Saturday, October 15, 2016

Trump, CEO Politicians, and Corruption

In 1953, President Eisenhower nominated Charlie Wilson, CEO of General Motors, as Secretary of Defense.  At his confirmation hearing, the potential for conflict of interest came up.  He assured the Senate that he had no problem going against the interests of his company, and that in any event, he did not believe a conflict would come up because, "[F]or years I thought what was good for the country was good for General Motors and vice versa.”  This got morphed by Democrats into "What's good for General Motors is good for America" -- clearly an accusation of corruption on his part.  But what kind of corruption were they accusing him of?  I have always assumed it was the broader kind, i.e., that "General Motors" meant big business in general and that they were accusing him of equating the public good with the interests of the 1%.  But I have occasionally heard it suggested that they were accusing him of the narrower kind of corruption -- of giving special primacy to his own company.

Which leads us back to Donald Trump (of course).  And once again, to the point that while we have had CEO politicians before and even one CEO President, but none of them have been anything like Donald Trump.

Herbert Hoover made his fortune in mining.  Ross Perot founded a data processing company.  Herman Cain ran various restaurant chains.  Carly Fiorina was CEO of Hewlett-Packard.  Mitt Romney worked in finance.  And, of course, Donald Trump's made his mark in real estate development.

So what, one may say?  There are many fields of business.  All provide useful services.  Why should one be any more or less honorable than any other?  Well, there is the way one conducts business.  So far as I know, there is not much to criticize on how Hoover, Perot or Cain did business.  Fiorina's tenure as HP CEO is generally regarded a failure, but an honest one.  Romney ran for President as head of a financial company at a time when finance was decidedly unpopular, and one involved in some of the less winsome aspects of finance, such as leveraged buyouts and general "vulture capitalism."  I do not pretend to know enough about finance to know if his activities served a useful purpose.  But certainly no one accused Romney of any sort of fraud or illegality, even in his less winsome business activities.

Trump, by contrast, appears to have built his entire business career essentially on fraud.

Before running for President, Romney had been Governor of Massachusetts.  Hoover had been Secretary of Commerce.  Fiorina had run for Governor of California.  Perot had never held office before, but he took a serious interest in policy and cared and had strong positions on important issues of the day.  Cain had been a lobbyist, but was ultimately ignorant of policy beyond a narrow range of matters involving business regulation.

But not even Cain was as aggressively, proudly, and utterly ignorant as Trump.  With Cain, one at least hoped that given enough time, he might learn something.  Trump appears to be incapable of focusing on anything for more than a few minutes and thus of being brought up to speed.  Besides, with Cain one could hope that he would know enough to realize his own ignorance, choose advisers who knew something, and listen to their advice.  Trump has left no grounds for hope on any of those points.

CEO's are more autocratic than US Presidents and may have difficulty adapting themselves to the give and take of democratic partisan politics.  As I understand it, there were some complaints of that sort when Romney was Governor of Massachusetts, but he learned.  And certainly there is nothing to suggest that he was ignorant of such basic concepts as the rule of law, the separation of powers, or basic democratic norms.  Hoover, though a brilliant administrator, was a poor politician and some have suggested that this was responsible for his disastrous failures.  (I disagree).  The others have not held office.  Cain appears at least a likeable guy, though how he would have behaved as President is anyone's guess.  Fiorina, as I understand it, was indeed abrasive and overly authoritarian as a CEO, traits that were part of her undoing, and that would serve her even worse in the White House.  And Perot appeared truly ignorant of our basic form of government and regarded us as a sort of elective dictatorship.  He showed plenty of signs of paranoia, which serves as an uncommonly ill omen for his future as President.

But if once I would have placed Trump marginally ahead of Perot in this regard, as Trump spirals out of control he is making even Perot's most autocratic tendencies and paranoid ravings look rational by comparison.  Perot, after all, merely wanted to be dictator.  Trump's warnings have become so apocalyptic and his promises so extravagant that it is hard to tell whether he thinks he is running for dictator or for messiah.

But above all (and this leads back to my original point), while some of these other CEO's may have believed that what is good for General Motors is good for America in the broader sense that what benefits the 1% benefits the economy as a whole, none of them ever showed any sense of adhering to that doctrine in the narrower sense, i.e., of thinking it acceptable to use the office to advance their own personal fortunes.  Trump shows no evidence of having any concept of the distinction.  And increasingly, he is losing the concept of any distinction between his political fortunes and the country's or between political opposition and criminality.

This is a very dangerous man, and he is going completely off the deep end.

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