16 November 2016

Donald Trump is the new face of capitalism. God help capitalism


The Canadian poet Dennis Lee once wrote that the consolations of existence might be improved if we thought and worked and lived as though we were inhabiting “the early days of a better civilisation”. By that standard, the election of Donald Trump to the Presidency of the United States of America suggests precisely the opposite kind of times are upon us.

This is not just a judgment upon his evident unfitness for office – though it is that too – but, also, a verdict upon everything for which Trump purports to stand.

Any examination of his career ought to disabuse those people who still fondly hope President Trump will govern in a manner Candidate Trump would struggle to recognise.

And while the Left’s visceral antagonism to Trump is neither a surprise nor unwarranted, it is the right, in the United States and further afield, that has most to lose from his presidency

There is paradox aplenty here. Trump capitalised upon an inchoate sense of widely felt rage that the sins apparent in the 2008 financial crisis had not yet been properly accounted for.

The American economy might have recovered from that shivering experience, but the fruits of recovery have not been shared equitably.

Modernity has proved a chilly place for the aspirational working and lower middle-classes across the western world but, far from providing an opportunity for pressing a “reset” button, the aftermath of 2008 seemed only to confirm a keenly appreciated sense the game is rigged against the ordinary Joe.

A few bankers might have gone to jail (in America), but if there has been a full and final reckoning it’s one that’s been missed by much of America.

That the beneficiary of plebeian rage should himself be a trust-fund-funded scion of the 1 per cent whose claims to be America’s business champion are blown apart by the slightest scrutiny only adds another layer of irony.

Hillary Clinton’s enthusiasm for making massively renumerated speeches to Goldman Sachs counted for more than Trump’s near-40-year record of hucksterism and excess. He’s a deal-maker, don’t you know, and that’s what America needs.

Well, maybe. But if Trump is now for better or, more probably, for much worse, the highest-profile “capitalist” on the planet, then we have a problem. If you thought ethical business was in trouble before his election, you ain’t seen nothing yet.

The Trump presidency seems likely to be the shabbiest since Warren G Harding entered the Oval Office working on the theory that the Oval Office was a capital location for the enrichment of his closest cronies.

Lest you think I exaggerate, consider the initial auguries. They are not inspiring. Last weekend, Trump and his wife and children granted “60 Minutes” a soft-focus glimpse of the future First Family.

On Monday, journalists were surprised to receive an email from Ivanka Trump, the new President’s daughter, alerting them to the fact that Miss Trump’s “favourite bangle” from her eponymous jewellery collection, was available to purchase from all leading stores for a bargain $10,800. The bracelet, the email reminded its recipients, had been proudly on display during the “60 Minutes” interview.

Even by the standards of the selling of the presidency, this seemed a new and dispiriting low. At least when Bill and Hillary Clinton rented out the Lincoln bedroom they did so in return for campaign contributions rather than personal enrichment. A low bar, perhaps, but one still worth clearing.

The Trump presidency, by contrast, appears set to be the first available on the Home Shopping Network and organised on the principle that the President’s family should take advantage opportunities of the brand synergies available from merging Trump with the White House. Oh, the vulgarity!

Not that it ends there. Early intimations suggest the new President intends to place his assets in a blind trust that, at least for now, is neither a trust nor blind. It would, Rudy Giuliani says, be unfair to ask Trump’s children to stand aside from the family business because, shucks, they have to earn a living too.

Never mind that the scope of Trump’s corporate affairs allows for innumerable potential conflicts of interest. And who, right now, would trust Trump to put the United States before the interests of Trump Inc?

All that’s before you consider the wreckage Trump has left in his wake throughout his business career. America’s greatest deal-maker has a long and tawdry history of bilking his bankers, his investors, his suppliers and, for good and equal measure, his customers.

His approach to business appears to be based upon the zero sum game that if you’re happy, he must have lost. The concept of mutual advantage appears entirely alien to him.

Consider, too, the vehicle by which Trump became a true star. Like its British offspring, the original American version of “The Apprentice” represents, indeed champions, most of the things that are most rotten about contemporary capitalism.

So much so, in fact, that a disinterested viewer, happening upon the programme for the first time, would surely assume it was a cunning vehicle designed to honour Robert Conquest’s third law: namely that, the behaviour of any organisation – or, in this instance, theory of economics – may most simply be explained by assuming it is controlled by a cabal of its enemies.

Profit is the only thing that matters on “The Apprentice”. A fast buck is the only buck worth a damn. A fine product – to the extent such things exist on the programme – that earns a profit of X is worth much less than a terrible product that shortchanges consumers but results in a profit of X+0.1.

If the consumer is ripped-off, so be it. More fool them. There’s a sucker on every corner, after all.

And, of course, even allowing for the editing requirements necessary for the production of truly gruesome television, the contestants selected to take part in “The Apprentice” are uniformly ghastly.

Their obsession with status, their unerring ability to know the price of some things but the value of nothing, and their sheer and crass vulgarity lend further credence to the notion that “The Apprentice” is designed to discredit the entire notion of popular capitalism.

The contestants, being dreadful people, deserve their comeuppance but for all that there remains something unseemly about a show that depends for its appeal and resolution upon the brutal, final, unanswerable verdict, “You’re fired”.

It encourages an idea of capitalism as a brutish business, a Darwinian struggle for survival, in which the weaker members of the herd deserve their culling. There is not an ounce of humanity in it. Instead it relishes and thrives upon humiliation.

No one claims the corporate world is always a place for tender souls, of course. Business is, at some level, a matter of competition. But it is also, always, a matter of cooperation too. You didn’t build that on your own, you know, and your success is dependent upon the goodwill, and honest labour, of many partners.

“The Apprentice”, like everything else in Trump’s career, exists to refute that view.

The more Trumpism, and a Trumpian view of capitalism takes hold, the worse it will be for capitalism. Far from electing a champion of free enterprise, the American people have selected a President who represents all its worst tendencies.

That should worry everyone who believes in the generally benevolent influence of markets and natural competition. Nothing in his record suggests Trump shares those views, however. If the game isn’t rigged in his favour, he cries foul.

Ponder this, too: if, as must be considered likely, Trump does not preside over a return to economic happiness. If, instead, his combination of trade protectionism and tax cuts massively slanted towards the already super-rich leads to disaster, who will be blamed? Trump, or the capitalist system he purported to represent, and of which he declared himself America’s greatest champion?

Alex Massie is a political commentator.