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.
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.”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. 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. 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.
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, and not everyone since, 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 – 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 – 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 – 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.
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, 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, 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.
For something entirely different, and much more fun, see Lying Close to the Sky.