The New York Times published an extraordinary deep dive into the financial history of President Trump this week. The paper’s reporters spent more than a year hunting down and analyzing documents for the 14,000-word investigation, which accuses the president and his family of committing large-scale tax fraud over several decades. State and municipal authorities in New York are already indicating that they may have to take a fresh look at the president’s finances.
Those of us who count ourselves among the Trump critics won’t be surprised to hear fresh evidence that he has cut moral and ethical corners in his business dealings. Those who adore the president, of course, will undoubtedly discount the Times’s findings as the product of liberal bias.
So it is hard to predict what sort of bearing these new revelations will have on the president’s political future. But I continue to hope that the gradual accumulation of information about Trump’s dubious business practices — past and present — will ultimately have a transformative effect on American public opinion. Specifically, I hope that it will contribute to the end of our naive glorification of tycoons.
Don’t get me wrong: I don’t believe that most of our business leaders are corrupt or dishonest. What I object to is the American habit of turning business leaders into idols who stand beyond any sort of critical judgment. Anyone who enjoys enormous power should be regarded by the rest of us citizens with healthy skepticism. Yet, all too often we give our plutocrats a pass.
Americans, of course, have a long history of respect for business success — it is part of what has made us the wealthiest country in the world. The idea that any American can rise to the top through hard work and smarts is a founding element of our national myth. That helps to explain why we tend to celebrate our business leaders to such an excessive degree.
Yet, today — in an era when the gap between the wealthy and the less privileged has reached extremes reminiscent of the late 19th century — the risks of this mindset are becoming increasingly obvious.
First, hero worship tends to undermine accountability. Consider two recent examples: Elizabeth Holmes and Elon Musk. Both proved brilliant at generating a cult of celebrity that insulated them from much-needed scrutiny — to the detriment of both shareholders and customers. At its peak, Theranos, the company founded by Holmes, achieved a valuation of $9 billion — until a dogged reporter revealed that the whole thing was based on a hoax. And Musk, of course, has just been forced to lay down the chairmanship of his flagship company, Tesla, after a series of gaffes culminating in a shoot-from-the-hip tweet that suggested he was planning to take the firm private again.
Second, an overly forgiving attitude toward business leaders encourages lax enforcement. Recent corruption scandals — such as Paul Manafort’s money-laundering escapades — reveal a grim reality: Prosecutions of white-collar crime have plummeted in recent years. When the public gives too much credibility to business leaders, lawmakers and bureaucrats have less inclination to spend time and money on complicated financial transgressions.
Third, the capture of political institutions by moneyed interests makes this a terrible time to suspend judgment about the captains of industry. The weakening of restrictions on campaign finance, the extraordinary concentration of wealth in a small number of hands and the rising power of monopolistic tech companies all pose potential threats to the health of democratic institutions. The fact that some of our modern-day oligarchs are trying to make good through charitable efforts is commendable. But even the most well-meaning philanthropy can’t always compensate for the distortions created by lopsided wealth (and may sometimes cause problems of its own).
Needless to say, no one embodies this cluster of problems better than the president himself. He has a track record of manipulating gullible media to inflate his own achievements. He has made most of his money in real estate, a notoriously opaque and poorly policed sector of the economy (as the Times report shows). And he has leveraged his wealth and notoriety to bring himself (and his equally privileged entourage) to the summit of power.
Isn’t it about time we started treating our business leaders like the mere mortals they are?