Trump, Entrepreneurship, and the Consequences of Running the Government like a Business Startup
For most observers President Trump’s behavior has ranged from frustrating and confusing to downright dangerous. He has consistently used exaggeration, hyperbole, and flat-out lying to cause complete confusion in political dialogues across America and the world. He has also created serious problems through questionable appointments for key positions, inattentiveness to essential responsibilities, and a chaotic approach to engaging traditional roles and responsibilities associated with the presidency. The result has been a litany of questions regarding the seemingly irrational contradictions of his party’s platform, as well as his own self-interest.
Yet, with every mistake and questionable act his supporters only reaffirm their devotion to him. As with all devotion it begins with complete acceptance of Trump’s claims of preeminence. Next is the establishment of strong bulwarks of avoidance, “whataboutism”, and willful ignorance with regards to any arguments or evidence threatening those claims. Finally, they have proven willing to proactively attack sources of that evidence as part of the ongoing ‘information war’ against his detractors and their “fake news”. Whether it’s illegal immigration, the benefit of recent tax cuts, bringing back coal, the legitimacy of climate change, or even Obama’s birth certificate, this framework has come to define ‘Trumpolitics’. And as galvanizing as Trump’s presidency has been for his core supporters and the Right in general, it has also come to define the Left through their anxious, angry, and confused responses to his leadership.
However, when viewed from the perspective of the President’s most important skill set, entrepreneurship, things become much clearer. Once elected, he was not settling into an established government position, he was creating the political version of a business startup. He was never a candidate with a platform, he was a entrepreneur looking for opportunities in a new market. And his supporters were never looking for a political advocate, they wanted anyone who could promise the cure for ‘Obama-Hillary disease’. In the end, Trump’s greatest achievement might be the creation of entrepreneurial politics, the manipulation of political groups through marketization of their key issues for personal gain.
“Good marketing makes the company look smart. Great marketing makes the customer feel smart.” — Joe Chernov
From the very beginning Trump marketed his approach to American politics using the skills and experiences he accumulated through a lifetime of entrepreneurship. He began with no experience in politics or any other form of public service. He did not have a personal crusade built on years of being a minority, a veteran, or an environmentalist. In fact, he had no clear position on most key social and political issues in America today. Those issues he did attempt to make clear statements on during the 2016 election were often contradicted by previous statements he had made years earlier when he was friends with the Clintons and other Democrats. Until he descended down the escalator of Trump Tower to announce his candidacy for president no one, including himself, thought of him as a politician.
He was however a successful entrepreneur with a brand that had been carefully cultivated for decades, and a product line that created instant customer loyalty amongst some Americans. Even if you didn’t know exactly who Donald Trump was, you recognized the name from somewhere. And as the “birther conspiracy” gained momentum he was increasingly committed to making sure it was connected to him politically, despite the broader tones of racism and xenophobia the narrative suggested. And what exactly was his product? He was promising conservatives the strongest antidote available for the Obama-Hillary disease they were convinced was afflicting the country. He was promising them cover for their own perspectives by always being the loudest voice at the rally so to speak. He gave them the opportunity to speak out against immigrants, Muslims, the media, and Democrats without the shame and embarrassment normally associated with pseudo-racist, xenophobic, or excessively paranoid behavior. He gave them the confidence to fight back against political correctness.
The foundation of success for the MAGA movement has been its combination of emotional clarity and political vagueness. Trump’s marketing of MAGA allowed individuals across the political right to define for themselves what a “Great America” should (or did) look like, while offering an umbrella of patriotic rhetoric under which they could all collect. If you had real frustration or anger over environmental regulations, Obamacare, or immigration then it wasn’t hard to convince yourself to buy what he was selling. Unfortunately, if you also had darker motivations such as racism, misogyny, or xenophobia it was even easier to make him your champion precisely because of the vagueness of his principles and goals. In the end, Trump’s brand of politics created ‘cafeteria Republicans’ who could selectively support him while disavowing themselves of the worst things he represented.
Ironically, he is not as interested in developing a shared psychology with his supporters as they are with him. He just wants them to invest knowing they will do so, “even if he shot someone in the middle of the street.” The key is that like his customer base, he has no use for the existing political system and its traditions, reliance on ‘political correctness’, and norms of procedure. Donald Trump was never intending to “drain the swamp” in order to uncover some long-forgotten foundation of virtue and justice in America’s political system. His goal all along was to invent a system that he would feel comfortable running and so it’s not surprising that large parts of our government exhibit the same type of chaos associated with a newly started business. Similarly, its not surprising his supporters continue to invest regardless of how many bad reviews he gets. For both he and his supporters MAGA has become ‘Too Big to Fail’ requiring more and more investment in a failing enterprise.
“Modern man is not the man who goes off to discover himself, his secrets, and his hidden truth; he is a man who tries to invest himself” — Michel Foucault
The single biggest mistake made by pundits and observers since the 2016 election has been viewing Trump’s core supporters as traditional political actors. In truth, the large majority were investing the emotional equivalent of their life savings into his message, even as it continued to evolve and change. The difference between political and emotional commitment is the difference between compromise and self-defeating stubbornness. By accentuating the emotional component over the political Trump transformed conservative politics into an ‘all-or-nothing’ proposition in which his supporters had to become 100% committed. As a result, the Republican party has become less the home of an alternative vision of America’s future, and more the hometown team that conservatives must root for regardless of how bad they seem to be playing.
Trump supporters are not political actors with full faith in America and its systems. Distrust of the government and politicians is a fundamental principle of Trumpolitics. The result is a growing paradox within conservatism as they almost uniformly dislike the federal government and national politics, but must support Trump unquestioningly as the leader of those systems. The answer has been disdain and open hostility towards Democrats and the Left as the primary reason for government inefficiency and corruption. Not only do they believe their interests will not be met ‘by the other side’, Trump’s core supporters are convinced that the Left will consistently undermine and attack those interests at every turn. They are not voters backing a politician who may or may not win, they are investors in a product that must succeed at all costs.
Trump’s supporters must be as loyal to the product as someone trying to sell Mary Kay knowing that the person across the street is selling Avon. There can be absolutely no question of the product’s legitimacy or effectiveness as it has a singular value wrapped up in the name of the product itself. If one aspect of the product is shown to be a fraud or ineffective than it immediately calls into question the entire company. And considering the number of investors who have put everything they have behind Trump and his message there is now a ‘too big to fail’ aspect to his core support. They cannot allow anyone (e.g. Nancy Pelosi) or anything (e.g. the Mueller Report) to plant the seed of doubt about the thing they’ve invested the last 3+ years of their life in. So, anyone who questions their decision must be relying on fake news, pre-existing bias against conservatives, or an irrational hatred of Trump himself. And anyone, democrat or republican, who suggests that they are selling a better version of America is their new mortal enemy! Because if they are right, then everything Trump supporters have invested in has been a waste.
The reason why Trump supporters are completely oblivious to the legal, ethical, and moral ramification of his behaviors is because they must be. It is much the same for top officials and other appointees within the cabinet and administration. If you are part of the team then it is implicit that you have accepted and in fact are willing to promote the behaviors and perspectives of your chief spokesman. The result is a continuous series of questionable soundbites, campaign stops, press conferences, and Fox News echo chambers linked together to create one long commercial for MAGA. His poor policies and appointments are just faulty roll-outs of new products. His diplomacy by Twitter is just a new and effective brand of marketing. And his attacks against anyone who questions his leadership, posts bad reviews on his presidency, or threatens his control of politics in DC is just aggressive business management.
“The quality of a leader is reflected in the standards they set for themselves.” — Ray Kroc
The most direct indication that Trump thinks he’s running a business and not the country is his leadership style itself. There are a couple of key differences between business and political management that continue to seem beyond his ability to adapt to. The first is how the concept of accountability is defined within the political and economic spheres. From a business perspective accountability is tied almost exclusively to outcome and the ‘bottom-line’, i.e. profits. If you can produce a profit, then how you achieved it (and thus your success in general) is unquestioned as long as you are never convicted of serious crimes (and sometimes even if you are). Conversely, in the political realm all you need is the appearance of a criminal act and all the substantive success you’ve had is for naught. So, despite the numerous ongoing and pending investigations of him, his business practices, and his campaign, Trump continues to sell the product and attack his competitors. There are an increasing number of investigations, discoveries, and policy decisions however that give the administration the feeling of a failing business trying to make as much profit as possible before the market collapses.
The second impact of Trump using entrepreneurship to fulfill presidential responsibilities and roles is his inability to separate the requirements of the position from the brand that got him there. He is the unquestioned master of his own brand, but that requires he maintain complete control over everything associated with it. He, his supporters, and his advisers can never break from character because it is his brand. For Trump to give them anything else would be like trying to serve Pepsi to Coca-Cola fans.Through the melding of his brand with the nation’s identity he has literally wrapped himself and his product in the American flag. And as far as his investors are concerned it is packaging that will always make him, and by association themselves, righteous.
If he was ever to truly engage traditional presidential behaviors, he would be acting directly counter to what his investors have come to expect from him. This of course assumes that he is intellectually and emotionally capable of filling that role despite evidence to the contrary over the last two and a half years. In the end, he continues to promote the product because it’s the only one he has. This has been evidenced as much by his campaigning (marketing) for 2020 from the day he was inaugurated, to his inability to come up with anything other than the same basic slogan he used in 2016. If he’s able to maintain control over the political market that is Washington DC he will be able to keep his product on the shelves. And if he’s able to do that his investors will continue to be ecstatic with their returns regardless of what ethical, moral, or legal boundaries may have been broken to get them.
The last point, and the one that may leave the most lasting residue on American politics, is his personalization of the presidential role itself. He has convinced himself that his brand is the only one on the shelf and the endless desire to reinvest on the part of his core supporters has only reinforced this perspective. The president has consistently spoken in the first person at times in which he should have been speaking on behalf of the country. From natural disasters and relationships with allies to variations of the stock market and the national news cycle, Trump has done everything possible to position himself as the living embodiment of Uncle Sam. By shipping MAGA out in flag covered boxes he connected himself more directly to patriotism within the minds of conservatives than any politician since Ronald Reagan. And as is often the case, his most reliable consumers have been able to overlook fundamental flaws in the product itself because of the packaging and frankly a desire to be part of the fad. And it is this component that feeds into Trump’s product the most because as everyone knows, everyone loves a fad.