Many Americans look at the goings-on in the Trump administration with some bafflement. Tenures are short. Firings are frequent and seemingly from fits of pique by the president. Cabinet secretaries do dumb things like fly first class or spend thousands of dollars renovating their offices. Many decisions are unilateral without even lip service paid to the opinions of other important politicians–within and without the Republican Party. Incidents of social misbehavior from the past are constantly discovered. Abuse and degradation of subordinates are commonplace. What the hell is going on?
What is going on is really no mystery; certainly to those who have spent some time climbing corporate ladders or covering corporations as analysts on Wall Street. The simple fact is that the Trump White House is run like any corporation in the United States. With Trump in charge the behavior is more garish and more over the top than is the average, but in the end, it is the same.
Corporations always think in terms of winners and losers. That’s why Trump calls people “losers” and himself and his family and sycophants “winners”. Losers in the corporate ladder game get fired–usually in the most humiliating fashion possible. Employees that receive the short end of the the stick and complain about it are referred to by corporations as “disgruntled”. “Disgruntled” is a code word that means that the former employee was a loser, and worse than being a loser, was an incompetent one. Losers have no credibility. Winners are those that are still in charge and are the smartest because, well, they won the corporate ladder game. Because they won this game, that means that their opinions are the only ones that matter.
President Trump got a giant head start in the corporate ladder game because, well, of his father, Fred Trump, and his grandfather Frederich Trump. The two older men made their fortunes shrewdly dealing in Gold Rush mercantilism at first, and then later in New York City real estate. The prodigal grandson, Donald Trump, was not as adept as his forebears, squandering a fortune in a series of high profile deals that were chosen for their brashness rather than for their potential return on investment. But his ability to negotiate complex deals by appealing to each party’s own greed kept the Trump Organization afloat, with some wholly owned properties succeeding and a few others, particularly casinos, going bankrupt.
Trumps history of perseverance in spite of his own foibles and in spite of the efforts of a not a few business enemies has made him a “winner”. In a variation of “I think therefore I am”, he crows that “he is a winner” and thus must be “a genius”. Since he is such a genius, all other people who disagree with him must be morons.
Trump’s mercurial temperament and his relative lack of articulateness arises from his inherited privileged position. People who had to fight their way up the corporate ladder, like Carly Fiorina, Tim Cook, or Jeff Immelt, have a polished manner about them. They are excellent public speakers and can effectively communicate their ideas. They influence people through a combination of charisma and politicking. Entrepreneurs or early founders like Steve Jobs, Steve Ballmer, or Jeff Bezos are all notorious assholes because none of them had to climb up to the top. But they all had to build their brands over time, giving them at least some business street cred. In contrast, Trump has had neither entrepreneurialism nor the ability to influence people through charisma or persuasion.
Trump was born with his money and his brand, and in the end, that is what Trump has sold the most. His hotel and golf course empire is about the Trump name; the Apprentice TV series is about the Trump name; and his small real estate holdings are about the Trump name (often bearing the name Trump in their titles). His money has bought the lawyers and law firms necessary to insulate him from his worst decisions. His money even bought him trophy wives, and then mistresses when he tired of those wives.
Unfortunately the Trump name and his money are useless in the White House. The name, increasingly a liability due to the unpredictable behavior of the president and his ability to constantly alienate constituencies and allies, has little value in pressing an advantage in political affairs. His money still buys lawyers, but he cannot control the federal lawyers that matter the most in the FBI and special prosecutors’ offices. He cannot even control old mistresses, now insulated from his wrath by virtue of his public persona of president, if not by aging nondisclosure agreements.
Can the first truly corporate president in the White House win re-election? It would seem to be a pretty low bar to find a candidate with more polish and charisma than Trump to run against him, from either major party. But remember Trump’s one (and perhaps only) skill is to be able to appeal to the greed and self-interest of people. I’m betting that skill will still win the day in 2022. Let us hope that I am wrong.