The Haberdasher, the General and the Imposter

Harry Truman, commenting about General Dwight Eisenhower succeeding him in the Oval Office, said, “He’s going to sit at this desk and say ‘Do this’ and ‘Do that’ — and nothing’s going to happen.”

As a general, Ike could order people to do things and they’d do them. As president, not so much.

Truman would be amused, but not surprised, watching Donald Trump struggle in the office the haberdasher once occupied. As a businessman, Trump could give orders to his minions and the orders would be followed. Dealing with people now who aren’t on his payroll and who aren’t afraid of him, he’s flopping around, mouth gaping, like a fish tossed on shore.

Giving Orders - WWI

It’s one more piece of evidence that the notion of running the government like a business is so very wrong. It’s wrong because it doesn’t work, and it’s wrong because, philosophically, it’s way off base. Business exists — especially in the grubby hands of bandits like Trump — for private enrichment. The government exists to advance and protect the common good.

It’s very clear that Trump and his family and his henchmen are blurring the line between running the government to serve others and running it to serve themselves. The ethical conflicts of interest Trump and his family have are so numerous and so glaring that there’s hardly a decision the president can make that doesn’t have a financial impact on him and his family. From pipelines to banks to hotels, Trump is using our tax money and mortgaging our national security to fill his Scrooge McDuck money bins. I think he can’t see any difference between his private pelf and the public good. That moral vacancy is frightening.

Business works to increase efficiency to grow shareholder value. And who are the largest shareholders? The white guys who run the company. The impact of business decisions that increase share prices or increase the sales and value of private companies is often damage to the community and the company’s employees. Government decisions have to take into consideration the impact on the public, on the economy, on the nation’s resources and the environment for decades and centuries to come, and on the nation’s security, values and reputation.

Whether it’s a toll road or a privately-built and -run prison or a school or retirement savings, the model of increasing shareholder value just does not cover all the bases. Even without Trump owning stock in two companies involved in the Dakota Access Pipeline, his coziness with big banks and big energy companies makes his approval of the pipeline  at the least raise questions about his motives — serve the public, protect the environment or backscratch his cronies? A spokesminion claims Trump has sold his stock in the pipeline partners — but with his history of lying and his refusal to release his tax returns, who can know?

Government is not a business. It has very different aims and responsibilities than a business has. Its moral purposes are completely different.

It’s actually refreshing to see Trump fail using his corporate pirate tricks. As a business bully he could get away with not knowing the details of the projects he was hustling. Underlings could marshall the facts and figures while figurehead Donald handled the bluster and the bullshit. When he didn’t know much of anything about the healthcare bill he was pushing, House members were shocked, and mocked him.

Trump said over and over during the campaign that he would make great deals. Snarking about President Obama playing golf, Trump said he would probably never play golf (!!!) as president because he’d just want to stay in the White House and make deals. But a president’s deal-making ability has to be in service of something, as LBJ’s was with Medicaid and the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act. Trump just likes to make deals, and then skips town before his victims can heat up the tar and pluck the feathers. And deal-making is only part of what a president does. Other qualities — leadership, inspiration, fairness, judgment, steadiness in crises, compassion, empathy, vision, diplomacy — are just as important. And absent in the current Oval Office pretender.

Harry Truman must have been smiling wryly if he paid attention, from wherever dead presidents reside, as Trump’s odious consigliere, Steve Bannon, tried to carry The Boss’s orders to vote for the Frankenstein health care bill to the Freedom Caucus in the House. Bannon tried the strong arm, telling them “Guys, look. This is not a discussion. This is not a debate. You have no choice but to vote for this bill.” Might have worked for LBJ, a master of carrots, sticks, pork and human nature. Didn’t work for the windbag who told us we’d be tired of winning by this time. One Freedom Caucus member — bless his pointed little head — replied to Bannon: “You know, the last time someone ordered me to do something, I was 18 years old. And it was my daddy. And I didn’t listen to him, either.”

My friend Dave Kuhn, a fellow recovering journalist, taught me so much about helping senior executives deal effectively with the media. People from the military and business don’t like the press, Dave said, because it’s one of the few things they can’t control. So they’re not very good at handling the challenges journalists throw at them or at letting criticism slide off their backs.

Trump’s efforts at strong-arming the media aren’t any more successful than his orders to the House members of his own party have been. And thank god for that.

— Bruce Benidt