The era of Dealocracy will begin on January 20 when Donald J. Trump is sworn in as the 45th president of the United States. People searching for precedents for Trump’s sudden rise have suggested prototypes from Andrew Jackson and Huey Long to Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini.
Eighteenth century England may offer better models, however. Mining and steel magnates at home, and the merchant adventurers like the “factors” of the British East India Company abroad, shaped the country and contributed more to its prosperity than a whole series of monarchs and prime ministers. Assuming one is willing to forget the misery of the poor at home and the enslaved, indentured, and brutalized workers abroad.
In 1987, The Art of the Deal, Donald J. Trump’s inaugural venture in self-invention, hit the bookstores. Its credited co-author, journalist Tony Schwartz, claimed he wrote the text by himself, but the million-or-so readers understood it as Trump’s autobiography and philosophy.
The book’s 11-step credo offers a model of Trump’s campaign strategy and coming administration:
Think big = “Make America great again.”
Protect the downside and the upside will take care of itself = Reverse course if the heat gets too great.
Maximize your options = Say and do whatever strikes you as opportune.
Know your market = Read your domestic and foreign constituencies accurately.
Use your leverage = Bully, cajole, bribe, and pander to your supporters at home and abroad.
Enhance your location = Invest in every part of the country and the globe.
Get the word out = Tweet often and sensationally.
Fight back = Let no slight go unpunished.
Deliver the goods = [Try to] fulfill campaign promises.
Contain the costs = Spend as little government money as you can.
Have fun = Does anyone believe that Trump is not having fun?
This list can usefully be applied to the British East India Company and other private merchant enterprises of the eighteenth century. But it fits poorly with more recent American notions of government. President Calvin Coolidge said in 1925:
“The chief business of the American people is business. They are profoundly concerned with producing, buying, selling, investing and prospering in the world. I am strongly of the opinion that the great majority of people will always find these the moving impulses of our life.”
But that was before Roosevelt’s New Deal, Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society, and Jesse Jackson’s Rainbow Coalition. Today, a single-minded focus on business, on “the deal,” threatens almost a century of domestic social progress.
The business of the Trump administration, however, will not be rooted in that progress. Judging from the president-elect’s words and appointments, it will be rooted in world-wide deal-making. This is where it departs from the 18th century precedent.
The European merchant companies were governments unto themselves, particularly in territories where their “factors” — traders, soldiers, and administrators—turned areas of business enterprise into colonies, and then, when they became too costly, bequeathed the colonies to their home governments.
Today’s merchant companies are transnational, and their investors aggressively focus on realizing profits. They seek no colonies and deploy no armies, but they deeply believe that “the business of the American people is business.” As his cabinet appointments of CEOs and billionaire investors indicate, Donald Trump will carry this credo into the White House.
When a factory is saved from relocation to Mexico, the president will claim credit. When education, health, housing, and welfare face cutbacks because they do not contribute to the bottom line, the president will distract the citizenry by pointing to his successful deals.
Other presidents may have dreamed of having such latitude, but reality has always caught up with them. Will reality overturn Trump’s vision?
Most critics look to foreign affairs for hints of cataclysm. International relations theorists — has anyone in Trump’s cabinet read them? — agonize about China, North Korea, Syria, Palestine, Iran, human rights, NATO, refugees, and immigrants.
But international relations theory is rooted in the now-ended two centuries of ideological struggles for hearts, minds, and territory that extended from Napoleon to the fall of the Soviet Union. The merchant companies of the eighteenth century cared about profits and did whatever they needed to do to ensure them. This included military conquest, brutalization of colonial subjects, and neglect of their welfare.
Trumpian Dealocracy may not be so callous, but it will surely put American advantage ahead of such traditional foreign policy goals as democracy, loyalty to allies, and strengthening of human rights. In the name of containing costs, it will also avoid military commitments abroad.
One should not be surprised if Dealocracy boosts the American economy. Nor should one assume that other billionaires will not see Dealocracy as the crowning achievement of their own business and investing careers. Liberals and progressives believe ardently that Trump’s rise to the presidency is a freakish anomaly that will assuredly be reversed, better sooner than later. But it is also possible that Dealocracy will be with us long enough for the New Deal to read like ancient history.
On the other hand, the two greatest figures in the East India Company, Robert Clive and Warren Hastings, were, respectively, investigated for corruption and impeached.
Richard W. Bulliet is Professor of History Emeritus at Columbia University.
Copyright ©2016 Richard Bulliet — distributed by Agence Global
Released: 15 December 2016
Word Count: 856
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Agence Global is the exclusive syndication agency for Le Monde diplomatique, and The Washington Spectator, as well as expert commentary by Richard Bulliet, Rami G. Khouri, Vadim Nikitin, John Stoehr, and Immanuel Wallerstein.