Fetishizing the American Businessman
Is Donald Trump a businessman or is he president? There is a tremendous amount of evidence that his primary motivation for running for president was to protect and promote his business, the Trump Organization, an international conglomerate. According to the Washington Post, “at least 111 Trump companies have done business in 18 countries and territories across South America, Asia, and the Middle East.” It’s mostly real estate — hotels, condos, golf courses — but the Trump brand has been on everything from steaks to beauty pageants.
Long before the 2016 election, I heard people say it would be a good thing for the United States to be led by a businessman. Jared Kushner, Trump’s son-in-law, put it this way in an interview published in the Washington Post, “The government should be run like a great American company. Our hope is that we can achieve successes and efficiencies for our customers, who are the citizens.”
The problem with this line of thinking is that a country simply isn’t a business. The point of a business is to make a profit; the point of nation-state is not. A citizen isn’t the same thing as a consumer. But this is such a prominent idea, and one that has led us to this point in history, that it deserves some exploration.
A COUNTRY IS NOT A BUSINESS
You have no choice where you are born. Your nationality was not something you purchased in a market, and you can’t own shares in it. Your nationality isn’t in competition with other nationalities. Denmark and Canada, say, are not fighting over potential citizens with Groupon offers.
Think about how a representative democratic government is supposed to be run in ideal conditions. Citizens vote for people who will represent their policy interests, citizens talk to their representatives about their concerns and needs, and their representatives vote according to said interests. In order to be informed, citizens must have access to legislative hearings and debates, be relatively knowledgeable, and care a little bit about their fellow citizens. And everyone has a voice; no one person’s needs or wants are more important than another’s. Compromise is essential. The only money changing hands are tax dollars, which fund public goods and services. No one profits, but everyone benefits.
This isn’t how a business is run at all. But it’s simply unrealistic to think of a democratic government as separate from the economy in this way, and a look back at history shows this.
Europe had more of a mercantile economy in the 18th century, which Adam Smith was critical of, but the same social-contract-based liberalist ideas that guided Smith, the “father of capitalism,” are the ones that guided John Locke before him, whose work inspired the framers of the US Constitution. The supposed free, autonomous individual is at the heart of both liberalism and capitalism. For both Smith and Locke, the primary purpose of a government was to protect your property from being taken from you by a king or by fellow citizens. Of course, this meant that the only people who really counted as citizens were those who owned land, which were white men of certain means and education. (Ironic, because Locke’s empiricism insists that we are all born “blank slates.”)
In spite of what history books say, the writers of the US Constitution weren’t devotees of liberty and equality for all. They also weren’t farmers pulling themselves up by their bootstraps, just trying to make it in a new world. They were farm owners, slave owners, educated men who owned property and wanted to protect the industries in their states — industries they were invested in. It is worth noting that slavery was one of these industries. What people often neglect to mention is that slavery in the US was not merely cruel and unusual exploitation. Chattel slavery is always at the same time an economic issue — it is buying and selling people like commodities. People (including John Locke) invest money in capturing human beings, shipping them, and forcing them into doing labor. Today, sex trafficking is a $32 billion industry worldwide, and yet we commonly talk about it like it’s simply a human rights issue. But what this all indicates is that human rights don’t matter when there is money to be made. And this is a hallmark of American “democracy.”
The plot thickens, because the US Constitution went a step beyond Smith’s and Locke’s ideal of protecting property. The men at the Constitutional Convention of 1787 were bickering about the right way to organize legislative representation (big states vs. small states, northern states vs. southern states) in order to protect their investments, while writing a document to protect the citizenry from a tyrannical government.
“Tyranny” in the late 18th century meant things like taxation without representation, debts from the French and Indian War, being forced to quarter British soldiers, the Boston Massacre, etc. We think of tyrants today as leaders of non-democratic nations who kill their own citizenry with acts of violence. But they might also be leaders who limit free press, limit the free practice of religion, people whose policies promote systemic racism and sexism (of course without acknowledging the existence of such discrimination), people who look out for their own business interests by eliminating corporate taxes and punishing the poor by outsourcing jobs, as well as increasing things like sales tax, healthcare costs, and cost of living.
There has been a conflict of interest between democratic ideals and economic ideals from the very beginning of the US. Today, we mock Congress for voting on their own salaries, and we talk flippantly about lobbyists. But we neglect to address that at a fundamental level our supposedly democratic government is run by exchanges of money, and the fact of the matter is that both republicans and democrats accept donations from corporate lobbyists.
That’s how it works. It doesn’t matter that most Americans are horrified by a man massacring school children, and a majority want stricter background checks on guns, the NRA will spend the money to get the votes they need to prevent new legislation. People talk about the second amendment as if there is sanctity there, but the crux of the matter is that the firearm industry is massive, and most states rely on it to contribute to their economies.
It’s the same with the energy industry, healthcare, Big Pharma, for-profit prisons, for-profit education, tech companies, and, unfortunately, telecommunications, which is one of the major players in shaping common discourse. Businessmen profit from these industries and so do politicians. Many politicians’ actions indicate they don’t really want to lower healthcare costs or reduce crime or increase accessibility or provide un-sponsored, un-biased news and entertainment. The point of capitalism as it operates today isn’t competition in the free market; it is minimizing competition to keep wealth in the hands of a few. Businessmen want people to be just docile enough to keep spending money on things that they are convinced they cannot live without. And so businesses will “donate” to politicians who will vote in their favor.
If you don’t start out as one of the capitalists, it is almost impossible to become one, because the system was never designed for upward mobility. It was designed to protect property for those who already had it.
CONFLICTS OF INTEREST
Maybe, then, it would make sense to have a businessman in charge of a government that is already inextricably intertwined with economic practices. Laws protect businesses, and with neoliberalism this means things like deregulation and unrestricted free trade. We all know Congress is being bought by lobbyists, so this might be the “swamp” that Donald Trump promised to drain.
But swamp-draining isn’t the business of businessmen.
There is a myth used by politicians running for office that they will “create jobs,” but not only is this not the role of a governor, representative, or president, it’s not the role of a businessman either. Securing jobs for people isn’t part of improving profit margins — outsourcing and automation lower costs and make far more sense from a business standpoint than paying workers in the US a fair wage.
The primary purpose of a business in a capitalist system is for the owners of said business to protect the financial interests of their company, but this is done in order to ensure profit, not to benefit the employees. Again, a country isn’t the type of thing that can make a profit — except through tax revenue, which isn’t a profit because it goes right back into the system. So, if a businessman is in charge of a country, then his job would be for himself and his major investors to profit, right? This is exactly what Donald Trump is doing.
Trump has refused to separate his business interests from his presidency, in spite of the Constitution’s “Domestic Emoluments Clause,” which states: “The President shall, at stated Times, receive for his Services, a Compensation, which shall neither be increased nor diminished during the Period for which he shall have been elected, and he shall not receive within that Period any other Emolument from the United States, or any of them” (art. II, sec. 1.7). Trump refused to put his assets in a blind trust, instead handing over management to his two oldest sons, at least one of whom meddled in the election. After the election, the Trump Organization even doubled the initiation fee for its Mar-a-Lago resort — to $200,000. The CEO of Trump Hotels also said, since Trump was elected, that it planned to triple the number of Trump Hotels in the country. And that’s just in the US.
It’s not a coincidence that the Muslim-majority countries on Trump’s first attempted anti-immigration executive order were countries in which he has no business investments. The stated purpose of the order was to prevent terrorists from entering the country, even though no terrorist attacks have been committed on US soil by people from any of the banned countries. Although Trump has been very vocal about illegal immigration, capitalizing on the xenophobic Right, he also wants to add an extra 15,000 temporary H-2B work visas for seasonal, non-agricultural workers to the budget year — conveniently the types of visas needed for jobs at a variety of businesses, including Trump-owned resorts. Trump has also complained that the EPA is ruining American businesses, and he lifted environmental protections on the Dakota Access Pipeline, a project he had an investment in with Phillips 66.
This is the tip of the iceberg. There is a laundry list of Trump’s business conflicts of interest. It’s long. And it’s not subtle. (My personal favorite is the Chinese trademark dispute that had been going on more than a decade and was magically settled in the Trump Organization’s favor after he became president.)
This isn’t a new development, and it certainly isn’t just Trump. We have been led into war(s) in the Middle East by oil executives just so the oil industry can profit. On the 10 year anniversary of Operation Iraqi Freedom, it was reported that: “Before the 2003 invasion, Iraq’s domestic oil industry was fully nationalized and closed to Western oil companies. A decade of war later, it is largely privatized and utterly dominated by foreign firms.” Another example is the big bank bailout in 2008, which was controversial due to a lot of shady, probably illegal, practices from the banks involved.
Unless you ignore increasing wealth disparity and still believe the myth of trickle-down economics, the only person who is going to benefit from Trump’s businesses doing well is Trump, and a handful of higher-ups at multinational corporations whom Trump is friendly with. He was on Twitter in late July 2017 bragging about gains in the stock market and corporate profit, as if that benefits most Americans and doesn’t indicate an increase in wealth disparity.
The problem is that this is actually dangerous to the American people. The President of the United States is supposed to represent national interests and not, say, what he stands to profit from a casino or a luxury condo in Turkey.
What no one wants to hear is that the problem isn’t particular to Trump. He is the textbook definition of a conflict of interest, among other things, but it clearly does not matter in our system of government, even though these types of economic practices do not help the vast majority of the voting public and could cause harm to foreign relations. Trump is merely a symptom of the ineliminable connection between economics and governance, of the neoliberal protections and deregulation of large corporations, where lobbyists like the NRA and Big Pharma have far more say in legislation than the American people.
Another example is telecommunications companies, which are so large that to think your news isn’t being filtered through corporate interests is naïve (though that doesn’t mean all news is “fake,” it just means that it is cultivated and framed in particular ways). You don’t hear a lot about the ugly side of Trump’s business practices, because corporate sponsors, companies that spend a lot of money on advertising, engage in the same practices. Today, the “free market” is a coded neoliberal term for fewer regulations and open trade. This is not to say that all regulations are good or that all open trade is bad, the point is that capitalism happens among very few wealthy owners, and they have an interest in eliminating regulations that cost them more, regardless if they are what the majority of citizens want or not.
And the majority of us don’t seem to care. But why don’t we care?
WHY DO WE STILL LOVE THE BUSINESSMAN?
Trump’s cabinet is full of uber-wealthy, white businessmen who want to privatize everything and eliminate taxes, and the Republican Party supports him because the Republican Party historically has opposed corporate taxes (which isn’t to say that the Democratic Party doesn’t support big business, they just seem to feel kind of conflicted about it and/or don’t see the inherent hypocrisy in being liberal and uber-wealthy). However, because most people are not wealthy business owners, CEOs, lobbyists, and the affluent, the Republican Party also needs a platform that can support a large base of people.
How do they do it? Well, they are led by white supremacists and conservative, evangelical Christians, which helps, but they also capitalize on this broad appeal of the wealthy businessman. Briefly, here is a list of possible explanations for the appeal.
1. An admiration of wealth. Lamont, in The Dignity of Working Men, found that the working class (specifically the white working class, a large portion of Trump supporters) admires the rich, but resents professionals. They see professional networks, like those maintained by “Washington insiders,” as insincere, shallow, and morally corrupt, and not like close, local family relationships that they maintain. They don’t want to become professionals, they just want to earn more money — that is, they want wealth without the “elitism,” which I take to be loosely equated with “liberal.” In other words, pointing out harmful systemic injustice and discrimination is seen as elitist by the “anti-political correctness” crowd.
The desire for wealth is understandable, and they aren’t exactly wrong about the seeming lack of sincerity and morality among professional networks. The problem is that businessmen are a part of professional networks. Not to mention, Donald Trump has approximately zero moral scruples, is actively a sexist bigot (which likely helps his appeal), and probably has a gold toilet.
2. A dislike of government bureaucracy. We might prefer businessmen to politicians because political bureaucracy seems like a lot of unnecessary rules. Trying to get a driver’s license, filing a tax return, having to wait a year in some states to finalize a divorce — these things are annoying, time-consuming, and a lot of the rules seem arbitrary. We must think businesses don’t have this kind of “red tape,” even though they obviously do.
3. Viewing businessmen as “mavericks.” I suspect we have fetishized the ideal of the businessman so much that we think being wealthy means someone has other traits we might value. Surely, we think, someone with a lot of money is “successful,” intelligent, and hard-working. But, even more than this, we admire shady business practices.
We see someone not paying taxes as a smart thing — it’s beating the system, getting around having the government “take our money from us.” We don’t care if businessmen are dishonest, because we expect them to be. Sleight of hand is how we expect businesses to work. Tax write-offs are clever shortcuts. Bribes are par for the course. You scratch my back, I scratch yours. That’s just how it is. Most of us are too busy dealing with our direct supervisors, customers, and the consequences of company policies that directly affect us to be too concerned with what the suits are doing at HQ. Maybe we grumble about the salary the CEO takes in while we don’t get a raise for years, but we don’t collectively seem to care that corporations don’t pay taxes.
4. More money, fewer problems? I have actually heard people argue that someone who is already wealthy will not be swayed by lobbyists. They don’t need money, so they can focus on making policy. It’s hard for me to even take this view seriously, but when you’re poor, you think there’s a limit of money you could reach and then be content. That might be right for some people. But people who make a lot of money invest their money in order for that money to keep making them more money. It doesn’t matter if it is more money than they could ever possibly spend in their lifetime a thousand times over. There’s not a limit. Why do people think Donald Trump cares about anything other than making more money? He plugs his own products and properties every time he speaks in public.
5. Misunderstanding wealth and work. Connected to the previous point is a fundamental misunderstanding about wealth. We are trained to focus on income and wages and to think that work will lead to earning. We are trained to think that Trump donating his salary to the National Park Service for a tax write-off is a noble thing. But wealth isn’t income. Wealth isn’t work, though we value it as if it is (which adds to the irony that meanwhile we don’t value unpaid domestic labor as work). Wealth comes from investments. Wealth is money that makes more money. It doesn’t require you to do anything.
And maybe this is why the idea of wealth appeals. Put a few people you trust, maybe your children, in charge of overseeing things and then have your money earn you more money without you really having to work. But the rest of us don’t gain from this. We are stuck hating our jobs, dreaming of falling ass-backwards into money, instead of trying to figure out why work is so miserable.
So, why do we celebrate other people who do this while insisting that the poor are lazy? Why do we want the wealthy in charge of the government? How could this non-skill, this dumb luck of being born wealthy, lead to someone being qualified to tell me that I don’t deserve access to healthcare because I’m depressed? Why would people committed to making money just stop caring about making money once they’ve “made enough”?
The disparity between the super wealthy and everyone else has continued to grow. We love to talk about “progress” and “growth,” but most jobs exist so a very minuscule minority can own a larger percentage of the world’s wealth. And we celebrate this.
WHAT DOES THIS LOOK LIKE IN THE EXECUTIVE BRANCH?
We do now have a bona fide businessman as president. Not only does Donald Trump not appear to know anything about laws or foreign policy, he also is turning daily operations into something that does not look much like governing and a lot more like an unhinged leader of a hate group who is constantly filming an infomercial for his brand.
When you run a business, you do it behind closed doors. You keep people close to you — vice presidents, upper management — who stand to profit or lose almost as much as you, because they have a financial stake in the company. It is often the case that you hire your family, possibly to carry your legacy or simply because you don’t trust anyone else. This is the exact opposite of having publicly elected officials or at least officials approved through hearings that are run by elected officials.
Furthermore, there is no transparency necessary when you run a business. Remember, we expect businessmen to cheat. You do not have to tell your stakeholders what you are doing behind the scenes, except maybe with an “annual report” that can be dressed up however you want to appease them. You just have to keep stakeholders happy with the results, that is, their earnings. Customers, who Kushner equated with citizens, are at the very bottom level of people you have to please. And in monopoly capitalism, the role of the consumer is even less threatening, because it is easy to snuff out possible competition from small businesses.
When you run a business, you don’t need to hire widely, unless you take the EEOC seriously, which the Trump administration clearly does not, because they honestly think white men are discriminated against. Businessmen like Trump don’t need diversity. Look at any major company in the US — CEOs, CFOs, boards, etc., are mostly comprised of white men, and breaking that trend is impossible without dismantling the fundamental structures of capitalism, which have always belonged to wealthy white men. In addition to in-group biases (i.e., racism and sexism), if you’re at all narcissistic or have ego issues, you will want people around you who are going to agree with you. You might hire subject matter experts to look at a problem, but you are free to ignore their solution, and you generally won’t face any consequences unless you make a product that ends up directly killing people.
None of this sounds like a government. It sounds like the Trump administration is the boardroom of a company that’s been around too long, and it’s a company that no one else in the world really likes but still kind of depends on to exist.
When I heard Donald Trump’s campaign promise to “drain the swamp,” I thought it was a joke. When I heard people call Trump an “anti-establishment” candidate, I also thought it was a joke. Trump is the establishment. Businessmen have always had a role in running the country in one way or another.
So the question is deeper than whether we want a businessman in the office of president. The question is: do we really want businessmen to write laws or executive orders that they can then directly profit from?
There are innumerable problems with how the US government functions, or, perhaps, doesn’t function. When you look at things like voter suppression and gerrymandering, it’s very hard to say that Congress or the president actually represents the American people. When you look at how much money changes hands every time a gun control law comes up, for example, it’s even harder to say that the US is even remotely a democracy where laws reflect the interests of the citizenry.
Wealth disparity remains one of the biggest, under-addressed problems in a world taken over by transnational capitalism, but the people who should be up in arms over it — which is most of us — don’t seem to understand what it really means to be extremely wealthy. People make more money in one second off of investments than I do in a year’s worth of labor. Why do we think it’s okay to sell our labor in order to make the rich even richer? Why are we complacent about this? Why do we buy into hierarchical ideas like more money equaling power?
Our fixation on businessmen has helped direct the current state of politics and the economy. Add it to a history of exploitation and imperialism, and you have a disturbing but more accurate picture of the US. The irony is that the people who want a businessman in the role of president don’t seem to realize that businessmen of a sort have been in charge since day one. A country isn’t a business, no, but it sure looks very much like a set of laws and procedures designed to protect business interests.