Now is the time for all good men to come to the aid of their … country.
I thought of that variation on the old typing drill (yes, we actually had classes in typing) when I read a recent piece by a former Post colleague, Tom Ricks, in Politico. One of the best military correspondents around, Ricks had come to know and respect former Army general H.R. McMaster, who joined the Trump White House as national security adviser earlier this year. When McMaster was appointed, Ricks was encouraged that someone of such intelligence, integrity and experience would be there to educate the new president and restrain some of his worst instincts. But after watching McMaster contort himself — and the truth — over the last three months in an effort to “lend an air of occasional competence to an otherwise shambolic White House,” Ricks had a change of heart. He took to Politico last week to urge McMaster to resign not just for his own good, but for the good of his country.
Ricks’s plea to McMaster could just as well be directed to the chief executives of the country’s largest corporations, many of whom are gathered in Washington this week for a meeting of the Business Roundtable.
Superficially, the business community has been well treated by Trump, who has set out to become the most unapologetically pro-business president since Calvin Coolidge. His agenda includes rolling back regulations, cutting taxes, privatizing government functions, imposing trade sanctions on international competitors and drumming up billions of dollars in contracts and investment from foreign potentates. Trump has also stocked his administration with former business executives, financiers and business lobbyists, and hardly a week goes by that the president doesn’t meet with some group of corporate chieftains.
The good karma and good intentions, however, are proving to be no substitute for competence. All the talk about rolling back regulation, cutting taxes and privatizing government functions turns out to be mostly that — just talk. In reality, the administration has no credible plan to replace Obamacare, no credible tax reform plan, no infrastructure proposal and no immigration policy. And without effective leadership from the White House, there is little likelihood that any legislation on these topics will emerge from a fractured Congress.
The administration’s 2018 budget was so draconian in its spending cuts and so specious in its economic assumptions that even the Republicans on Capitol Hill declared it dead on arrival. And although some regulations enacted during the waning days of the Obama administration have been nullified by Congress, it will take years of administrative proceedings and fighting off court challenges to undo the others.
At this point, business leaders might ask themselves what good is it to have the support of a president on policy matters if he can’t even lead his own party, let alone the country. What good is it to have the ear of the president if he refuses to listen to facts and reason?
But the Trump problem goes deeper than that. The extraordinary growth and prosperity that has made the United States the richest and most powerful nation on earth was based on liberal order based on free markets, free trade and free elections—an order that rested on a foundation of bipartisan consensus at home and mutually beneficial cooperation abroad. Trump has made clear that he intends to dismantle that old order, along with the institutions and norms that sustained it. Rather than America leading the world, Trump’s vision is of an America that dominates it. That vision has already alienated longtime democratic allies while encouraging the president to make common cause with dictators and despots.
What corporate executives now have to decide is whether the prospect of tax and regulatory benefits that they might get by sticking by an increasingly unpopular and unstable president would outweigh the costs — the cost of four years of political stalemate, constitutional crisis and continued deterioration of public services.
They must consider the reputational consequences that will come from the steep decline in the value of the American brand, and what it means to be associated with a country that is no longer widely respected and admired.
And corporate executives must now decide if the benefits of a mercantilist economy exceed the cost of lost exports, disrupted supply chains and the inability to attract and retain the best and brightest employees the world has to offer.
Some brave business leaders have already stepped forward to publicly distance themselves from Trump, his policies and his way of governing. Thirty chief executives signed an open letter urging the president not to renounce the Paris climate agreement, and after Trump ignored their advice, three of them — Bob Iger of Disney, Elon Musk of Tesla and Travis Kalanick of Uber — made a noisy exit from a group advising the president. Earlier this week, Ray Dalio, a billionaire hedge fund manager who in December had celebrated the prospect of a Trump presidency, recanted on his earlier support.
“The more I see Donald Trump moving toward conflict rather than cooperation, the more I worry about him harming his presidency and its effect on most of us,” Dalio wrote in a post on LinkedIn.
For the most part, however, business leaders have remained either silent about Trump or continued to voiced mild support, despite their serious misgivings about the president’s competence and temperament.
The Business Roundtable’s quarterly survey of chief executives, released this week, showed high levels of optimism about the economy, based in part on the prospect of corporate tax reform and regulatory relief. When asked about the president’s political troubles and how they might derail the policy agenda, Roundtable President Josh Bolten characterized them as a “distraction.”
“Everyone is concerned, but I’d be careful not to overstate that concern,” said Bolten, himself a former chief of staff in the Bush White House.
At this point, business executives say they see no purpose in breaking with the new administration. When pressed, they say they will support the administration on issues they agree on and oppose it on those they don’t. In normal times, such studied neutrality is to be expected. But these are not normal times, and this is not a normal presidency.
Over the past 30 years, business executives have developed an increasingly cramped view of the role of business — and business leaders — in society. There was a time when the chief executive of the country’s largest corporation could declare that “what’s good for General Motors is good for America, and vice versa.” But in today’s competitive global economy, the idea that whatever is good for the country is good for business is now viewed as a quaint anachronism. Thanks to the relentless pressure from Wall Street and its “activist investors,” the prevailing ethic is that executives should run their businesses to maximize short-term profits and share prices, with little regard to what happens to the rest of society.
The bankruptcy of this me-first ethic should now be obvious to those who fancy themselves as business leaders. At some point, Donald Trump will have be shown the door, if not by the special counsel, the Congress or the Cabinet, then by the voters in the coming election. At that point, the business community will want to be — and to be seen — on the right side of history. Because of their visibility, the resources they command and their ties to the Republican party, business leaders are in a unique position to assure that Citizen Trump makes his exit sooner rather than later. They have to know that the longer this political melodrama drags on, the greater will be the damage to the country and the economy.
Now is the time for all good men to come to the aid of their country.