As anyone who has read an Op-Ed by New York Times columnist Frank Bruni knows all too well, New York Times columnist Frank Bruni is not very good at writing Op-Eds.
True, he’s probably better at it than he was at being a political reporter. Then again, that’s an extremely low bar, considering how chummy he got with George W. Bush during the 2000 campaign. In fact, so long as Jeb Bush is never compelled to confess his “love” to him (something W did on multiple occasions) we’ll be able to say Bruni’s work has improved, technically.
Yet even that might be asking too much. Because if he keeps writing columns like his latest — a bizarre paean to corporations that tip-toes the line separating vulgar neoliberalism from a kind of soft-touch fascism — it’s hard to imagine the folks over at the GOP nominee’s headquarters won’t look upon him with deep affection. After all, what kind of Republican candidate wouldn’t love a New York Times columnist who says it’s “fine” if “big corporations … rule the earth”?
And, no, that’s not me playing fast-and-loose with my ellipses or quoting Bruni out of context. Here’s how his column, which is fittingly titled “The Sunny Side of Greed,” begins: “In the dire prophecies of science-fiction writers and the fevered warnings of left-wing activists, big corporations will soon rule the earth — or already do. Fine with me.” Strong stuff, calling for the end of democracy. He must have one helluva reason.
Nah, not really; Bruni’s endorsement of a dictatorship of the Fortune 500 is the result, apparently, of corporate America’s recent disavowal of the Confederate battle flag, as well as their support of same-sex marriage and immigration reform. Obviously, the multinationals are making the right choice on all three issues. But if you feel a bit like Slate’s Jamelle Bouie, who called Bruni’s piece “a caricature” of a kind of identity-politics-obsessed (and economic-politics-illiterate) “social justice,” it’s for good reason.
But before we get into the various reasons why the New York Times should be embarrassed about running Bruni’s piece, let’s allow him to make his case. Here’s what he’s got regarding corporations and the Confederate flag. It ain’t much:
Almost immediately after the fatal shooting of nine black churchgoers in Charleston, S.C., several prominent corporate leaders, including the heads of Walmart and Sears, took steps to retire the banner as a public symbol of the South; others made impassioned calls for that.
OK, sure. That was noteworthy, which is one reason why I wrote about it last week. But as Bruni himself acknowledges later in the column, these corporations didn’t decide to stop monetizing white supremacism due to conscience. They did it because it they wanted to get ahead of inevitable petitions and boycotts; and because they hoped there’d be enough Frank Brunis out there to say the decision — which, again, was to stop using white supremacy for profit — was progressive.
Bruni uses the same argument regarding the massive backlash that Indiana suffered this year, and Arizona suffered last year, after passing so-called “religious liberty” bills that were quite obviously anti-gay. He notes that corporate America is more progressive on LGBT issues than the religious right. That is both true and a bit like praising Donald Trump for being less racist than Cliven Bundy. We can set our standards a little higher than “not as bad as Mike Huckabee.”
Silliest of all, though, is his praising corporate America for supporting immigration reform. At least when Walmart removes its Confederate flag futons, or when Apple says it doesn’t want to set up shop in a state with laws it considers anti-gay, they’re doing something that people are going to notice. For immigration reform, on the other hand, Bruni’s example of corporate integrity is…the fact that they signed a pro-reform public letter from the Chamber of Commerce. Take that, John Hancock!
As creaky as the mechanics of his argument may be, however, the real problem with Bruni’s piece has more to do with how he views democracy than how he views corporations. Throughout the column, he sets up a dynamic that anyone familiar with modern illiberalism will find unpleasantly familiar. On one side, we have the stupid, petty masses and the weak, craven politicians who serve them. On the other, the elect, who could make all our problems go away if only we’d let them.
For example, when Bruni praises corporate America for disowning the Confederate flag, he does so by suggesting that they helped South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley and other state lawmakers “see the light” by promising to “have [their] back” if there was a voter outcry. When he’s celebrating big business for not being anti-gay, he’s crediting their ability to “put a special kind of pressure on politicians” — a rather euphemistic way to applaud the primacy of capital over votes.
That said, it’s when Bruni talks about what corporations are not that we get the best sense of how he understands democracy. “Corporations aren’t paralyzed by partisan bickering,” he writes. “They’re not hostage to a few big donors, a few loud interest groups or some unyielding ideology.” He supports this point by throwing in a few clichéd quotes from Bradley Tusk, who is — I kid you not — a onetime Lehman Brothers executive and former campaign manager to Michael Bloomberg, one of the most plutocratic and authoritarian American politicians of his era.
At the end of the column, Bruni throws in the usual butt-covering “to be sure” paragraph about how corporations aren’t entirely awesome. The whole climate change thing isn’t so great, he admits; and exploiting workers, that’s no good. Yet while he’s willing to concede that an amoral drive to maximize profit might not always lead to a good outcome, it never occurs to him that the “few big donors,” “few loud interest groups” and “unyielding ideology” he blames on democracy might involve corporations, too.
Or maybe that’s not giving Bruni enough credit. Maybe it’d be better to say that when it comes to the issues he cares about, which appear to be same-sex marriage, immigration reform, and not celebrating the Confederate battle flag, he likes corporations’ influence on democracy plenty. But when it comes to all that economic mishegoss — all that health care, education, equality, human welfare stuff — Frank Bruni, new owner of a $1.65 million apartment on the Upper West Side, couldn’t care less.
Small wonder, then, that a compassionate conservative-era George W. Bush was so willing to mouth to Bruni four simple words: “I love you, man.”