Trump’s “America Incorporated”

Photo Source Michael Esposito | CC BY 2.0

In the runup to the 2016 election, candidate Donald J. Trump proposed, if elected, to run government “like a business.” As President, he has largely done just that.

The Republican Party has become in effect his board of directors; a fawning “base,” his shareholders. As President, Trump hires and fires appointees like a CEO, demanding unfailing personal loyalty. When Attorney General Jeff Sessions recused himself from overseeing the Mueller investigation in accordance with established conflict of interest rules, Trump forced him to resign.

More like a corporate CEO than an elected head of state, Trump rules by tweets and executive order. With a closed circle of ideologue advisors, he decrees without regard to institutional limits and regularly threatens “enemies of the people”—his term for the media.

Former business executives dominate the President’s cabinet. They often abolish regulations that impose environmental or other limits on their actions. When there is a choice, they prefer to hire private firms rather than rely on government agencies to deliver public services. Secretary of Education DeVos, for example, promotes private charter schools at the expense of public education.

An expanding reliance on private companies to manage federal prisons and immigrant detention centers has led to a skimping of services. Corporate responsibilities run more to shareholders than to the prison inmates they serve or the federal government. By reducing the costs of food and labor (to the detriment of prison quality), management can reward its shareholders and top management with higher dividends and salaries.

Even U.S. involvement in the Afghan war could soon be privatized. Erik Prince (formerly head of the infamous Blackwater security firm) has proposed to replace the U.S. military forces in Afghanistan with his own band of mercenaries. According to the Washington Post, the deal is still a possibility.

A large part of Trump’s “make America great again” mantra is “America First.” Much like a corporation competing in the free market, Trump’s America is suspicious of international competitors, even such longtime allies as Canada, France and Germany. Disdaining globalization, Trump prefers win-at-all cost deals to rule of law adjudication by the World Trade Organization.

As was the case with former businessman-President Herbert Hoover, who relied on traditional business measures to combat the engulfing Great Depression, and Robert McNamara who introduced a “body count” system to manage the Vietnam War, Trump’s business governance appears doomed to fail. Why? Because checks and balances, international alliances and respect for the rule of law—noticeably absent from Trump’s corporate mission–are essential elements of a well-functioning democracy.

1. Checks and Balances. America’s Constitutional draftsmen established three branches of government to restrain power. Such checks are not part of Trump’s corporate world, which relies on rubber stamping from his “shareholder” base and Republican Party “board of directors.”

2. International Alliances. America’s longstanding political and economic ties with European and North American partners have enhanced military security and economic growth on both sides of the Atlantic for many decades. By withdrawing from the Iran nuclear deal, the Paris climate accord and NAFTA, Trump has shown, like many CEOs, a preference for going alone.

3. Rule of law. Judicial review has always served as the last defense of basic American values. Can that defense sustain when the President appoints federal judges who share his anti-democratic values?

Businesses are structurally quite different from governments. As finite entities, they can merge, sell themselves, reorganize or go bankrupt. Governments are meant to be permanent. They can, for example, survive financial crises (even insolvency) without disappearing.

Companies regularly take huge risks to achieve big rewards in the market. Lacking a profit motive, governments take modest risks to achieve non-monetary goals, such as national security and improvements in health and education

Business governance relies heavily on corporate lobbying and campaign contributions, which in turn lead to conflicts of interest and outright corruption by government officials. The Supreme Court’s decision in Citizens United has allowed corporate dark money to play an outsize role in our elections and federal governance. Functions meant to serve society at large require government control, if not actual provision.

Business governance puts our democracy at risk. To make America truly great again we need not an “America Incorporated,” but rather, as Abraham Lincoln said, a government of the people, by the people and for the people—that is to say, for all the people.

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L. Michael Hager is cofounder and former Director General, International Development Law Organization, Rome.

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