This post is an attempt to work out an apparent paradox: why it is that any economically struggling Americans would see a champion in a billionaire businessman with a golden toilet most famous before his political career for ritually firing people on a TV game show? Some would say that there’s no paradox, they were never motivated by any economic distress, that their prime motive was racism. There is much to support this idea, but I think the dichotomy – race or economics – misses something. They are inextricably intertwined such that economic plight is blamed on an assumed racial favoritism. Still, though, the catchphrase of The Apprentice: “You’re fired!” Can it really be that any American employee would find a man famous for that phrase to be an economic ally?
To understand why requires understanding the ways in which capitalism and authoritarianism mutually reinforce each other. It’s a theme I’ve written about before, but which has rarely if ever been so blatantly and grossly relevant to our political reality as now.
In an otherwise unmemorable Vice Presidential Candidate Debate, one exchange between Mike Pence and Tim Kaine sticks with me months later:
PENCE: Well, this is probably the difference between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton and Senator Kaine. And, I mean, Hillary Clinton and Senator Kaine — God bless you for it, career public servants, that’s great — Donald Trump is a businessman, not a career politician. He actually built a business.
The transcript text does not convey the peculiar way he pronounced “businessman.” He put a stress on both syllables that almost made two words of it: “business-man.” Coming after a curt dismissal of a career of public service, Pence was tapping into consistent theme of American conservative thought. Perhaps you remember back in the early years of the Obama administration when so many of them considered Obama’s cabinet to be deficient for not having more business-men. Perhaps you recall how the second Bush administration made much of its intent to run government “like a business.” Since at least the Reagan administration, we have been conditioned to believe in the incompetence of government for any objective and the superiority of the market, and thus the competence of the market’s most successful actors.
Today, we have the unique opportunity of seeing the culmination of this fervent desire for the rule of business-men. Much of what we have seen so far – Trump’s insistence that he has no obligation to divest himself of his business interests (legally true, ethically not), the sketchy inclusion of his relations in diplomatic and administrative matters (as if running the White House were a family, well, business), the unimaginably aggressive move to free up businesses from any constraining regulation and promote the wealthy and well-connected to run departments of the government for which they either have no experience or to which they are actively hostile (or both) – is dispiriting but predictable. What might be more surprising for many is the sheer incompetence.
Consider how ham-fistedly Trump put his now-infamous travel ban in place, resulting in mass chaos in addition to gross injustice. (Whether this was part of some Machiavellian destabilization plot or not, it is far from good governance.) Consider the reports that his staff can’t find the light switches or exit doors in the White House. Or the fact that so many leaks of the inner workings of a White House openly hostile to news media reach reporters at all. Aren’t the wealthy masters of the market supposed to be the smartest and most competent among us?
This relates to how unqualified, how utterly lacking any relevant experience whatsoever, so many of Trump’s appointments are. The scale of it becomes clear by comparison to an exception: Elaine Chao. Do you know who she is? Probably not. She’s not very interesting. I mean no insult by this because it’s actually a good thing for her new role: she is Trump’s appointment for Secretary of Transportation. She was previously the Secretary of Labor under George W. Bush and had worked in the Department of Transportation under George H. W. Bush. She is conservative, but has experience working in government and can probably do a decent job. The most “interesting” thing about her, in the way that so many of Trump appointments are “interesting,” is that she’s Mitch McConnell’s wife. This is a possibly suspicious personal/professional connection between the President and the Senate Majority Leader, but honestly pretty small stuff in the grand scheme of things.
In short, Elaine Chao is notable for not being notable under ordinary circumstances. She is what a normal Republican President’s appointment looks like. It’s actually surprising that such a normal, inoffensive pick was made at all given the rogue’s gallery she’s joined. Perhaps the McConnell connection was close enough to something resembling a conflict of interest to meet Trump’s apparent prerequisite that his appointments be corrupt or inappropriate for their roles in some way.
But why make so many nonsensical appointments? An executive of an oil company for Secretary of State, for example. What the hell business does he have running the State Department? Well, possible suspicious Russian connections aside, his business running a government department is business. It is, Mike Pence might assure us, good for people with no experience in government but great experience as business-men to run the government. This is the apotheosis of George W. Bush’s government run like a business, and it takes a government run by business-men to do it.
But what does this really mean, after all? Aren’t I overlooking the more terrifying dictatorial and fascist elements of his policies? Hardly. I’d argue that the cult of the business-man is essential to understanding the appeal of Trump the nascent dictator. While much has been said about authoritarian tendencies and support for Trump, I believe it needs to be connected to his status as a business-man for the paradox of “You’re fired!” to make sense.
Consider the similarities between an authoritarian state and a private business. In the running of a business, lacking any government intervention or pushback from organized labor, what the boss says goes. This is so obviously integral to how an authoritarian state works that the most generic term for an authoritarian ruler, “dictator,” comes from the Latin word for “to speak.” It is how business-men constantly agitate politically to allow them to run their businesses. The underlying principle and the style of rule is the same, right down to the only recourse of subjects being to flee (“You can always just quit your job!”) or revolt (by labor organizing).
This explains the other theme of Trump’s appointments: their frequent hostility to the functions of the departments they’ve been picked to lead. From an opponent of public education running the Department of Education, to a notorious enemy of organized labor running the Department of Labor, to a politician who’s sued the EPA to prevent it from doing its job appointed to run it, all of this is just part of a business-friendly policy regime to remove every constraint on a boss’s power.
But not everything is going according to plan. Apparently President Trump is vexed by the challenges and scale of government. This is no surprise, though, since it’s been clear since his first post-election briefing with Obama that he simply had no idea what he was getting himself into. A dimension of this which has not been so clear until now, though, is how frustrated Trump is that he can’t run the government like a business:
In interviews, nearly two dozen people who’ve spent time with Trump in the three weeks since his inauguration said that his mood has careened between surprise and anger as he’s faced the predictable realities of governing, from congressional delays over his cabinet nominations and legal fights holding up his aggressive initiatives to staff in-fighting and leaks.
The administration’s rocky opening days have been a setback for a president who, as a billionaire businessman, sold himself to voters as being uniquely qualified to fix what ailed the nation. Yet it has become apparent, say those close to the president, most of whom requested anonymity to describe the inner workings of the White House, that the transition from overseeing a family business to running the country has been tough on him.
For all the numerous shortcomings of the U.S. Constitution, it really does a fairly good job of interfering with (or at least slowing down) a President’s ability to govern like a dictator. Trump faces all kinds of (apparently unexpected) “checks and balances” on his power, and it’s infuriating:
Trump has privately expressed disbelief over the ability of judges, bureaucrats or lawmakers to delay — or even stop — him from filling positions and implementing policies.
Twitter followers of @realDonaldTrump already knew this, having witnessed his meltdown over the court ruling to overturn his travel ban. But he is not the only one melting down about it. Consider this sample of comments on a Fox News post about this same development:
This is the authoritarian mindset in action: worked up into a frenzy of terror at phantom threats, they are outraged at any stifling of their strongman’s decrees, and share his umbrage at the very idea of judicial restraint on executive power. Terrorist acts are a real possibility, to be sure, but it is telling that Trump has refocused anti-terrorism programs specifically on Islamic terrorists rather than more general extremism, after years of white extremist acts from Dylan Roof to Cliven Bundy’s clan. If any terrorist act traceable to a Muslim perpetrator does occur, that will be our Reichstag fire.
Some may find it difficult to attach the severity and menace of an authoritarian dictator to a still-somehow-comic figure like Trump. Looking at it from the perspective of employer-employee relations makes to easier when one really understands how dictatorial a boss’s power is. This is directly relevant to other forms of bigotry attached to Trump, whether as a candidate or a sitting President, or just as a person.
Remember “Grab ’em by the pussy”? Remember the context for that statement? “…when you’re a star, they let you do it. You can do anything.” What, exactly, is Donald Trump’s “stardom” based on? His status as a business-man. This incident occurred while he was on the way to shoot a scene in a TV show in which a woman propositions him in exchange for a job. What kind of power dynamic is that? A sexist one, yes, but specifically a sexist dynamic between a male boss and a female worker. It’s pretty clear now why he was perfect for that role. And the young women who experienced Trump’s forays into their dressing room might agree that his status as a boss was much more important than his status as a “star” to his entitlement. (Despite this, white women went for Trump over Hillary Clinton, for revealing and relevant reasons.) This, perhaps, is what puts the “man” in “business-man.”
Trump has made racial exclusion a centerpiece of his campaign and policy. Here is where the authoritarian mindset’s desire to punish and drive out the enemy intersects most plainly with the disciplinary exclusion of “You’re fired!” For people who see their economic plight as tied to racial favoritism, as for those who sneer with crab-bucket disdain at striking workers because, after all, they themselves have no union benefits, the solution is simple in all cases: get rid of the bums! Only a strongman can protect the nation from its numerous fever-dream threats, and only a boss can expel the incompetent and “drain the swamp” of government. This is where Trump has the most latitude to appeal to a racially restricted segment of working people. His intent, now manifesting, to deport mass numbers of Latin American undocumented immigrants is not immediately explicable in terms of economic benefit for employers, especially one who has employed undocumented immigrants. But the employing-class has long used racial division to secure the loyalty (and complacency) of white workers. Where firing does not suffice, ethnic cleansing may.
This connection between a business-man’s power and a dictator’s power is possibly the most critical fact for understanding how anyone, anywhere, could have considered Donald Trump a plausible candidate for President. He has made his name, his whole brand, synonymous with the archetype of the business-man. And to yearn for the rule of the business-man is, ultimately, to yearn for the disciplinary order of an authoritarian state. That we are in this situation at all – that a petulant and ignorant man-child whose claim to faux-populist fame is contempt for the marginalized and oppressed, who is willing to shred every effort made in the last eight years to halt the runaway threat to human civilization that is climate change, is actually the President of the United States – is possibly the most damning indictment of capitalism and the clearest indication of its inescapably authoritarian nature.
Edit to add: It’s good to see a number of other people have picked up on some of the implications of Trump as business-man and President. Some other takes:
- “Donald Trump isn’t mad – he’s the arrogant boss we’ve all seen before,” by Phil McDuffin in The Guardian
- “Donald Trump shows why businessmen make bad presidents,” by Ryan Cooper in The Week