As my nattering electoral stream of consciousness turned to the question of Trump’s many conflicts of interest, it occurred to me that the unique thing about Donald Trump also is the most obvious: he’s a businessman.
We tend to think that anyone in business who makes millions of dollars a year can be called a business person, but many of those people are high-level corporate managers (CEO’s), bankers and financiers. They are in business, yes (making widgets or lending money to widget makers or selling widget-making stock); in that sense you can call them business persons; but they do not identify themselves with the companies they work for. Even if they happen also to own a large number of company shares, they still are managers, bankers and financiers and, if they are good managers, bankers and financiers, they will be as loyal to the next company they join as they are to the one they work for now.
A business person, more narrowly defined, is someone who owns a company, has overall control of it, and identifies with it to the degree that his or her fortunes coincide with the fortunes of the company. Salvatore Parker, the grocer on the corner, is a businessman. When Parker expands, and owns half-a-dozen markets throughout town, he still is a businessman. When Parker Markets becomes a region-wide chain of supermarkets and issues common stock, is Parker still a businessman? It might be a struggle for him; he must answer to a board of directors. When Salvatore Parker sells out to Hannaford, he ceases to be a businessman – unless he comes back and buys the building on the corner, with the store which still has a faded sign with his name on it over the door, and opens a gourmet deli.
It’s hard to find businessmen who have played any role in the federal government, much less the White House. Yes, I know, Harry Truman was a haberdasher. But he wasn’t; he was a politician. We’ve had a few bankers and financiers in government, lately a few doctors, and lawyers up the wazoo, but their real profession was politics; they went back to their day jobs only when they were out of office. George H. W. Bush was an honest-to-goodness American businessman; he built a successful oil company out of scratch (scratch from the Bush family coffers). By the time George H. W. ran for Congress though, he had become a politician.
Donald Trump has not yet become a politician; he’s still a businessman. Like any business person, his business, not politics, is the most important thing in his life (barring personal relationships, one hopes).
What is Donald Trump business? He started out in construction, just like Oprah Winfrey started out in daytime television, and Anthony Bourdain started out as a chef, and Magic Johnson started out as a boxer – but now his business, like Winfrey’s and Burdain’s and Johnson’s, is selling an eponymous brand. His campaign for the Presidency was not a political venture, it was a commercial one, intended to add value to the Donald Trump rand.
There was nothing covert or Machiavellian about it. Running for President was a project of the Trump brand; Trump has never pretended otherwise. In fact, Donald Trump’s identification with the Trump brand is so open and guileless, and his delight in it, which he so loves to share, so childlike, that all we grown-ups can do is smile.
In that way, at least, the Trump Administration will be unique. The long term goals of President Trump – let’s say, of the Trump White House – will not be political; they will be commercial. Whether it’s a decision about the style of the President’s suit or about whether we should send troops to Africa, the Trump team will decide not on political grounds – not on what the voters or the Republican Party or Trump Campaign donors prefer – but on their decision’s effect on the Donald Trump brand.
Like the last eight or so Presidents, President Trump will spend most of his working hours catering to the needs of a small group of persons of influence – family and friends, of course, and then oligarchs and power brokers. Whatever time he has for the country, the citizenry as a whole, will be used to bolster his celebrity image. Arguably, that could be a more useful use of Presidential power than that of his predecessors’, whose efforts to accomplish anything always were hampered by having to juggle the incoherent needs of various political constituencies.
So far, the Donald Trump brand has been a great success. If you have any doubt about whether it has reached its goal of making Donald Trump an international business icon, imagine, if you will, The New York Times’ Donald Trump obituary (assuming that The New York Times outlives Donald Trump, which is not a given). Will The Times see Trump as a President who was a business tycoon? No; Trump will be seen as a business tycoon who was a President.