The Cult of the CEO and the Trumpification of the GOP

Americans should stop paying so much attention to what business executives think.

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The attention junkie Donald Trump announced Monday that he would give $5 million to, oh, never mind. That bozo needs more ink like Chris Matthews needs more coffee. But it’s worth remembering that 18 months ago, Trump was leading the Republican primary polls. And his circus of fail, along with Jack Welch’s insane conspiracy theories about the Bureau of Labor Statistics, not to mention the entire George W. Bush presidency, ought to shine a harsh spotlight on America’s misguided but incredibly resilient cult of the CEO.

Trump’s race-baiting ravings about President Obama’s birth certificate and college transcripts have inspired a lot of ridicule about his own bankruptcies and other business woes, but that’s missing the point. Trump has an impressive business record—even if it’s not as impressive as Welch’s or Mitt Romney’s—and an obvious genius for self-promotion. But he’s still a Guiness Book of World Records jerk who knows less than nothing about public policy. There’s no reason his political bloviations should receive any more attention than any other celebrity’s.

Making money is a genuine talent, just like teaching physics or draining three-pointers or, dare I mention it, organizing communities. CEO’s can produce real benefits for society, even though their main objective is maximizing returns for their shareholders, even though some of them create entire reality shows around the enjoyment they derive from firing people. But there is no reason to think that CEO’s have any more insight into the national interest than their workers do. And the Trumpy drumbeat that Obama is an anti-capitalist radical—recently amplified by a self-righteous parade of CEOs threatening to fire their employees if the president is reelected—is somewhat odd given the spectacular profits enjoyed by corporate America over the last four years. I understand why some of them are bummed that Obama wants to raise their taxes, and they have every right to finance Romney’s campaign, but I don’t see why their opinions (or for that matter the opinion of Obama-friendly executives like Warren Buffett or Jeff Immelt) are big news.

Romney has argued that his experience at Bain Capital makes him uniquely qualified to turn around the economy. I do think his managerial experience is an attractive quality in a chief executive, and unlike many blame-the-staff pundits I do think that experience has helped him run a strong campaign operation. (Of course, Obama ran a strong campaign operation in 2008, and he had never run anything bigger than the Harvard Law Review.) But Romney’s record as a moneymaker in private equity tells us virtually nothing about his ability to produce macroeconomic success, to the extent that presidents can contribute to macroeconomic success. His ideas about the tax code and public investments and budget deficits and monetary policy tell us much more. So does his record as governor of Massachusetts, to the extent that he stands by his policies in Massachusetts.

The cult of the corporate leader seems to have emerged unscathed from the financial and economic meltdown of 2008, just as the cult of the military leader emerged unscathed from the Iraq war. Somehow, the dream of the Harvard Business School CEO president seems to have survived the Bush era as well. There is no reason a CEO couldn’t be a good president—military leaders have been some of our best—or even an insightful political commentator. But there’s a reason a lot of people don’t like their bosses, and very few people ask their bosses who they should vote for. Jack Welch is a crank, even if he did make his shareholders a lot of money. Donald Trump is a clown, even if he builds very very fancy buildings and gets very very high ratings. And Mitt Romney ought to be judged by his policy proposals, his gubernatorial record, and his political party. That’s the best way to tell what he’ll do to the economy.

One final word about that party: The weirdest thing about the Republican convention in Tampa, aside from its unrelenting whiteness, was its unrelenting focus on business owners. Every speaker repeated the mantra: You built this! Just about all of the speeches were directed towards Job Creators, one ode after another to The Man. There was something endearing and true about this incessant valorization of entrepreneurs; my wife started a small business, and I’m still amazed how hard it was. But I couldn’t stop thinking during the convention that the workers for whom jobs are created help build businesses, too, and there are more of us than there are of our bosses. The electorate is getting less white, less evangelical, less old—in other words, less demographically Republican–and it has been widely remarked that if Romney loses after four years of 8 percent unemployment, the GOP will have to reckon with those trends. But it will also have to reckon with its Trumpy conviction that whatever is good for business owners is good for America. It’s the kind of conviction that leads to a candidate like Romney.