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Why Trump Isn’t a Populist

Photo by PROwww.GlynLowe.com | CC BY 2.0

Recent events in Charlottesville have refocused people’s attention on President Trump’s dalliance  with  the alt right, which some of his supporters see as prima facie evidence of his populism.  However many nods Mr. Trump makes in the direction of populism, however many populist buttons he pushes, and however many populist symbols he employs,   at the end of the day he is no populist.  Although it is difficult to locate and analyze the core beliefs of someone as slippery, inconsistent, and intellectually slipshod  as the President,  two  considerations trump the Donald’s  elite bashing and sophomoric populist  tweets.  One   consideration, which needs little elaboration, is his class position/interest, i.e., his commitment to preserving, indeed, enhancing the position/interest of the wealthiest Americans.   A second consideration does requires elaboration, though, because it has seldom been commented upon:  His propensity toward autocratic behavior, which propensity, grows out of his fundamental distrust—a big businessman’s distrust– of democracy.

Almost forty years ago now, Berkeley political scientist/business professor David J. Vogel wrote a classic article entitled “Why Businessmen Distrust Their State.”  In this piece, Vogel addressed a number of important  issues, but, first and foremost, was one  relating  to the fact that through most of modern U.S. history  American business leaders—both CEOs and other C-suite types–have persistently  expressed through their words and actions  a great deal of mistrust and suspicion of the American state.  This is so despite the paradoxical fact that such individuals, considered as a group, have, according to Vogel, “disproportionately benefitted from governmental policies.”  As have the corporate entities they have represented.

So why the mistrust and suspicion?  In Vogel’s view, because business leaders often fear rather than embrace democracy.  In other words, although they may have benefitted in the past from state actions, things can change.  Indeed, in concluding, Vogel hypothesized, albeit tentatively, that “the ideological hostility of businessmen toward their state is a function of their state’s democratic heritage: the greater the responsiveness of the state to popular or interest-group pressures, the more likely it is that businessmen will find increased state authority  over economic decisions threatening.”

To be sure, the current President, America’s first CEO Commander- in- Chief, has often walked and talked like an economic populist.  Admittedly, he has made some putatively populist gestures: Promoting protectionism, retaining/ reshoring jobs, and challenging current immigration policies come immediately to mind in this regard.    But on the biggest economic-policy questions—tax reform, regulation/deregulation, and health care – his positions have been anything but populist.  In fact, his positions here are vigorously anti-populist, tilting strongly, as they do, toward capital and upper-income/wealth groups, including the bête noire of populists, the infamous 1 percent.

Why?  Obviously, his class interest explains part of this, but his “preferential option” for autocracy plays a role as well.    That is to say, the Donald’s temperament, background, and experience have made him   extremely fond of hierarchy of all kinds,  and conditioned him to prefer autocratic to democratic policy processes.    Here, I am not using “autocratic”  to suggest that the President craves absolute power, but to capture his relentless efforts to impose his will in an insistent, arrogant way.   Mr. Trump’s behavior during the recent Congressional scrum over the ACA is a case in point.   Indeed, I would go so far as to say that at times  his autocratic style bleeds into patrimonialism, patrimonialism in a Weberian sense of attempted political domination via the exertion of power by a “ruler” in concert with a small number of closely associated  individuals/groups, in this  case  with members of the “royal household,” corporate officials, and military elites.

Remember—Mr. Trump is, above all else, a business titan, a billionaire business titan at that.   He inherited a large real-estate development company from his father and grew it.  He feels at home in the world of big business, is comfortable with traditional big-business culture, perks,  and protocols, and, at the end of the day, will avidly defend power asymmetries, big-business prerogatives and privileges, and the political and economic interests of his class, however much certain members therein may loathe him.

In this regard, it is also useful to remember that for all the talk in recent years of empowered employees, decentralized management, and flattened hierarchies, few corporations or corporate leaders are “all in” regarding democratic work places.  If you don’t believe me, just ask James Damore, who was recently fired by CEO Sundar Pichai of uber cool Google for daring to voice his own views about gender disparities in the tech industry. Moreover, in  the President’s case, it is  quite  plausible to argue that his long experience as majordomo of a private family empire, the Trump Organization,  goes a long way  toward  explaining his patrimonial style and inclinations, which has rendered him even  more distrustful of democratic intrusions on his prerogatives than would have been the case had he, as a businessman, presided over a public company and answered to an independent (ok—at least nominally independent)  board.

Viewed in this way, his high-level appointments, including both cabinet members and confidants, are very understandable. Obviously, familial appointments Ivanka Trump and Jared Kushner, and maybe, to some extent, even Donald, Jr.  Despite his MAGA cant and his populist posturing, it is hardly surprising, but predictable that among the President’s high-ranking officials were both BSDs from finance and top military brass.    Hence, we find six former honchos from Goldman Sachs—Steve Mnuchin, Gary Cohn, Dina Powell, Jim Donovan, Jay Clayton, and even “populist” Steve Bannon—in the mix, as well as “just folks” such as Wilbur Ross, Rex Tillerson, and Betsy DeVos, and a few dozen C-Suiters on the recently-disbanded Strategy and Policy Forum and American Manufacturing Council.   We find warriors such as James “Mad Dog” Mattis, H.R. McMaster, John F. Kelly, and, for a time, Michael Flynn in the inner circle.  After all, military leaders, like corporate leaders, appreciate hierarchies, chains of command, and “deciders,” people who can say “You’re fired!” among other things.

For the record, it should be pointed out, too, that all of the above types like their privacy, privilege “need to know” information orders, and prefer keeping things close to their (expensive) vests.  So in the future, don’t be expecting a lot of the real action to be done in DC or at Camp David, much less on twitter. Look to Mar-a-Lago and Bedminster, and, if security costs can be kept down, to the Trump Tower instead.  And don’t be expecting too much real economic populism from the President, a cynic without any deep-seated concern for common women and men, much less for democracy.   After all,  the Donald  must know in his heart of hearts  that one can’t trust a political system and process the end result of which was the election of someone like him.

Peter A. Coclanis is Albert R. Newsome Distinguished Professor of History and Director of the Global Research Institute at UNC-Chapel Hill.  He does not speak for the university.

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Peter A. Coclanis teaches at UNC-Chapel Hill. He does not speak for the university.

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