage the economy, and obviously damage the individual and break up families, and not really achieve anything.”
But as a member of that global one-percent himself, what will Branson do to funnel his own considerable resources towards the change he wants to see? He vows to beef up the initiatives already in place to combat several global issues, particularly those most likely to be affected or exacerbated by President-elect Trump’s policies.
“We’ve got the Carbon War Room and the B Team, and the Virgin Earth Prize, which are working on tackling global warming,” said Branson. “Obviously if America goes a way that rips apart COP21 we’re going to have to work even harder than we’ve worked to date in running businesses—to step into the shoes of government, to make sure that America delivers its promise of carbon neutrality by 2050.”
“We’ve got The Elders that speak out on issues but are also there to tackle contract resolution issues,” said Branson, who along with pal and fellow business prodigy, space enthusiast, and philanthropist Elon Musk champions green energy as the solution to environmental catastrophe.
“The Ocean Elders lobby governments and try to create more nature reserves. We have a global drug commission that is trying to move governments toward treating drugs as a health problem, not a criminal problem,” he said. “Some of them will need to be even more active, with what’s happened in America. We will put whatever resources into these organizations that’s necessary to deal with it.”