Originally Published: August 22, 2017 6:01 a.m.
It’s not often — actually, it’s never happened before — that a Republican president gets dissed and dumped by corporate titans such as Dow, Merck, Campbell Soup, the Blackstone Group, 3M, Intel, Ernst & Young, JP Morgan Chase, Johnson & Johnson, General Motors, PepsiCo, and IBM.
But their CEOs, and many more, rightly decided they should no longer be associated with the so-called business “closer” who, in truth, couldn’t close a window if somebody showed him the latch. Trump fooled a fatal number of voters with his pledge to run America like a business, but the aforementioned CEOs have fled with all deliberate speed, lest they be linked to his apparent quest to run America into the ground.
So much winning! Trump can’t even keep business leaders on board.
There’s a theory going around that this divorce is part of President Steve Bannon’s master plan to go full populist (on the 2016 stump, Trump liked to assail the big corporations) but it sure looks bad when a CEO such as James Dimon of JP Morgan Chase bitch-slaps Trump in public: “There’s no room for equivocation (about Nazis and white supremacists). It’s a leader’s role, in business or in government, to bring people together, not tear them apart.”
Not that Trump is capable of learning anything from this episode. As if. When it became obvious — via mass resignations, protesting his pathetic responses to Charlottesville — that his two business advisory groups were disintegrating, Trump harrumphed in a tweet that “ending” the groups was all his idea.
Another day, another lie. The CEOs had already taken the lead, launching their exodus with barely a word to Trump in advance.
This kind of action is unprecedented. (Hey, what isn’t these days?) Jeffrey Sonnenfeld, a professor of organizational behavior at the Yale School of Management, tells the press: “In American history, we’ve never had business leaders decline national service when requested by the president. They’ve now turned their backs on him.”
Some of the CEOs were genuinely repulsed by Trump’s amoral equivocations (all of which were totally predictable, at least to anyone who has listened to him for years), but CEOs in general are in business to make money, and they decided that serving on Trump’s Manufacturing Jobs Initiative or his Strategic and Policy Forum was potentially bad for the bottom line. Their risk-averse advisers, who tend to be sensitive about public relations, surely reinforced their concerns. And their shareholders, mindful of the American majority that views Trump with contempt, feared that Trump’s taint could bruise their brand.
As one business source tells The Wall Street Journal, the CEOs feared that their advisory board participation “was being conflated with endorsing everything the president has ever said or done.”
Indeed, the joke yesterday on Twitter, clearly initiated by a fan of “Seinfeld,” was that the CEO of Campbell quit because she didn’t want to be dubbed “The Soup Nazi.”
The bottom line — politically speaking — is that a Republican president (even a nominal Republican, especially a nominal president) can’t lead effectively if the business community bails. As the conservative Wall Street Journal editorial page pointed out yesterday, “the business community, is, or ought to be, a natural part of a Republican president’s governing coalition.” But the CEO exodus is “a symbol of his eroding support beyond his core political base,” as “his presidency shrinks in on itself.”
Trump and the corporate sector are theoretically in sync on big-ticket items such as “tax reform” (translation: lower taxes for corporations), but if corporate leaders don’t believe he can deliver (because of his temperament, his disrespect for congressional Republicans, his inability to lead on legislation he can’t bother to read, plus his indulgence of Nazis and white supremacists), his presidency, even if he sticks around, is essentially DOA.
As someone else once said (I love this quote, having cited it previously): “You can’t con people, at least not for long. You can create excitement, you can do wonderful promotion, and get all kinds of press, and you can throw in a little hyperbole. But if you don’t deliver the goods, people will eventually catch on.”
That’s from Trump’s book, “The Art of the Deal.” Now the CEOs have caught on.
Dick Polman is the national political columnist at NewsWorks/WHYY in Philadelphia (newsworks.org/polman) and a “Writer in Residence” at the University of Pennsylvania. Email him at email@example.com.