Big American corporations have agreed to a Faustian deal with President Donald Trump.
When he said something inflammatory or flirted with authoritarianism, the most thoughtful CEOs made vague but judgmental statements and tried to distance themselves from a president who favors business and coveted their approval.
But when Trump cut taxes, revoked hefty regulations, or used them as props for photoshoots, they applauded his leadership and smiled at the cameras.
After the events of Wednesday (6) in the US Congress, the real cost of this number of balancing act has been clearly exposed, despite the fact that tear gas continues to cloud the panorama.
Leaders who have always supported Trump have come to position themselves as being among those who facilitated the president’s actions, giving him a conventional stamp of credibility and helping normalize a president who caused the country to split into enemy wings.
“This is what happens when we subordinate our moral principles to what we mean by business interests,” said Darren Walker, president of the Ford Foundation and a board member of the Square and Ralph Lauren groups. “And it ends up being detrimental to business and to society.”
Since the start of Trump’s presidency, the American business community has wavered between supporting the president’s economic agenda and condemning his worst impulses.
At the start of Trump’s tenure, dozens of business leaders joined two advisory boards created by the president. Eager to take their seats at the table and influence policies in the direction they preferred, executives of several companies put aside their reservations about Trump’s character flaws, his history of racist behavior, and accusations of sexual assault against him, and their declarations of legal impunity.
“He is the President of the United States. I believe in him as the pilot of our plane, ”said Jamie Dimon, CEO of JPMorgan at the time. “I would try to help any president of the United States, because I am a patriot.”
The effort did not last long. Months after the councils were formed, they were eventually dissolved, after Trump insisted there were “very good people on both sides” during a wave of white nationalist violence in Charlottesville, in Virginia.
After that, the business leaders tried to explain how they got caught up in this mess.
“I joined because the president invited me and I thought it was the right thing to do as the CEO of a company like Merck,” said Ken Frazier, one of the executives most prominent blacks in the United States, shortly after leaving the board. “But I ended up feeling that out of my conscience I couldn’t continue to be a part of it.”
But money has a short memory, and it didn’t take long after Charlottesville for Trump to find good favor in American business. A few months after that, the Trump administration passed tax reform that benefited businesses and high net worth individuals.
By cutting corporate taxes, Trump has provided the business community with one of his most desired goals, and business leaders have lined up to welcome the move.
Visiting the White House in October 2017, Tom Donohue, president of the US Chamber of Commerce, expressed immense satisfaction at the prospect of tax cuts. “The business community has been waiting for a long time for a government, a president and a Congress ready to do what we have not planned for a few decades,” he said.
But by taking advantage of the additional wealth thus gained, companies found themselves much closer to a White House that separated children from their families on the border with the United States and adjusted to foreign dictatorial regimes.
“Trump’s tax cut was fool’s gold,” Howard Schultz, former Starbucks CEO, said Thursday. “People let themselves be seduced and unfortunately decided, for their own benefit and that of their business, that it was the right thing to do.”
In 2019, it was as if Charlottesville had never happened and a new Business Advisory Board was formed, involving figures like Tim Cook, CEO of Apple, Doug McMillon, CEO of Walmart, and Julie Sweet, CEO. . from Accenture.
At the first meeting, Cook sat next to Trump. When the chairman lightly touched Cook’s wrist and asked him to open the debate, the Apple chief said, “Thank you, Mr. Chairman, it is an honor to be on this board.”
At the same meeting, Al Kelly, chief executive of Visa, praised Trump for his “very, very good” leadership, and Ginny Rometty, then IBM’s chief executive, also praised the president for his “determined leadership.”
Some of these leaders had severely criticized Trump in the past for his behavior. But they were there, at the White House. It was as if the worst moments of the Trump presidency were just a nightmare.
“The past four years have posed serious challenges for CEOs who must balance promoting policies that help the country move forward, while speaking out vigorously on issues that violate its core principles,” said Rich Lesser, CEO of the Boston Consulting Group, which served on one of Trump’s first advisory boards.
However, leaders have been reduced to practicing the same mental gymnastics and the same selective laconism that Trump’s socially progressive supporters have had to adopt in recent years, praising the president’s economic policies at the right time, while ignoring his flaws. fundamental.
This essential market was well articulated last year by Stephen Ross, billionaire real estate developer for the Hudson Yards project and owner of the Miami Dolphins US football team, who backed Trump in the election. “I think he was a bit of a divisor,” Ross said in a pre-election interview. “But I think a lot of the economic policies he implemented were fantastic, and no one other than him could have promoted them.”
The pandemic has generated new poses for photos alongside the president, known executives. Walmart’s McMillon posed with Trump at the Rose Garden of the White House. The president visited Bill Ford, president of Ford, at a factory in Michigan. And Chris Nassetta, managing director of Hilton hotels, was pictured next to the president in the office.
While Trump lied about his government’s response to the pandemic and did his best to subvert the democratic process, there were people in business who maintained their support. Even when the president refused to accept the election results, Steve Schwarzman, chief executive of the Blackstone Group and one of Trump’s most staunch allies, released statements in which he said he understood why people were concerned about electoral irregularities. At the end of November, he issued a statement in which he declared that “the result is very clear today, and the country must move forward”.
As of Wednesday, many CEOs appeared to have reached the end of their patience. The National Industry Association has called on Vice President Mike Pence to consider invoking the 25th Amendment to the United States Constitution and removing Trump from office. Many leaders – including Apple Cook, JPMorgan’s Dimon and Schwarzman – have denounced the violence, lamented the country’s plight and demanded that those responsible be held accountable.
But after four years of intense discussion and without action, his statements seemed hollow.
“When people make political decisions for business reasons,” Walker said, “the social consequences can be dire.”
The New York Times, translation by Paulo Migliacci