“The business of America is business,” said President Calvin Coolidge. “What is good for General Motors is good for the country and vice versa,” said Charles “Engine Charlie” Wilson, President Dwight Eisenhower’s defence secretary.
Americans have always been a little unsure about where to draw the line between public and private interest. In Joseph Heller’s novel Catch-22, the squadron’s mess officer, Milo Minderbinder, goes all the way: his hugely profitable M&M Enterprises ends up bombing his own squadron under the terms of a deal he has struck with the Germans. “What’s good for M&M Enterprises,” declares Milo, “is good for the country.”
Meanwhile, Heller’s hero Yossarian has to deal with the equally insane logic of bureaucracy — to be precise, catch-22, “which specified that a concern for one’s safety in the face of dangers that were real and immediate was the process of a rational mind”. If you were crazy, you could be grounded. All you had to do was ask. But as soon as you did, you would no longer be crazy and would have to fly more missions.
Today, having elected Donald Trump to be their next president, Americans confront a new catch-22.
Many citizens, such as my friend Gerry, voted for Trump precisely because they see him as a successful businessman. In America, after all, businessmen stand higher in public esteem than politicians. Trump voters disregarded those who said Trump was not a successful businessman but rather a successful self-promoter who had left a trail of business failures in his wake. They also ignored the smart alecs who argued that Trump would be much richer today if he had simply invested his inheritance in a stock market index fund and focused on his golf game.
Now Gerry’s candidate is president-elect and what do the darned liberals want? That he give up business. The new catch-22 states that a concern for the profitability of one’s own business is a good predictor of presidential ability. Trump is a successful businessman and should be elected. All he has to do, now that he has been elected, is to stop being a successful businessman.
“Trump’s businesses represent an impossible conflict of interest,” declared John Cassidy in The New Yorker. Either Trump should hand the presidency to Mike Pence or he should immediately “sell off his businesses”.
Writing in Commentary, John Podhoretz agreed. Trump would sooner or later face impeachment “if he does not find a way to silo off the Trump Organisation or even just figure out a way to sell it for scrap”. “You’ve made your money,” Peggy Noonan urged Trump in her Wall Street Journal column. “Now go be a patriot.”
Trump himself seems torn. This was how he explained his position to The New York Times last week: “As far as the . . . potential conflict of interests [is concerned] . . . the law is totally on my side, meaning the president can’t have a conflict of interest . . . In theory, I can be president of the United States and run my business 100% . . . So in theory I don’t have to do anything.”
In any case, it would be “very hard” for him to sell his business, Trump reasoned, “because I have real estate all over the world. . . It’s a great company with great assets. [And] I think, you know, selling real estate isn’t like selling stock.”
But relax. “I don’t care about my company,” Trump insisted. “It doesn’t matter. My kids [will] run it . . . The brand is certainly a hotter brand than it was before. I can’t help that, but I don’t care . . . Because it doesn’t matter. The only thing that matters to me is running our country . . . [So] I would like to do something. I would like to try and formalise something, because I don’t care about my business.”
Glad we’ve straightened that out, sir. Trump’s priority will be running the country. But if the business interests of the Trump Organisation should happen to come up — as they did when Trump was on the phone to the Argentine president last week — well, hey, whatever, Ivanka’s handling it. And if his Indian business partners drop by and ask for a photograph with him, what’s he supposed to say? No? In short, we have just elected Milo Minderbinder president.
At this point you are probably expecting me to join in the chorus of condemnation. I wish I could. Unfortunately, the liberal position on this issue is in fact a rather weak one.
Trump is right. There is no legal requirement that he should sell his business on entering the White House. The laws on conflict of interest don’t apply to the president. As Harvard’s Noah Feldman has pointed out, the only constraint is article 1, section 9, clause 8 of the constitution, which prohibits him from receiving any “emolument” from a foreign state without the permission of Congress. To insist that this obliges Trump to put all his assets in a blind trust is to stretch the point. The aim of the clause was to prevent federal officials from being bought by hostile governments, not to force a businessman to give up his business if elected president.
The notion of a complete separation of business and public activity is in any case a 19th-century invention. From an 18th-century vantage point, politics was expected to be the continuation of private interest by other means. Great statesmen were expected to be great landowners. And already in those days, the best land to own was the land on which great cities were being built. In that sense, Trump is a familiar Hanoverian type: an arriviste, a nabob with estates all around the world, a lover of conspicuous consumption, an alpha male intent on founding a dynasty. Snobs may sneer. They cannot stop him.
Come to think of it, Trump is also a familiar 21st-century type. Look around you, from the Volga to Vladivostok, from central Asia to South Africa, from Beijing to Buenos Aires. Aside from Canada, western Europe and Australasia, it is an oligarch’s world. And the defining characteristic of oligarchy is that there is no line between the private and the public. Just ask Trump’s favourite world leader and plutocrat, Vladimir Putin. Back in 1989 we thought we were witnessing the triumph of capitalism and liberal democracy. Alas, we were wrong. It turns out the winners were oligarchy and the populism that legitimises it.
The tragedy of oligarchy is that, despite my friend Gerry’s hopes, businessmen are generally quite bad at politics. It is just so much easier to collect money in the form of taxes paid to government — the ultimate monopoly — than to make profits in a competitive marketplace. That is precisely why the Victorians came up with idea of sea-green incorruptible public servants — they saw what a mess the East India Company had made of India.
The catch-22 of the Victorian system was that the incorruptibles became so detached from the world of business that, ultimately, their asceticism led them to socialism.
The catch-22 of our time is that the oligarchs become so detached from the lives of ordinary people that, ultimately, they get ousted. In America that means impeachment. The Democrats have just under two years to figure out how to win back Congress. If they can do it, President Minderbinder’s days in the White House will be numbered.