Trump, the businessman president, is a man of our time
Niall Ferguson says America’s next leader fits right into our oligarch’s world, where the line is fuzzy between the private and the public. That’s not to say he would be good at his new job
“The business of America is business,” said president Calvin Coolidge. “What is good for General Motors is good for the country, and vice versa,” said “Engine Charlie” Wilson, president Dwight Eisenhower’s defence secretary.
Americans have always been a little unsure about where to draw the line between public and private interest. In Joseph Heller’s novel Catch-22, the squadron’s mess officer Milo Minderbender goes all the way: his hugely profitable M&M Enterprises ends up bombing his own squadron under the terms of a deal he has struck with the Germans. “What’s good for M&M Enterprises,” declares Milo, “is good for the country.”
Meanwhile, Heller’s hero Yossarian has to deal with the equally insane logic of bureaucracy – to be precise, Catch-22, “which specified that a concern for one’s safety in the face of dangers that were real and immediate was the process of a rational mind”. If you were crazy, you could be grounded. All you had to do was ask to be grounded. But as soon as you did, you would no longer be crazy and would have to fly more missions.
Today, having elected Donald Trump to be their next president, Americans confront a new Catch-22.
Many citizens, like my friend Gerry, voted for Trump precisely because they saw him as a successful businessman. Now Gerry’s candidate is president-elect and what do the darned liberals want? That he should give up business. The new Catch-22 states that a concern for the profitability of one’s own business is a good predictor of presidential ability. Trump is a successful businessman and should be elected. All he has to do, now that he has been elected, is to stop being a successful businessman.
Trump himself seems torn: As far as the … potential conflict of interests [is concerned] … the law is totally on my side, meaning, the president can’t have a conflict of interest”. In any case, it would be “very hard” for him to sell his business, Trump reasoned, “because I have real estate … all over the world.”
But relax. “I don’t care about my company,” Trump insisted. “It doesn’t matter. My kids [will] run it.”
His priority is going to be running the country. But if the business interests of the Trump Organisation should happen to come up – as they did when Trump was on the phone to the Argentine president last week, for example – well, hey, whatever, Ivanka’s handling it. And if his Indian business partners drop by and ask for a photograph with him, what’s he supposed to say? No?
In short, we have just elected Milo Minderbender to be president.
Trump is right. There is no legal requirement that he should sell his business on entering the White House. The laws on conflict of interest don’t apply to the president.
The notion of a complete separation of business and public activity is, in any case, a 19th-century invention. From an 18th-century vantage point, politics was expected to be the continuation of private interest by other means. Great statesmen were expected to be great landowners.
Why Trump’s ties with a Chinese state bank raise fears over president-elect’s ‘conflicts of interest’
Come to think of it, Trump is also a familiar 21st-century type. Look around you, from the Volga to Vladivostok, from Central Asia to South Africa, from Beijing to Buenos Aires. Aside from Canada, Western Europe and Australasia, it is an oligarch’s world. And the defining characteristic or oligarchy is that there is no line between the private and the public. Just ask Trump’s favourite world leader and plutocrat, Vladimir Putin. Back in 1989, we thought we were witnessing the triumph of capitalism and liberal democracy. Alas, we were wrong. It turns out the winners were oligarchy and the populism that legitimises it.
The tragedy of oligarchy is that businessmen are generally bad at politics.
The Catch-22 of our time is that the oligarchs become so detached from the lives of ordinary people that ultimately they get impeached. The Democrats have just under two years to figure out how to win back Congress. If they can do it, President Minderbender’s days in the White House will be numbered.
Niall Ferguson is Laurence A Tisch professor of history at Harvard and a senior fellow of the Hoover Institution, Stanford