If you’re wondering if the new normal in American politics includes a president-elect rage-tweeting at companies he dislikes, engaging in near-daily hissy-fits over media coverage he finds insufficiently obsequious, and engaging in constant social media warfare over slights to his ego, you’d be right. Witness the emerging gangster capitalism of Donald Trump.
No one has felt much genuine shock that Donald Trump refuses to divest his control over his empire in a real, legally binding way. Only a fool would believe Trump would draw a sharp, bright line between his personal and family financial interests and the interests of the nation. Since the election, he’s demonstrated in both word and deed that he intends to fully monetize the presidency to benefit his companies, integrate his children into consequential government decisions, and put the bully in the bully pulpit.
Those things were expected as part of the skeezy, venal radiation Trump gives off when it comes to his business dealings. Like many, I still expect that Trump is going to make Americans aware of the phrase “emoluments clause” like no one else in history.
For all that, the crony-capitalist (and bogus) Carrier deal and his new war on Boeing should make Washington’s dwindling tribe of conservatives dedicated to economic freedom take notice. This isn’t just the wrong policy direction; it’s a preview of a new, dark economic populism that many warned was coming.
This week’s tweet war against Boeing came just 20 minutes after the aviation giant’s CEO Dennis Muilenburg was quoted expressing mild concern over the impending trade-war disaster Trump has promised. You couldn’t miss the president-elect’s repsonse:
In the interests of not normalizing post-truthiness, I must note that Trump’s statement was a lie from top to bottom. Boeing isn’t over-budget on the new AF1 contract, Trump has no idea what he’s talking about, and arguing the point of his tweet misses his intent.
Three weeks after the election, every day is another day of the Theater of Trump, showing the contours of his extraordinary willingness to shatter Republican free-market ideals on the altar of his version of gangster capitalism. It wasn’t that Boeing went to war with Trump, or shipped jobs overseas. It’s that the bizarre, delicate ego of Donald J. Trump was offended by Muilenburg’s oblique worry about the trade war our next president seems determined to launch.
The tweet was one more piece of evidence that the next president isn’t going to even give the free market the time of day; instead, he’s embracing a state-capitalist flavor of populism where the president of the United States directly and personally intervenes in the governance of private businesses. Trump’s new reality show is “You Bet Your Market Cap!”
Republicans and conservatives routinely engaged in fits of high dudgeon when Obama “picked winners and losers” on his favored green energy companies. They stamped their feet when he attacked the CEOs of energy companies, insurance executives, and amputation-happy doctors. Before the GOP became the party of Trump’s gangster capitalism, they weren’t perfect capitalists, but they at least paid lip service to the power of markets and capitalism. Entire sectors of the Washington, D.C., conservative think-tank universe that exist entirely to defend and promote the values of economic liberty over the control of the economy by the state are booking events in Trump’s hotels and are remarkably silent over his daily apostasies to market economics.
We have a speaker of the House who until Trump was an admitted devotee of Ayn Rand. We have members of the Senate and the House who have railed for not years, or decades, but for generations against crony capitalism, government intervention in markets, excessive regulation, and corporate welfare. Today, they are born-again to the cult of Trumponomics. They were often hypocritical about free markets, but now they’re not even pretending.
This is how the slippery slope looks: Trump blurts out a new attack outrage, and members of Congress with an “R” after their names either agree because he’s got one too, or tacitly allow it to slide. Many of them hope they’ll be dealing with Pence, or some other relatively sane member of his cabinet. They’re looking at Trump as a vector to pass the House agenda, as someone who they can “puppet,” in the words of one member of the House leadership. The moral rot and compromise with Trump’s statist economics are already quite far gone.
Corporate leaders are making almost exactly the same mistake, hoping to flatter Trump or to at least avoid his wrath. Some think their industry isn’t in his sights. Some think they’re good with the House and Senate, and can avoid trouble. Some believe their D.C. interest groups and lobbyists will have influence and can protect them. Even Silicon Valley, which loves to believe it exists in a separate, parallel political universe thinks Trump is only interested in old-tech, legacy industries and will ignore them.
Some perhaps believe that he’ll be business-as-usual, a transactional politician who plays nicely in the D.C. lobbying ecosystem despite his public bluster. They’re wrong, of course. Trump and Steve Bannon, in particular, see the business class as the enemy. They see corporate CEOs as either peers or foes, and the peers fall under the Machiavellian “enemies closer” rule. Those confident they can buy, flatter, or avoid Trump are playing a game, unlike anything America’s corporate world has seen before.
They’re not reading Trump’s history. Once Trump has “won” a feud (or an election) the normal rules of politics would be to return to the status quo ante. Not Trump. He continues to attack, belittle, and torture his victims long after there’s any political utility to it. It will be the same with his thug populism and attacks on American businesses. The fight won’t be over; capitulation isn’t enough. He demands abject humiliation. (Take a look at the dead eyes of Mitt Romney during this secretary of State charade and tell me he hasn’t suffered enough.)
This behavior isn’t without precedent in the hands of authoritarians. In the early days of Vladimir Putin’s reign, a number of billionaire oligarchs like Mikhail Khodorkovsky and Platon Lebedev of the massive Yukos oil concern crossed the Russian strongman. Putin first turned the Russian media and propaganda machine against the men, then the power of the Russian courts, which—handily enough—he controlled. At first, this was greeted as a populist new leader draining the swamp (where have I heard that lately?) and teaching the hated oligarch class a stiff lesson.
It didn’t stop there, though. The already shaky post-Soviet commitment to reducing the terrible power of the state over the lives of its citizens was swiftly forgotten and as Putin’s attacks on his enemies were backed up by a media dedicated to his aggrandizement and protections, many bowed to the inevitable. The reporters, civic activists, and others started to die, disappear, or be imprisoned. Putin’s personal wealth grew as he destroyed his political opponents. His image as a celebrity despot was carefully cultivated and polished. A rigid core of Putin voters loves him as the man who Made Russia Great Again. Sound familiar?
We’re not there yet, but the signs are clear enough, even before Trump has taken the oath of the most powerful office in the land. Political, corporate, and media leaders who refuse to see—and speak out about—what’s coming, what’s etched in the behavior and character of this man, deserve their fates.