It’s right to question Trump’s story.
Like many wealthy Republican donors, Dallas businessmen Doug and Darwin Deason preferred just about every candidate in the primary over Donald Trump. But when their other options were eliminated, the Deasons broke from their political mentors and avowed NeverTrumpers the Koch brothers, to meet with the party’s nominee in search of common ground. Doug went into the room with a list of questions, but he didn’t get to any of them—not the ones about corporate cronyism, social security, or farm subsidies. Still, by the end of the day the Deasons planned to donate millions of dollars to the effort to elect Trump president. Why? Because, as Doug told Zoe Chace of This American Life, they agreed that “this country needs to be run like a business.”
Trump charmed the Deasons by suggesting that businessmen are the heroes our world is waiting for. But free market conservatives are not the only ones who believe that business has special powers that can be a force for good in many areas of our lives. In Oprah’s recent roundup of the best new self-help books, seven out of fifteen books on the list were written by authors with a corporate background or framed their advice using business concepts. The extent to which business has coopted our country’s imagination is one reason why so few people—conservative or liberal—are asking a fundamental question raised by the Trump candidacy: Does being a successful businessman qualify you to be president?
Despite being fueled by a controversial nostalgia, Trump represents something new in American politics: For the first time in our country’s 240 years of presidential elections, a major political party has nominated a candidate with no legislative or military experience. Trump is not the first candidate in recent years to sell the American public on the Oval Office as the highest corner office, but he is the first major party nominee to run solely on his business credentials.
Trump's rise can be seen as a natural progression of our deepening skepticism about the actual service government renders. A lot of Americans no longer think government officials know how to get things done, and so public sector experience can be an electoral liability rather than an asset. In the last two open presidential elections, voters chose the governor or senator with the least time in that job. In this open election Trump has pitched himself as a political outsider, beholden to no one by virtue of his wealth and business savvy. He’s worth billions because he’s been able to do what politicians cannot: see things as they really are. He cuts through the bullshit to make the deal.
As Trump has shifted from long shot to real contender, this successful-businessman narrative has faced increased scrutiny. Warren Buffett, among others, has argued that Trump is not actually the success he claims to be, going so far as to say “a monkey throwing darts at the stock pages in 1995” would have come out ahead of him.
It’s right to question Trump’s story. We should know whether or not he won the game he claims to have played so well. But it’s strange that few have asked whether the game itself—business as Trump defines it—is a proper analog for running a country. After all, Walter Payton was almost certainly a better running back than Trump is a CEO, but few have suggested that excellence at running the ball is evidence for excellence at running the federal government.
Perhaps no one is asking this question because the answer is of course. Many people believe that a successful business provides a model of productivity, efficiency, and innovation, to be emulated in other spheres of life, including government, education, and religion. And, even more strikingly, in the family. Reporting from Trump campaign rallies, George Saunders recently wrote, “It seemed self-evident to [people there] that a businessman could and should lead the country. ‘You run your family like a business, don’t you?’ I was asked more than once, although, of course, I don’t, and none of us do.”
If running a family like a business means one should fire one’s children when they are underperforming, or that one should divorce and remarry whenever that will maximize profits, then the suggestion is absurd. If it means simply that one should act responsibly in both family and business, then it is true, but it provides no particular guidance.
For most Americans, family is about love, affection, and deep intimacy. Within these bonds, we hope to know and be known in the most personal of ways, with unconditional acceptance and grace. Service and gift-giving are central to family life, and thus strict accounting and hard bargaining are out of place. When we say family is “about” these things, we don’t mean that all, or even most, families live up to this ideal. Rather these are special human goods that are possible in family life, what family aspires to at its best. Business propositions fall flat in the living room, to say nothing of the bedroom.
But what about business as a model for government? Clearly no one thinks that a failed business is a model for government, or that being a failure in business qualifies one for holding public office. So the question is really about whether good business is a model for good government, and whether being a successful business person is evidence that one will be a success in public office. What, then, counts as a good business?
On one view, the criterion for good business is simply increasing profits. This seems to be Trump’s view. When pressed on how his business ventures have underpaid workers, harmed the interests of his partners, or produced a shoddy product, Trump dismisses these criticisms as irrelevant to his success. Indeed, for Trump and some of his supporters, these facts highlight how ruthlessly competitive he is in the pursuit of profit and are the marks of a strong chief executive.
But many people—including many people in business—believe that success in business is defined by more than profit. One version of this idea is conscious capitalism. Another version is referred to by the accounting shorthand of the triple bottom line: people, planet, and profit. On socially minded approaches like these, the criteria for a good business include such things as:
- providing work that allows workers to develop their creativity and autonomy
- being good for one's neighbors—i.e., those with whom one interacts or impacts
- making something useful, or beautiful, or both,
- showing proper care and respect for the natural world.
To be clear: On this view, these goals are not “extra credit” for a CEO who wants to be a nice person. Rather, achieving these goals is part of what it means for a business to succeed qua business.
Is there any way to decide between these two views of good business? We think there is, but we want to make a different point: If we accept the ruthless maximization of profits view, then we should not think that running a successful business is a good model for how to proceed in areas like education or government or the family. On this view, business is a bit like boxing—intensely competitive, unmotivated by compassion or generosity, not focused on the well-being of others, always potentially dangerous. There might be a place for such things in a healthy community, but an activity like that needs to be carefully guarded, kept at arm’s length, and distrusted.
Things look different if we believe that a successful business is measured by multiple metrics, including being a good neighbor, caring about the environment, and providing dignifying work. On this view, it’s much more plausible to think that good businesses might have insights that could be adopted in other spheres of life.
Regardless of which view of business you hold, this is bad news for those who think Trump’s business credentials provide a foundation for presidential success. By his own boasting, Trump is a boxer of a businessman. But despite appearances at times, government in a republic is about something very different from what happens inside a boxing ring. It is about ordering our common life for the good of all, and shaping our relations according to justice and humanity. It is also about being good to our nation’s neighbors, keeping our word and not giving other nations cause for anger towards our country. Ruthlessness is an impairment when successful leadership requires empathy, trustworthiness, and the ability to establish common cause.
When we say government is “about” these things, we don’t mean government lives up to these ideals all or even most of the time. Major reforms are needed, including curbing the influence of big money. But these are the special kinds of human goods possible in the context of our shared life as citizens, what the United States aspires to at its best. The sweet science sours in the state house. So the very concept of business that Trump accepts itself undermines his credentials for being good at governance. If business really is what Trump appears to think it is, then being good at it is no qualification for being president.
Calvin Coolidge, the thirtieth president of the United States, famously said “the chief business of the American people is business,” by which he meant few things shape our daily lives as pervasively as our version of capitalism. Buying, selling, investing, prospering in the world, “I am strongly of the opinion that the great majority of people will always find these are moving impulses of our life.” And indeed, ninety-one years after that speech, one of the most celebrated dance songs of 2016 features a #girlboss singing “I dream it, I work hard, I grind ‘til I own it.”
But in that same speech Coolidge warned against mistaking Americans for materialists. “We make no concealment of the fact that we want wealth, but there are many other things we want much more. We want peace and honor, and that charity which is so strong an element of all civilization. The chief ideal of the American people is idealism.” To live up to that idealism, we need to ask: How do We the People define a successful business? Is it enough for a business to turn a profit? Or should a business cultivate human flourishing and shared prosperity to be considered a success?
These questions are pressing, because the language of business now permeates our culture. When we develop personal brands on social media and best practices in the vestry meeting, the liturgical rhythms of corporatism are shaping our imaginations and ambitions. We must reckon with the extent to which the language of business and economics (ROI, competitive advantage, sunk costs, etc.) can constrict our vision of what cannot be bought and is truly priceless—justice, dignity, beauty, and freedom. It is by striving together to realize these goods in our lives and communities that we make America great, again and again and again.
Lisa Ann Cockrel is the managing director of the Calvin Center for Faith & Writing at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Micah Lott is an assistant professor of ethics and political philosophy at Boston College in Chestnut Hill, Massachusetts.