Frank DeFilippo: Success in Business Does Not Translate to Politics

Trump Tower in New York. Wikipedia photo

President Trump has shattered the durable fable that America can be run like a business by a businessman.

Conservatives have long argued that a businessman in the White House would keep the nation solvent and straight with boardroom acumen and decision-making prowess. Trump has proven those wishful thinkers wrong.

This is especially true as the nation is veering sharply to the left and Americans, according to polls, are becoming comfortable with the word “socialism” just as they are getting to abhor its antithesis, “capitalism.” This, obviously, is truer among Democrats than Republicans.

Socialism, in its newest iteration, means government will provide but without Orwellian conditions, just as many other civilized nations take care of their citizens. The planks of the new socialism are universal health care (in some form) and high taxes on the rich. Is this the latest rendition of the “Occupy Wall Street” movement of nearly a decade ago?

Finally, the dirty little secret is out. America is probably among the most socialistic counties on earth, even without the new order, only no one wants to admit it. The arrangement’s disguise is the middlemen’s cut.

The latest manifestation of capitalism gone slightly bonkers is Howard Schultz, founder and CEO of Starbucks, the firm that caffeinated America. Schultz is nominally a Democrat who’s presidential test-drive is aiming for dead-center while antagonizing many on both sides.

Trump believes that politics means public service for private gain, to borrow from Ambrose Bierce’s Devil’s Dictionary.

Trump is not emblematic of every businessman who might seek the presidency. But he’s certainly corrupted the profile. Trump is the first captain of industry since Herbert Hoover to lead the nation. Consider what happened then, and witness what’s happening now. Hoover’s policies contributed to the Great Depression and Trump’s chaotic bumbling has the world on edge, cringing over his next Strangelovian utterance or action.

Frank A. DeFilippo

Yet Trump insists that his administration is functioning like a “fine-tuned machine,” but he was forced to admit during the shutdown that he was in the White House “all alone.” The latter is closer to the truth, in more ways than he meant.

He’s tanking in the polls, besieged by the courts and Congress, loathed and distrusted by allies and unable to fully assemble a cabinet and a staff that cut the mustard. No new president in memory has experienced such a tumultuous, discordant two years as Trump. He is unable to move beyond a permanent campaign to grasp the subtle points of governance.

Trump cowers in the presence of strong women. He’s had his ass handed to him, several times, by Nancy Pelosi since she reclaimed the House speakership. And he was reduced to a snivel by Ann Coulter’s withering attacks for backing down on his quixotic wall. Trump, clearly, is in retreat.

The biggest problem a businessman-as-president has is grasping the concept of government checks and balances. No such brakes exist in the private sector except the rare whim of shareholders or a rebellious board of directors.

Trump is a perfect example. As head of his own company, essentially a family business, he was free to exercise his temper, whim and will. As president, he’s limited by Congress and the courts, especially now that Democrats control the House. He chose to end-run Congress for wall money at the risk of illegality. And the courts have rebuffed most of Trump’s attempts to unilaterally set, or reverse existing, policy. The elastic ethics of the boardroom have no place in the White House.

“Whosoever brings another to power loses power himself,” observed Niccolo Machiavelli, the 14th Century courtier and the world’s first political consultant. Put another way, a smart politician never allows a second power center to develop.

Trump’s White House is more of a fun house. It’s often difficult to discern who’s in charge. There are factions, rivalries, back-stabbings, independent power centers and more undercutting leaks than in a colander – which is nothing unusual in power centers – leaving the President baffled over the ruckus around him.

So Trump reverts to a technique he perfected on the campaign trail – deflect attention from the problem at hand by attacking the media and whatever other available totems. His newest straw man is “the radical left,” presumably a theme he’s testing for the 2020 elections.

As with Trump, many successful businessmen are characterized by a strong authoritarian streak that’s more suited to the boardroom than the Oval Office. Boardroom bluster doesn’t compute with international diplomacy or facile inter-personal skills.

Thus we get the businessman-as-president ranting on Twitter that he’s always right no matter that facts and events contradict him. Trump has authored nearly 2,000 false or misleading statements since he took office, according to The Washington Post’s fact-checker.

Boardroom executives tend to lend a willing ear to those around them. They listen but say little, sharing attention but not information, a characteristic that Trump did not bring with him to the White House because, by many accounts, he lacks patience, or perhaps has an attention deficit disorder. Trump often prattles like a man with Tourette’s Syndrome.

Leading a nation of 330 million people involves more than the same simple handbook that it takes to negotiate a parking lot in Queens or any other land deal or construction site. And you can be certain that when Trump was haggling over real estate contracts or branding arrangements, he was surrounded by lawyers, accountants and MBAs who were prompting the correct phrases and nudges. Or if alone he’d just shout and carry on to try and get his imperious way.

And even then, Trump went wrong. Into bankruptcy from the Trump portfolio went the Plaza Hotel, Eastern Airlines and a couple of casinos – five bankruptcies in all – not to mention the unpaid bills wherein he stiffed partners, contractors and workers. As a footnote, Trump’s private company – meaning him and his sons – has just abandoned plans to expand its hotel chain because of climatic conditions (meaning politics and not the weather report.)

“What’s good for General Motors is good for America,” declared Charlie Wilson, chairman of GM and later Secretary of Defense under President Eisenhower.

America, Inc. is not in the business of making a profit. It’s in the business of helping people. So right away Trump kicked the props out from under the argument that a businessman could lead the nation into a new era of prosperity and balanced budgets that eliminate borrowing to pay our bills.

Borrowing is an accepted government practice when money is cheap, as it is now, and balanced budgets are another myth that exists only in the minds of theorists but has even been junked by Republicans under Trump.

Trump is presiding over the largest deficit in history. It is projected to grow even more because of the Trump tax cut that benefits the rich. Trump considers the tax cut his singular achievement. Much of the money went for bonuses and stock buy-backs for the one-percenters. The economy is expected to slow down in 2020 when the sugar-high wears off.

Trump is totally ill-equipped to serve as chief executive. But, we are taught, in America anyone can grow up to be president. And so it has come to pass.

“Invest in people,” is one of Warren Buffet’s trademark principles. So you’d think Trump would want to surround himself with experienced hands who understand the complexities and inner-working of government and, more important, how it relates to the people it governs. Many of his appointees are Trump clones or sycophants.

Trump had roughly 4,000 jobs to fill, many of them at the sub-cabinet level and below where the real action of running government occurs. But take one look at the hapless crew staffing the White House, and that’s pretty much what to expect throughout the Trump administration. He’s depleted Fox News to help staff his administration. Trump’s bungling is a singular example of the shortcomings of on-the-job training.

So far, Trump the businessman has proved to be no asset to Trump the president. As a self-proclaimed master of the universe and peerless dealmaker, Trump seems unable to close a door, let alone a deal. He’s had a success or two, mainly the tax cut and the appointment of conservative judges, which is more the machinations of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and the Federalist Society.

The disarray in the Trump White House is evidence that politics and governance should be left to politicians and bureaucrats and not to dilettantes who lack even a fundamental knowledge of how to assemble a government let alone run one. Trump lacks the cunning to be either president or a CEO.

Frank A. DeFilippo
Frank A. DeFilippo is an award-winning political commentator who lives and writes in Baltimore. DeFilippo has been writing about the comic opera of politics for more than 50 years. He reported on the Maryland General Assembly for 10 years before joining the administration of former Gov. Marvin Mandel (D) as press secretary and speechwriter. Between times, he was a White House correspondent during the administration of President Lyndon Baines Johnson, and he has covered six national political conventions. DeFilippo is the author of Hooked, an alleged work of fiction, and an unpublished manuscript, Shiksa: The Rise and Fall of Marvin Mandel.

1 COMMENT

  1. “The disarray in the Trump White House is evidence that politics and governance should be left to politicians and bureaucrats and not to dilettantes who lack even a fundamental knowledge of how to assemble a government let alone run one. Trump lacks the cunning to be either president or a CEO”.

    Dear Mr. DeFilippo,

    In trying to engage in some healthy political discussion, would you make the argument that only politicians and bureaucrats ought to serve in government? Is that not a slippery slope?

    What I mean is, there is no “philosopher school” (although I believe there should be) for being a ‘good’ ruler or politician. But essentially, there is a ‘JV’ squad. The model of this school is something where: one serves on a central committee, moves on to being an aide or staffer for several years, and maybe finally running for office after being in another role within or outside of government. The other mode of operations for politicians, in my opinion, is the “elitism” factor. And I believe this to be, those who have the ability and access to education, political connections, or financing will be able to mold themselves into looking like the proper politician (IE Trump with his base).

    Do you believe that it is better to have those that have been in government making the relationships they have–which in some senses allow for lobbying and political sausage of legislation to happen. Or do you believe it is better to have the populist model like the Donald J Trumps, and other “amateur” politicians like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, which has the negative outcome of political discourse going further to the extremes, and losing the sense of decorum in political discussion from the way in which they communicate? Or could it be that Americans think theatrics means good politics? Where is the diplomacy and earnestness?

    Thank you for your time, and I would love to know your thoughts.

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