Unravelling Donald Trump

President Trump’s most ardent supporters and harshest critics would probably both agree on one thing:  The Donald is one of a kind.  By this, they generally mean that we have never seen anyone act like him   in the White House.  But he is also one of a kind in another way—the first corporate CEO to become   President—and that fact itself may explain at least some of his actions.

A classic article entitled “Why Businessmen Distrust Their State: The Political Consciousness of American Corporate Executives” by UC-Berkeley professor David Vogel, published over 40 years ago in the British Journal of Political Science, is illuminating in this regard.  Not surprisingly, over the course of time questions have been raised about parts of his argument, but by and large it holds up pretty well.  In his piece, Vogel was interested in understanding why it was that American business leaders, who have benefitted disproportionately from state policy through most of American history, have generally been hostile to government, unlike business people in other developed countries.

One reason, according to Vogel, relates to the fact that in the U.S., unlike the case elsewhere, “Big Business” rose to power before government grew to appreciable size and power, which made business leaders believe that they didn’t need government.  As a result, in the U.S.  such leaders, fearful of possible attempts to rein in their  prerogatives, have instinctually questioned the idea of vigorous governmental activity—except, of course, when such activity redounded to their advantage.      So that’s one thing.

A second consideration, though, relates to business leaders themselves.   Large businesses historically and, alas, even today generally operate on very top-down assumptions and protocols.  To be sure, over the past thirty or forty years there has been a lot of ink spilt about  (and consulting fees generated by talk of) flattening corporate hierarchies, empowering employees, etc.  But at the end of the day, corporate decision-making is highly centralized and largely controlled by the CEO, along with his/her usually compliant board.  In other words, most corporate leaders have a preferential option for authoritarianism or least for management by command and control.    Hence, their leaders’ inherent distrust of democratic processes, which at best slow things down by gumming up the works—and have the potential to do far worse.

That is to say, even if business has generally benefitted from governmental actions in the past, things can change in a moment in a democracy such as ours.  A CEO can’t control political actions as easily in the public arena as he or she can orchestrate activity within the “friendly confines” of a hierarchical corporation.  Distrust of government, Vogel argued, is the natural result.

One might surmise that these tendencies are even more pronounced in patrimonial family businesses such as those The Donald has run over the course of his career.  His actions while in the White House are undoubtedly due in large part to other factors as well: Bluster, vulgarity, and bumptiousness among other idiosyncrasies.  But they are likely also due in part to the fact that he is “one of a kind”: A corporate CEO who somehow segued into the Presidency.

Peter A. Coclanis is Albert R. Newsome Distinguished Professor of History and the Director of the Global Research Institute at UNC-Chapel Hill.