For the past 18 months, Corporate America and the business lobby have tried to walk a fine line: work closely with the Trump administration to roll back taxes and regulation while criticizing its actions on immigration, climate change, trade and those occasional racist outbursts. On other issues — infrastructure, Obamacare, education, government deficits — the business lobby talks responsibly but has put little political muscle behind its positions.
This “we’re with you when we’re with you” approach to policy is mirrored by an equally cute game in terms of campaign contributions. While virtually all the organized business money still goes to support Republican candidates and Republican causes, some business groups have made a show of selectively opposing the most radical Tea Party and Trumpist candidates in Republican primaries, such as Senate candidates Roy Moore in Alabama and Don Blankenship in West Virginia.
From a short-term perspective, the strategy appears to be working, with the U.S. economy running at full steam and stock prices still hovering stubbornly near their all-time highs.
But looking out longer term, even the most optimistic of executives can't fail to notice that the U.S.-led international economic order that has allowed American multinationals to grow and prosper over the past 75 years is being noisily dismantled in ways that not only threaten their businesses but threaten to usher in a Democratic Congress in 2018 and a Democratic president in 2020.
You get the sense of their dilemma reading the latest blog post from Tom Donohue, the take-no-prisoners head of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, who writes eloquently of the core values that have assured the success of the American experiment, and American capitalism—values, he says, that surely don’t include separating immigrant children from their parents as part of a cynical strategy to win passage of a hard-line anti-immigration bill. A similar sentiment was echoed by the Business Roundtable, which called the separation policy “cruel and contrary to American values.”
The reality is that such dissents, however genuine and well meaning, are irrelevant in Donald Trump’s Washington. With the support and acquiescence of the business community, the Republican Party has taken over Washington, Trump and the Tea Party radicals have taken over the Republican Party, and now those who dare to oppose them will be ignored, ridiculed, harassed or run out of office. There are now only two political factions in American politics — the Trump Tea Party or the Liberal Democrats — each of which is determined to snuff out the other once and for all. As much as it pains me to say it, there is no longer the possibility of a middle way as there is no middle ground left to stand on.
The business lobby should have gotten the message months ago when Paul Ryan, a clever, attractive and committed conservative decided he couldn’t take it anymore and gave up the job as Speaker of the House. They should have figured it out when Bob Corker and Jeff Flake decided to give up what should have been safe Senate seats, or when successful former business executives like Gary Cohn and Rex Tillerson were forced to leave town with their reputations tarnished and their tails between their legs.
They should have seen the writing on the wall when Trump was willing to extend a hand of friendship to the brutal dictator of North Korea while blowing up the relationship with our closest ally and biggest trading partner over dairy imports and a barely noticeable “slight” delivered at a press conference. They should have realized it when the president declared all-out political war on Special Counsel Robert Mueller and his Russia investigation, including holding out the possibility of pardons to witnesses who refuse to cooperate, confident that a Republican Congress would do nothing to punish him. And if none of that was enough, they should have realized how unhinged things had become when a president of the United States this week tried to topple the German Chancellor’s already-fragile coalition with a tweet stoking anti-immigrant sentiment.
Still can anyone really expect the heads of public companies, individually or collectively, to take on a president who has delivered them more tax and regulatory relief than they could have ever hoped for — the same president who has also shown himself to be a petty and vindictive bully who won’t hesitate to exact revenge from those who dare to cross him? That was the question was put to me by a leading business lobbyist this week.
The answer, I think, is yes, we can and should expect that kind of independence and backbone from business leaders.
After all, we have now seen enough to conclude, with reasonable certainty, that there is no good outcome for the economy, or for any large company, as a result of further polarizing our politics, undermining the rule of law or dismantling U.S.-led international order. And left unchecked, that’s just what Trump and like-minded autocrats and nationalists around the world will do over the next two years, disrupting supply chains, limiting market access and investment and reducing global demand for goods and services. The damage to sales and profits will more than offset the benefits of lower taxes and less regulation. Commercial self-interest alone now justifies a public break with Trump and the Tea Party Republicans.
So, too, does political self-interest. A move by the business community to reject Trump and the Tea Party will be not be forgotten by Democrats if and when they win back control of the Congress and the White House. Business has gotten quite good at hedging financial risk, but seems to have lost the knack of hedging political risk.
The business lobby, of course, does not have the power to restrain Trump and the Tea Party on its own, but it does have significant influence over Republican members of Congress who can. That would require sending a very clear and public message: Either you work with one another, and with Democrats, to stop this nonsense — now, before it causes real damage — or we will put our money and support behind politicians who can. To show it means business, business PACs could endorse centrist Democratic candidates in a few high-visibility Senate races in states where strongly pro-Trump candidates are on the ballot. I guarantee you that would send shock waves through Washington and change the political calculus in the Republican cloakrooms.
Indeed, that is just what businessman Michael Bloomberg plans to do, putting $80 million of his own money, the New York Times reported, to defeat Republican members of Congress who support the president.
The fantasy of too many others in the business community is that they can keep their heads down and ride out the storm until Americans come to their senses and elect someone else as president. That might have seemed a reasonable strategy six months ago. Today, it looks positively naïve.