The president-elect is correct that he’s exempt from the relevant congressional ethics law. But that doesn’t eliminate the larger question of how to reassure the American people about the integrity of his White House. Recent statements by Trump suggest he will transcend this problem by fusing his private interests and the public welfare. In embracing this idea, he shows a surprising and revealing affinity with a 16th-century thinker: self-made philosopher Thomas Hobbes.
Trump’s mixing of personal business and politics has been center stage since Election Day. The president-elect continues to meet with his international business partners. He recently indicated that he “might have” discussed opposition to offshore wind farms with Brexit leader (and sitting member of the European Parliament) Nigel Farage, on the grounds that sea-based wind turbines would hamper views from Trump International Golf Links, Scotland. And Trump’s recognition that his brand and assets are “hotter” since he won the election shows the ongoing difficulty of separating the concerns of the presidency from his personal fortunes.
Trump is not oblivious to these issues. As he put it, “everything a president does in some ways is like a conflict of interest” given the office’s simultaneous sweeping scope and concentration of so many powers into one set of hands. At the same time, he has not taken a clear stance that serving as the head of a business empire conflicts with his role as chief executive. He has said that the “law’s totally on my side, the president can’t have a conflict of interest.” He has also made a vague promise to divest himself of his business interests.
But why does that follow? Hobbes provides one way through this tangle. Hobbes’s life was bookended by chaos: the attempted invasion of England by the Spanish armada the year of his birth, and the English Civil War which concluded when he was in his 60s.
In the midst of this bloodshed and strife, Hobbes concluded that nations needed powerful rulers and stable societies to avoid the “continual fear and danger of violent death.” The alternative was a miserable existence that was “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short.” While Hobbes allowed for some variations in who ruled, kings and queens would best keep subjects in peaceful “awe” and prevent destructive civil and international conflict.
Such “leviathans” were nearly absolute rulers who clearly violated our contemporary notions of personal liberty, not to mention the separation of powers. Hobbes’s sovereigns could pass, implement and judge laws while being personally exempt from their reach.
But Hobbes was far more worried about security than freedom, and more concerned that divided rule would lead to battles for power that would cripple the state. In exchange for “obedience,” he offered protection.
We expect more from government in the 21st century, even in an era of terror. But Hobbes anticipated one objection that remains relevant today: How can we ensure that a leader, even an absolute monarch, acts in the country’s best interest?
The answer lies in the sweeping authority of Hobbes’s leviathan. Because a king sees the nation’s welfare as indivisible from his own, such figures face no conflict of interest. As Hobbes puts it, “sovereign governors” don’t take pleasure in the “weakening of their subjects” but in strengthening them and promoting their flourishing. In the citizens’ vigor, the ruler finds his own “strength and glory.” When the line between a leader’s private and public concerns are blurred, ambition and achievement in one sphere promotes accomplishment and splendor in the other.
Thus, there’s at least some Thomas Hobbes in Trump’s statements about governing. After all, the president-elect doesn’t think there’s an inherent conflict between what benefits him personally and what advances the nation: “In theory, I could run my business perfectly and then run the country perfectly.” And he’s even suggested that his ongoing business dealings are inherently good for the nation: “People are starting to see, when they look at all these different jobs, like in India and other things, number one, a job like that builds great relationships with the people of India, so it’s all good.”
But there are two major problems with this approach. First, Hobbes himself recognized how hard it is to fuse private interests with the public good. Leaders are inherently jealous and insecure, constantly comparing themselves with other nations and heads of state and valuing “what is eminent” rather than what is genuinely in the national interest.
More fundamentally, American history has simply proven Hobbes wrong. For more than 200 years, we’ve committed ourselves to a constitutional system that fractures political power in a manner that would have given Hobbes fits. But we do so, in part, because we value freedom and accountability over security at all costs.
For these reasons, Hobbes’s solution to the problem of aligning public and private interests is clearly not suited to American constitutional democracy or the new administration. That said, the conflict-of-interest problem is an unresolved challenge for the incoming administration. And it’s a lingering concern of an electorate hungry for selfless leaders, and suspicious that governing elites have personally benefited themselves at the expense of the public.
Bruce Peabody is a Professor of Political Science at Fairleigh Dickinson University.
Correction: This post as been updated to clarify that Nigel Farage is a member of the European Parliament, not the British Parliament.