Feb 18th 2017

The Politics of Business, and the Business of Politics, in the World of Donald J. Trump

by David Coates

David Coates holds the Worrell Chair in Anglo-American Studies

The Chinese curse, “may you live in interesting times,” has a renewed resonance this side of January 20th. As we now all presumably realize, there is never a dull day in American politics with Donald J. Trump in the White House, and there is never likely to be one. Oh, that there was. And because there is not, miles and miles of printed commentary chase each daily absurdity in turn, running the risk as they do so both of exhausting their readership and of underscoring the Trump claim to be like no other president.  That chasing will no doubt go on, as indeed it must. But we would do well too, if only to keep our sanity intact and our political batteries fully charged, to periodically stand back from the daily hysteria of this presidency to see if any underlying lessons can already be drawn – lessons that might yet equip us to deal better with absurdities and hysterias to come.

One simple way of seeking those lessons is to assess the early days of the Trump presidency against the metric that Donald J. Trump himself established so regularly in his campaign for office –  namely the superiority of business acumen over political experience in the running of the American state, and the superiority of his business skills when set against what normally passes for intelligence in Washington DC. Donald J. Trump presented himself as the greatest of all businessmen, as I’m sure we all remember, and presented the skills of great businessmen as the answer to the problems of American politics. So it is not unreasonable, even this early in his presidency, to ask how great has been his performance in office thus far, and how much of that greatness (or its absence) can be related to either his business skills or to the skills of those immediately around him.

I

Donald. J. Trump was very clear from the earliest days of his campaign that, in his view, Washington DC was gridlocked because activity there was dominated by politicians. It was gridlocked because the nation’s capital was full of a cast of characters whom he famously characterized in the first GOP presidential debate as “stupid.”[1] What was needed, he told his campaign audiences on a regular basis, was someone in the Oval Office with a successful business career behind him; and he made the fact that he had never previously run for public office a strength rather than a weakness of his campaign. It was professional politicians who regularly ran for public office, he argued, not businessmen; and it was professional politicians who lacked the skills and the character to use those offices well when won. Indeed, as a candidate Donald J. Trump made a virtue of wanting to “drain the swamp” of the Washington corruption enjoyed by the existing political class; and he promised – as he has subsequently done – to bring people with successful business careers into public office with him, even if that success involved the occupancy of no prior public position.

These were big claims, and ones central to his November victory.[2] So it is not too early to ask how this replacement of politicians with successful business people is going so far? Nor is it too early to ask if we yet see any signs of a draining of a swamp, or any echoes of Donald J. Trump’s own business practices in the way he is conducting his presidency thus far. And the answer? Well “yes,” we do see echoes of his past business practices; but “no,” we don’t yet see much draining of a swamp, or indeed of the development of either superior governing practices or more effective federal policies.  This far at least – just the reverse, in fact.

When we then ask why there should be this striking contrast between claim and performance at the very heart of the Trump case for superiority and uniqueness, three important things come to mind, each of which will be worth holding onto – both as thoughts and as points of reference – as this presidency goes forward.

The first is this. There is no sign yet that this Administration is drawing to itself a better quality of person, or a better set of programs, because of any willingness on the part of the new president to give cabinet positions and White House influence to people without previous government experience. There is, however, already plenty of evidence to the contrary. There are some fine public servants in the list of Trump appointees but huge questions remain, and doubts persist, for most of the rest. Whether Rex Tillerson will be a better Secretary of State than either John Kerry or Hillary Clinton remains to be seen: but the bar they set was a very high one. He will do well to clear it, and the State Department’s lack of involvement in the debacle of the immigration ban was hardly a great start. The bar was set high too by Thomas Perez at the Labor Department.  From Trump, as a replacement we nearly got the robot-preferring Andrew Pudzer.[3] It was set high by Arne Duncan at Education, and now we have the totally-inexperienced Betsy DeVos. Steve Mnuchin against Jack Lew? Julian Castro against Ben Carson? You only need to ask the question to see the answer; and to see it in all its bleakness, even before you add to the mix nominees with white nationalist ties, racist pasts, and – worst of all – full immersion in the conspiracy theories of the alt-right.[4]

By what metric are any of these new people better at running a department – or in the President and Vice-President’s cases, at running an entire administration – than were those in office before them? Unless you are mentally trapped in the paranoid world of the alt-Right, or secretly subscribe to the racism of the birther movement, you only need to look at the lack of quality in the Trump nominees to weep for the future reputation of the American state both at home and abroad. You only need to count the number of presidential tweets to realize that careful and considered decision-making is not part of this president’s way of doing things. Where are these brilliant business tycoon replacements for hapless politicians? Not in the Trump cabinet yet, that’s for sure. Someone needs to explain to Donald J. Trump that the purpose of draining the swamp is to get rid of the animals, not the water.

 

The second is that, if what we are told is true about the manner in which Donald J. Trump conducted his business empire before becoming president, Trump business practices are exactly the reverse of the practices required of a successful president. And even if what we know about those practices is either only partial or incorrect, the logics of decision-making in business and those in democratic politics still could not be more different – the first, results-driven; the second, rule-governed. Donald J. Trump the businessman had a reputation for sharp elbows and, at times, questionable ethics. Not everyone at the time,[5] and not everyone since,[6] has been as impressed with his business acumen as he remains himself.  The number of law suits against him as a businessman – charged with not paying his bills in full, charged with sexual harassment, charged with financing a university that made false claims, and so on – are so many, so frequent, and so persistent over time, to at least suggest that as President he will be equally ruthless, self-focused, and driven by the desire for personal aggrandizement. Lots of his supporters like him precisely for those reasons, of course, just as so many of his opponents fear for the health/future of American democracy for the very same ones.

But either way, democratic politics does not work well if all that drives elected officials is some political equivalent of the bottom-line. The ends do not automatically justify the means in democratic politics. The means need to be appropriate too. Decisions made in the privacy of the corporate boardroom might be ethically problematic at times, and the language and values prevalent there may be woefully politically incorrect. That may work for business; but bring those values, that language, and those ethics to the public discourse of a leading democracy, and you immediately erode the legitimacy of the very policies being pursued, and your potency as a political figure able to deliver them.  Take them out onto the global stage, and you immediately devalue the word and standing of the United States in the minds of those abroad who are listening to you.

 

The third is that, by being so business-minded, Donald J. Trump is leaving himself particularly vulnerable to the worst kind of trickle-down economics, and to views of the relationship between the market and the state which are ultimately profoundly undemocratic – neither of which sit easily with his populism. We have tried generating economic growth by cutting taxation on high earners and corporations before. George W. Bush did it, and the results were disastrous. It worked better under Ronald Reagan: but in addition to cutting taxes, Reagan also raised them – quite often in fact[7] – so the unabashed trickle-down economics attributed to him is as fanciful as the claims now being made for the virtues of repeating a politics that gives money to the rich and takes money from the poor. Behind that politics, of course, lies the claim that deregulating markets is the best way to ensure that people are free, prosperous and in control of their destiny; and that the democratic state is a less adequate instrument for those same ends because of the heavy presence of corporate lobbyists and private money in the corridors of power.  When people spend their own money, they spent it wisely – so the argument goes[8] – because they can see the opportunity costs of the spending they do; whereas when they vote, they merely trade their political capital for vague promises whose costs are hidden from view.

But the argument could not be more misplaced. Leave markets unregulated – as Donald J. Trump now clearly intends to do[9] – and the big corporations get bigger and richer still. Manage them in the public interest, and the long-term costs of their single-minded pursuit of their own profits – costs to the workers they lay off, costs to the environment they pollute, and so on – can be factored in, and ameliorated accordingly. At least when we vote, each of us has one vote – unless the Republicans succeed at voter suppression. But in the market place, money talks: and the voice of those without money is never heard. There is, therefore, nothing democratic about weakening the state, and strengthening the market, in an economy and society in which the distribution of income and wealth is so heavily skewed in favor of business leaders. We don’t need governing by CEOs – they have market power enough. What we need is to more effectively govern the CEOs themselves.

 

II

Donald J. Trump’s business background gives him both leverage over, and tension with, his Republican allies in the Congress. They share his enthusiasm for business deregulation and lower taxation, and the defense-hawks among them might even favor his sharp-elbow approach to countries like Iran and China. But even they presumably draw the line at the Trump enthusiasm for tough-men abroad – if those men happen to be Russian – and though Donald J. Trump might be comfortable with a strong and interventionist domestic state so long as he runs it, his Congressional allies do not want to see big new infrastructure spending and protective tariffs with the Trump logo spread extensively across it, even if he does. The battle between Donald J. Trump’s authoritarian populism and their equally authoritarian anti-statism is going to be a prolonged one in this administration,[10] and not one that Donald J. Trump can win if he simply operates as though he was the nation’s CEO. He will not be able to fire a Paul Ryan or a Mitch McConnell; and they, by contrast, will certainly be able to sit him out. Politics in Washington DC is not a bit like the world of business after all!

But between them as they battle – Trump and the Congressional Republicans both – they will do great damage to the standing of the American state abroad and to its capacity for social reform at home – unless the opposition to Trump the bully and to Ryan the privatizer works together to make the case for a return to a saner and more normal politics first in 2018, and then in 2020. For whoever follows Donald J. Trump into the White House, if that new person is in any way progressive, then his/her entire tenure will probably be consumed simply undoing the damage now being released upon us – getting us back, that is, to where we were in 2016 – attempting, as far as it is possible, to restore America’s capacity to use soft power abroad to maintain global influence, and to restore the regulatory capacities of the American state.

 This latter may be achievable, particularly if next time round the Democratic Party avoids the Bill Clinton mistake of adopting a softer version of his predecessor’s policies – a softer Reaganism. This time round, we can afford nothing but a total rupture with the domestic politics of Donald J. Trump, and with the values encapsulated there. But sadly, the damage abroad may be harder to fix. Simply by electing such a man as President, the US electorate (or at least 62 million of them) have sent such a powerful message to the rest of the world, about its own gullibility to specious arguments about the superiority of the business mind. There is a sense in which the rest of the world will never entirely trust us again – and why should they, when we have voluntarily exposed ourselves (and them) to such a ludicrous claim? I hardly think that we now trust ourselves.

So the next time anyone seeking your vote tells you that business leaders are necessarily smarter than the rest of us, and certainly smarter than politicians, work through a sample of speeches by our last president,[11] and compare them to our daily diet now – and then ask: are you seriously kidding me?

 

First posted, with full notes and academic sources, at www.davidcoates.net

 

 

David Coates’ commentary on the second Obama term is now available as The Progressive Case Stalled.[12]

For something entirely different, and much more fun, see Lying Close to the Sky.[13]

 

 



[2] “The way Donald Trump tells it, America is in decline because Washington DC is not working, and Washington DC is currently not working for two main reasons. One reason is that there is a widespread lack of intelligence in Washington, that the existing political class is full of stupid people. As he is prone to say: “We have politicians that don’t have a clue. They’re all talk, no action. What’s happening to this country is disgraceful.” The other reason is that those same people – the ones who are stupid – are said to be entirely beholden to big donors and to special interests – “puppets” to the Koch brothers as Donald Trump tweeted earlier in the summer.” (David Coates, ‘Taking Donald Trump seriously,’ available at http://www.davidcoates.net/2015/09/04/taking-donald-trump-seriously/)

 

[3] Celine McNicholas, Pudzer’s anti-worker positions disqualify him from serving as labor secretary. Washington DC: Economic Policy Institute, February 2, 2017: available at http://www.epi.org/publication/puzders-anti-worker-positions-disqualify-him-from-serving-as-labor-secretary/

 

[4] Chauncey DeVega, “Trump has surrounded himself with a phalanx of White Nationalists,” Salon, February 14, 2017: available at http://www.alternet.org/right-wing/trumps-white-nationalist-cabinet

 

[6] “Reckoning with Trump means descending into the place that made him. What he represents, above all, is the triumph of the underworld of predators, hustlers, mobsters, clubhouse politicians and tabloid sleaze that festered in a corner of New York, a vindication of his mentor, the Mafia lawyer Roy Cohn.” (Sidney Blumenthal, “A Short History of the Trump Family,” London Review of Books, February 16, 2017, p. 32): available at https://www.lrb.co.uk/v39/n04/sidney-blumenthal/a-short-history-of-the-trump-family

 

[8] For the classic statement of this view, see Milton Friedman, “The Line We Dare Not Cross,” Encounter, November 1976: available at https://search.informit.com.au/documentSummary;dn=150767612655106;res=IELLCC

 

[9] Juliet Eilperin, “Trump undertakes most ambitious regulatory rollback since Reagan,” The Washington Post, February 12, 2017: available at https://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/trump-undertakes-most-ambitious-regulatory-rollback-since-reagan/2017/02/12/0337b1f0-efb4-11e6-9662-6eedf1627882_story.html?utm_term=.7cef052e0d89

 

[10] Martin Sandbu, “The culture war inside US economic policymaking,” The Financial Times, February 13, 2017: available at https://www.ft.com/content/1dba61fa-f18d-11e6-8758-6876151821a6

 

[11] See the book edited by EJ Dionne and Joy-Anne Reid, We Are the Change We Seek: The Speeches of Barack Obama. New York: Bloomsbury, 2017: available at https://www.amazon.com/dp/B01M3PY3MZ/ref=dp-kindle-redirect?_encoding=UTF8&btkr=1

 

Browse articles by author

More Essays

Jun 17th 2021
EXTRACT: "Confronting our complex history and ultimately embracing a more equitable, balanced, and humble culture may be a tall order in these fractious times. But that makes it even more imperative that we fully reckon with who we are and who we are capable of becoming."
Jun 11th 2021
EXTARCT: "A further health benefit of hiking is that it’s classed as “green exercise”. This refers to the added health benefit that doing physical activity in nature has on us. Research shows that not only can green exercise decrease blood pressure, it also benefits mental wellbeing by improving mood and reducing depression to a greater extent than exercising indoors can."
Jun 10th 2021
EXTRACT: "“The greatness of a nation and its moral progress,” Mahatma Gandhi said, “can be judged by the way its animals are treated.” If we apply that test to the world as a whole, how much moral progress have we made over the past two millennia? ...... That question is suggested by The Golden Ass, arguably the world’s earliest surviving novel, written around 170 CE, when Emperor Marcus Aurelius ruled the Roman Empire. Apuleius, the author, was an African philosopher and writer, born in what is now the Algerian city of M’Daourouch."
Jun 4th 2021
EXTRACT: "Research we’ve done, which looked at 37 adults with type 2 diabetes, found that over two weeks, prolonged sitting was associated with high blood sugar levels. But we also found that when people stood up or walked around between periods of sitting, they had lower blood sugar levels. Other studies have also had similar results."
May 28th 2021
EXTRACT: "Paul Van Doren's legacy lies in a famous company, and in his advice to young entrepreneurs to get their hands dirty, and to know what goes into making what they are selling."
May 19th 2021
EXTRACT: "May 7th marked three hundred and ten years since the philosopher David Hume was born. He is chiefly remembered as the most original and destructive of the early modern empiricists, following John Locke and George Berkeley." .... " Shocking as it may (and should) sound, Hume is implying nothing less than that the next time you turn the key in your car ignition, you are as justified to expect the engine will start as you are in believing it will turn into a pumpkin. For there is a radical contingency that pervades all our experience. We could wake up tomorrow to a world that looks and behaves very differently to the one we are in now. Matters of fact are dependent on experience and can never be known a priori — they are purely contingent, and could always turn out different than what we expect."
May 1st 2021
EXTRACT: " The sad reality is that the Mizrahim (Jews of Middle Eastern and North African descent) were discriminated against from the day of Israel’s inception, whose Ashkenazi (European Jewish) leaders viewed them as intellectually inferior, “backward,” and “too Arab,” and treated them as such, largely because the Ashkenazim agenda was to maintain their upper-class status while controlling the levers of power, which remain prevalent to this day." ..... " The greatest heartbreaking outcome is that for yet another generation of Israelis, growing up in these debilitating conditions has a direct effect on their cognitive development. A 2015 study published in Nature Neuroscience found that “family income is significantly correlated with children’s brain size…increases in income were associated with the greatest increases in brain surface area among the poorest children.” "
Apr 25th 2021
EXTRACT: "We all owe Farah Nabulsi an enormous debt of gratitude. In a short 24-minute film, The Present, she has exposed the oppressive indecency of the Israeli occupation while telling the deeply moving story of a Palestinian family. What is especially exciting is that after winning awards at a number of international film festivals​, Ms. Nabulsi has been nominated for an Academy Award for this remarkable work of art. " 
Apr 25th 2021
EXTRACT: "When I crashed to the floor of my home in Bordeaux recently after two months of Covid-19 dizziness, I was annoyed. The next day I collapsed again. Now I was worried. What I didn’t know was that my brain was sloshing around inside my skull, causing a mild concussion. Nor did I know that I was in for a whole new world of weird and wonderful hallucinations."
Apr 13th 2021
EXTRACT: "Overall, our review has found that there isn’t evidence to back up the claims that veganism is good for your heart. But that is partly because there are few studies ....... But veganism may have other health benefits. Vegans have been found to have a healthier weight and lower blood glucose levels than those who consume meat and dairy. They are also less likely to develop cancer, high blood pressure and diabetes. "
Apr 8th 2021
EXTRACT: "Pollock’s universe, the universe of Mural, cannot be said to be a rational universe. Nor is it simply devoid of all sense. It is not a purely imaginary world, although in it everything is in a constant state of flux. Mural invokes one of the oldest questions of philosophy, a question going back to the Pre-Socratic philosophers Parmenides and Heraclitus – namely, whether the nature of Reality constitutes unchanging permanence or constant movement and flux. For Pollock, the only thing that is truly unchanging is change itself. The only certainty is that all is uncertain."
Apr 8th 2021
EXTRACT: "Many present day politicians appear to have psychopathic and narcissistic traits too. It’s easy to spot such leaders, because they are always authoritarian, following hardline policies. They try to subvert democracy, to reduce the freedom of the press and clamp down on dissent. They are obsessed with national prestige, and often persecute minority groups. And they are always corrupt and lacking in moral principles."
Apr 6th 2021
EXTRACT: "This has led some to claim that not just half, but perhaps nearly all advertising money is wasted, at least online. There are similar results outside of commerce. One review of field experiments in political campaigning argued “the best estimate of the effects of campaign contact and advertising on Americans’ candidates choices in general elections is zero”. Zero!"
Mar 30th 2021
EXTRACT: "The Father is an extraordinary film, from Florian Zeller’s 2012 play entitled Le Père and directed by Zeller. I’m here to tell you why it is a ‘must see’." EDITOR'S NOTE: The official trailer is attached to the review.
Mar 28th 2021
EXTRACT: "Picasso was 26 in 1907, when he completed the Demoiselles; de Kooning was 48 in 1952, when he finished Woman I.  The difference in their ages was not an accident, for studies of hundreds of painters have revealed a striking regularity - the conceptual painters who preconceive their paintings, from Raphael to Warhol, consistently make their greatest contributions earlier in their careers than experimental painters, from Rembrandt to Pollock, who paint directly, without preparatory studies."
Mar 26th 2021
EXTRACT: "Mental toughness levels are influenced by many different factors. While genetics are partly responsible, a person’s environment is also relevant. For example, both positive experiences while you’re young and mental toughness training programmes have been found to make people mentally tougher."
Mar 20th 2021

The city of Homs has been ravaged by war, leaving millions of people homeless an

Mar 20th 2021
EXTRACT: "There are two main rival models of ethics: one is based on rights, the other on duties. The rights-based model, which traces its philosophical origins to the work of John Locke in the 17th century, starts from the assumption that individuals have rights ....... According to this approach, duties are related to rights, but only in a subordinate role. My right to health implies a duty on my country to provide some healthcare services, to the best of its abilities. This is arguably the dominant interpretation when philosophers talk about rights, including human rights." ........ "Your right to get sick, or to risk getting sick, could imply a duty on others to look after you during your illness." ..... "The pre-eminence of rights in our moral compass has vindicated unacceptable levels of selfishness. It is imperative to undertake a fundamental duty not to get sick, and to do everything in our means to avoid causing others to get sick. Morally speaking, duties should come first and should not be subordinated to rights." ..... "Putting duties before rights is not a new, revolutionary idea. In fact it is one of the oldest rules in the book of ethics. Primum non nocere, or first do no harm, is the core principle in the Hippocratic Oath historically taken by doctors, widely attributed to the ancient Greek philosopher and physician Hippocrates. It is also a fundamental principle in the moral philosophy of the Roman statesman Marcus Tullius Cicero, who in De Officiis (On Duties) argues that the first task of justice is to prevent men and women from causing harm to others."
Mar 18th 2021
EXTRACT: "Several studies have recently compared the difference between antibodies produced straight after a coronavirus infection and those that can be detected six months later. The findings have been both impressive and reassuring. Although there are fewer coronavirus-specific antibodies detectable in the blood six months after infection, the antibodies that remain have undergone significant changes. …….. the “mature” antibodies were better at recognising the variants."
Mar 15th 2021
EXTRACT: "Like Shakespeare, Goya sees evil as something existing in itself – indeed, the horror of evil arises precisely from its excess. It overflows and refuses to be contained by or integrated into our categories of reason or comprehension. By its very nature, evil refuses to remain within prescribed bounds – to remain fixed, say, within an economy where evil is counterbalanced by good. Evil is always excess of evil." ....... "Nowhere is this more evident than in war. Goya offers us a profound and sustained meditation on the nature of war ........ The image of a Napoleonic soldier gazing indifferently on a man who has been summarily hanged, probably by his own belt, expresses the tragedy of war – its dehumanization of both war’s victims and victors."