The Mueller Report has sent political shockwaves across the United States and the world. Donald J. Trump’s critics longed for a smoking gun that would unseat him from the presidency. They didn’t get it.
Trump responded with a braggart’s glee, declaring himself innocent and claiming the entire investigation was illegal. Meanwhile, Democrats comb the report, steadfastly crying for impeachment.
Amidst the partisan shenanigans, largely missed is how this scandal is a telling tale of what it means to live in the new era of the CEO President, and what that means for the future of American democracy.
Trump’s Business Acumen
Trump was elected in no small part due to his self-proclaimed business acumen. A central motif of his campaign was that he would shake up the Oval Office with the hard-nosed competency of the businessman.
Trump paraded as the ultimate dealmaker and executive. He promised to bring both the wisdom of the market and his personal CEO dynamism to the White House. With his promise to “drain the swamp,” he played to the neoliberal myth that the sluggish ineptitude of politics could and should be replaced by the agile efficiency of a business.
Democracy as Obstacle
The reality has been far different, with the Trump presidency mirroring a much darker side of corporate leadership and its authoritarian character. It is with CEO-style drive that Trump treats the rule of law as a mere inconvenience standing in the way of defeating rivals and maximizing profit.
Democratic institutions designed specifically to limit the power of any single person, most especially the president, are treated with disdain. They are simply points of resistance that must be overcome for the leader to become sovereign, beholden to nobody but himself.
Only high crimes and misdemeanors can lead to impeachment. There were no crimes by me (No Collusion, No Obstruction), so you can’t impeach. It was the Democrats that committed the crimes, not your Republican President! Tables are finally turning on the Witch Hunt!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) April 22, 2019
Trump has shown, more overtly than any President before him, that political ethics, like business ethics, are mere window dressing to these more fundamental self-serving and power-hungry motives. Democracy is an obstacle to personal power and effectiveness.
Problems Individualized in CEO
There is also another, subtler, way that Trump is the apogee of the dark ideal of the CEO president. Executives are often touted for their groundbreaking vision and innovative methods. Despite this, empirical evidence suggests they make very little difference to the success or failure of a firm.
Where they do play a vital role is as a lightning rod for public criticism. They are the figurehead cum fall guy for all the dubious practices of the companies they ostensibly lead. CEOs provide a public face to take individual responsibility for systematic problems.
When things go wrong, CEOs reinforce a comforting fantasy that all of our social and economic ills are the fault of personal misbehavior rather than the result of deeper structural forces. With CEOs in place to take the heat, corporations can remain relatively unscathed. Also unscathed are the business cultures that fostered misconduct.
With the problems individualized in the CEO, what should be a discussion of systemic exploitation, inequality, discrimination, abuse of power, and greed, all become a matter of the flawed personal ethics of a single person.
Corruption in United States
This same ethos of personal irresponsibility has followed to Trump in both economic and personal affairs. To a certain extent, the holder of the Office of the President has always been the one receiving credit for most of the country’s successes and condemnation for its failures. That’s why former President Harry Truman famously declared “The buck stops here.”
There is no buck stopping with Trump, however. Instead, he has become the personification of an utterly corrupt political system, at least according to Democrats and those on the left. This misses out that while Trump, with his CEO approach, might be the president who has done the least to hide this corruption he did not create it.
If we don’t go further than blaming Trump, we might just end up winning the battle against him while losing the battle to save democracy. What is needed is to open up a larger question about the need for deeper-seated changes to our political and economic system and its drift towards anti-democratic CEO authoritarianism.
In the same way that corporate scandals have occasionally exposed the prevailing injustices of an entire industry and the socio-economic system which allowed it to thrive with impunity, a political scandal could do the same at the level of the liberal democratic system.
Yet Democrats, for the most part, are focusing less on how Trump represents a fundamentally flawed system of oligarchy masquerading as democracy, and more on his personal evilness and incompetence. In doing so, they are pursuing only surface level treatments to the nation’s potentially fatal ills.
By contrast, progressives calling for impeachment are using this as an opportunity to hold those in power more democratically accountable. This is an effort to not only bring down Trump but to take the entire political establishment that gave him birth.
This broader call for political reform goes beyond politics as usual. It is part of a campaign to democratize the country – from the oval office, to the halls of Congress, to our workplaces and communities.
Trump came to power ironically based on a popular fantasy of the visionary and successful CEO. His crimes and misdemeanors are not just personal failings but reflect the corporate tyranny of an increasingly executized culture. Ironically, the resistance against Trump revolves around another dimension of the same pernicious fantasy – that the problem lays entirely with the deplorable leader.
If we truly want to make a difference we must not just impeach Trump but bring the whole edifice of the CEO presidency on trial to reinvigorate a system that might live up to the ideal of being of the people, by the people, and for the people.Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial position of The Globe Post.