Corporate capital and Trump's coup: Will business elites take a stand?

Trump's war on democracy is clearly bad for business — but the leaders of corporate America helped create this mess

Published November 20, 2020 4:00PM (EST)

Former President Donald Trump speaks in the Rose Garden at the White House on November 13, 2020 in Washington, DC.  (Tasos Katopodis/Getty Images)
Former President Donald Trump speaks in the Rose Garden at the White House on November 13, 2020 in Washington, DC. (Tasos Katopodis/Getty Images)

The latest news out of Michigan — in which the current occupant of the White House has not only summoned Republican legislative leaders to meet with him but pressured two members of the Wayne County Board of Canvassers into attempting to rescind their votes to certify the election outcomes, potentially disenfranchising thousands of legitimate votes — makes clear that Donald Trump and his minions have opened a trap door in the foundation of democracy and are diving into an abyss of raw power and violence that none of us may escape. Joe Biden's administration will have to grow brass knuckles to deal with what's coming. Business and civic leaders, in the large corporations and the elite universities, should grow some brass knuckles, too. Other news of recent weeks makes one wonder if they will. 

Thirty important CEOs of major corporations logged into an early morning, off-the-record Zoom meeting on Nov. 6 to explore responses to Donald Trump's defiance of democracy. One of those was Robert Iger, the 69-year-old executive chairman of the studiously apolitical Walt Disney Company. He and the other chief executives, including three former U.S. cabinet secretaries, convened with Jeffrey Sonnenfeld, the peripatetic maestro of confidential executive conclaves and business-leadership programs who is a professor of management at Yale and a founder of the Chief Executive Leadership Institute.

The virtually assembled CEOs had been shaken by Trump's delusional White House briefing room pronouncements about the election. So they listened intently as Yale historian Timothy Snyder, a scholar of 20th-century authoritarianism and the author of "On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons From the Twentieth Century," explained how business elites' inaction and prevarications about rising fascism in Weimar Germany and other countries had wound up facilitating Nazi and other fascist coups whose tactics Trump has been emulating, with eerie if somewhat loopy fidelity.

But after Snyder signed off, Stephen Schwarzman, billionaire CEO of the Blackstone private equity group, a key Trump confidant and mega-donor, and a Yale College alumnus whose $150 million gift to his alma mater prompted it to rename and repurpose its semi-sacred civic complex for him, defended the president's legal right to challenge the election outcome. Schwarzman urged the CEOs to be patient, and not publicly critical of Trump's refusal to concede defeat.

Although Disney's Iger and most others at the meeting had no connections to Yale, the university's background role in these conflicted reckonings isn't a coincidence. It's an emblem of the crisis itself.

First things first: Iger, born in Brooklyn and raised as a Democrat on Long Island — he co-chaired a fundraiser for Hillary Clinton's 2016 campaign — switched his voter registration to independent soon after Trump's victory. In a videotaped interview on Nov. 10, 2016, Iger praised the smooth transition then underway from Obama's presidency to Trump's, noting his hope for "a new tax policy" with lower corporate rates and better incentives to competition. "I think it's too soon to say" whether Trump would deliver it, he added, but on Dec. 2, 2016, he joined the president-elect's Strategic and Policy Forum, a business advisory council led by Schwarzman.

Yet Iger resigned from that group only six months later, when Trump withdrew the U.S. from the Paris Climate Agreement, and expressed discomfort with Trump more generally after the Las Vegas massacre (in which a Disney employee was killed), saying that, "In this day and age, we get outraged when an athlete doesn't stand for the national anthem — where's the outrage here?" This year, he donated more than $250,000 to Joe Biden's campaign.

Having worked for 25 years at Disney's helm to expand its entertainment offerings and media properties, Iger and other CEOs were "alarmed," Jeffrey Sonnenfeld told the Financial Times, by Trump's duplicitous, nearly deranged remarks in the White House briefing room just after the election. Such behavior, compounding the COVID crisis, endangered corporate efforts to expand their markets and profits "intelligently," by their lights, as demagogue-addled mobs destroyed the consumer-friendly, democratic comity that steady profit-making requires. CEOs "don't want fractured communities. They don't want hostile workplaces," Sonnenfeld told the FT, and, the very next day, Nov. 7, the influential national Business Roundtable, some of whose members had logged into the Yale meeting, congratulated the Biden-Harris ticket on its clear victory.

But, echoing Schwarzman's sinuous advice, the Roundtable statement also commended Trump "for a hard-fought campaign that has garnered over 70 million votes. We know the outcome is disappointing to his millions of supporters. While we respect the Trump campaign's right to seek recounts, to call for investigation of alleged voting irregularities where evidence exists and to exhaust legitimate legal remedies, there is no indication that any of these would change the outcome."

That statement exemplifies the tension between business leaders' need to acknowledge democracy's challenges to their tax-cutting, wage-cutting, public deregulatory and private surveillance agendas, on the one hand, and the public's need to limit the dangers those agendas pose to democracy, on the other. The Roundtable's statement certainly didn't illuminate what executives like Iger have worked so hard to finesse: the cold reality that top-down political derangement such as Trump's has been rising in America — at the hands of big business itself — since well before he emerged as a fake businessman on "The Apprentice" and in his many real but casino-like ventures. The Trumpism that has enveloped and devoured an entire political party is the result not only of his own pathologies but of systemic relations between the happy, confident consumerism that companies need and the accelerating decay of democratic legitimacy and comity that consumerism now promotes.

The crisis is systemic, not just driven by Trump or COVID, because so much recent corporate investment and marketing proactively dissolve democratic dispositions and batten onto the consequent social distress to profit by peddling ever more intimately degrading entertainments, drugs and other palliatives. Market pressures also drive corporate boards and managers to degrade the wages, benefits and working conditions of their employees, who become increasingly atomized, powerless "independent contractors" at Uber and Lyft or "associates" at retailers such as Walmart. 

Another CEO at the Nov. 6 meeting, Alex Gorsky, chair of the Big Pharma company Johnson & Johnson, has been "actively involved" in a strategy to pay "kickbacks to induce Omnicare, the nation's largest nursing home pharmacy, to purchase and recommend Risperdal" and other Johnson & Johnson products, according a 2012 Justice Department investigation described by Forbes and the Washington Post. Even conscientious, public-spirited CEOs like Disney's Iger find themselves putting their all-too-human faces on shareholder- and algorithm-driven product development and marketing that incentivizes stressed Americans to become impulse-buying — in effect, addicted — consumers rather than deliberating, independent-minded citizens. It's when delusions of "consumer sovereignty" displace citizens' fading sovereignty that an enfeebled democracy produces a Trump.

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The attempt by Yale's Sonnenfeld to reconcile or at least mediate between the conflicting assessments of Trump by Yale historian Snyder and Yale alumnus and mega-donor Schwarzman reflected a crisis in Yale's and other universities' mission to temper their students' preparation for capitalist wealth-making with commitments to scientific (originally, Puritan religious) truth-seeking and to the arts and disciplines of civic-republican governance. Although Schwarzman has lavishly funded, served and defended Trump's deranged politics since 2016, Sonnenfeld defended Schwarzman's attempt to steer the CEOs away from condemning Trump. He assured student reporters at the Yale Daily News that, in the meeting, "Schwarzman never defended President Trump's assertion that this was an unfair election. … There was no parochial self-interest, no corporate strategic angles that [Schwarzman and the other CEOs] were arguing. This was 100 percent a spirit of patriotism and common concern that alarmed them." A Blackstone spokesman assured the FT that "As an American, Steve believes the electoral system is sound and that the democratic process will play out in an orderly and legal manner, as it has throughout our nation's history."

But Sonnenfeld's fervent defense of Schwarzman as a disinterested citizen, standing like Horatio at the bridge to defending the republic, can't be reconciled with Schwarzman's fervent support for and collaboration with Trump, his powerful beneficiary and benefactor. Although Schwarzman has now acknowledged that "it looks like Joe Biden" has won the election, his years-long collaboration with Trump accelerates the unraveling of Yale's and other universities' mission to balance their students' (and some professors') assiduous wealth-making with liberal education's truth seeking and its great conversation across the ages about lasting challenges to politics and the human spirit.

Although Yale recently renamed its John C. Calhoun College to cease honoring that champion of white supremacy and Black slavery, it just as recently repurposed and renamed its civic center as the Stephen A. Schwarzman Center, honoring the man who bankrolls and counsels the current champion of white supremacy and, sotto voce, of Black death at the hands of rogue police officers and COVID. 

The hypocrisy isn't confined to private universities like Yale. Christopher Newfield, a professor of English at the University of California, Santa Barbara, and a trenchant critic of misguided business policies that undermine higher education, showed recently in his authoritative blog Remaking the University that liberal Democrats capitulated decades ago to business leaders' worst priorities and practices. The universities did little to offset their own growing sense of themselves as corporations in an education industry that incentivizes students to become self-marketing, indebted buyers and sellers instead of deliberating citizens. That sea-change in liberal Democrats' own priorities is symbolized by Yale's renaming of Commons, but it's also devastating to the public universities fiscally and ideologically, as Newfield makes strikingly clear.

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Democracy's genuflection to plutocracy isn't hard to detect in convergences among participants in Sonnenfeld's meeting. He and Schwarzman grew up in suburban Philadelphia in the 1950s, albeit seven years apart, both attending public school in the Abington township, both working in their fathers' small businesses (the Sonnenfelds' men's clothing store, the Schwarzmans' dry goods store). Both sons went on to the Ivy League, Sonnenfeld to Harvard College and then to the Harvard Business School, which Schwarzman also attended after graduating from Yale. Both emerged as fanatical self-promoters, not only in business but also in education and public life. Schwarzman's "edifice complex," as egregious as Trump's, has driven him to put his name on countless public institutions, as I reported in Dissent magazine.

Sonnenfeld, an effusive business pundit on MSNBC and in many other venues, is almost infamously ravenous for public attention and respect from business elites. "He's the Oprah Winfrey of business schools," the late political scientist Robert Pastor told Philip Weiss, a Harvard College classmate of Sonnenfeld who profiled him for The New York Observer. Although Sonnenfeld is acutely skeptical of Trump — in 2004, he disparaged "The Apprentice" for teaching wrong lessons about business leadership — it takes one to know one. Trump's compulsive attention-getting rides more on combat than on connecting, but both he and Sonnenfeld have had to fight maniacally to restore and embellish almost-ruined careers — Trump through bankruptcy after bankruptcy, and Sonnenfeld owing to an incident at Emory University in 1997 that ended with his vindication only after an excruciatingly long fight that impels him to advise CEOs on how to stage comebacks from career disasters. It's worth noting that Trump got his BA in Sonnenfeld's native Philadelphia, at the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton Business School.

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Historian R.H. Tawney characterized the hypocrisies of leaders who try to put a righteous face on their uncontrollable power-lust and greed:

"Few tricks of the unsophisticated intellect are more curious than the naïve psychology of the business man, who ascribes his achievements to his own unaided efforts, in bland unconsciousness of a social order without whose continuous support and vigilant protection he would be as a lamb bleating in the desert," Tawney wrote in 1926. "That individualist complex owes part of its self-assurance to the suggestion of Puritan moralists that practical success is at once the sign and the reward of ethical superiority. … The demonstration that distress is a proof of demerit, though a singular commentary on the lives of Christian saints and sages, has always been popular with the prosperous. By the lusty plutocracy … roaring after its meat and not indisposed, if it could not find it elsewhere to seek it from God, it was welcomed with a shout of applause."

Plutocrats and their apologists don't exactly "roar" after their meat at redoubts such as Davos, the Aspen Ideas Festival and Sonnenfeld's Chief Executive Leadership Institute. Surveying the degradation and ruin of the democratic public that their own practices and premises have demoralized, they sigh sagely and wonder piously how "the people" might return to self-government, even as plutocrats like Trump show that they can barely govern themselves, let alone anyone else. 

Democracy benefits only fleetingly when some plutocrats oppose others who've gotten out of hand: The historian Snyder, writing recently in the liberal Catholic journal Commonweal, contends that Trump is driven now by desperation to escape the legal and economic ruin that awaits him when he loses presidential immunity against civil and criminal indictment. Trump has come very close indeed to derailing the election with more than a little help from his Republican Party, thanks to which even Congress won't uphold the rule of law unless public resistance to current arrangements moves beyond episodic looting and assaults and beyond tweeting, texting, signing petitions and writing articles like this one.

Ultimately there's no substitute for disciplined, humane democratic movements such as those led by Mahatma Gandhi, Adam Michnick, Vaclav Havel, Nelson Mandela, Martin Luther King Jr. and the founders of the American republic. They've reconfigured and sometimes replaced national-security states and regimes built on grinding inequality and corruption. Often, as in Eastern Europe and the American South, they've done it without perpetrating violence: Even the American Revolution "was effected before the War commenced ... in the Minds and Hearts of the People," wrote John Adams. 

Perhaps the clearest assessment of such movements is the late Jonathan Schell's "The Unconquerable World: Power, Nonviolence, and the Will of the People." He recounts how leaders of such movements discovered that power flows ultimately not from the few who are daunting, dazzling or wealthy but from seemingly powerless masses who stop obeying and who reconfigure their lives together without official permission or reward, through disciplined non-cooperation that's nonviolent but all the more effectively coercive. Time and again, Schell wrote, rulers driven by power-lust and greed respond to such movements "with refreshed ignorance": A state that militarizes its police and floods its streets with soldiers, surveillance and thugs ends up displaying its impotence before massive but principled non-cooperation.

There's no revolutionary thrill in discovering that America has come to this. Elites, too, must act, but in ways that heal and empower others, not just by pouring money into Democratic Party coffers. And universities that fund institutes and programs for elite leadership and grand strategy-making should fund more courses like the one on nonviolence and power that Schell taught at Yale for years, along with programs that prepare organizers for the movements that democracies everywhere need now.

By Jim Sleeper

Jim Sleeper is the author of "Liberal Racism" (1997) and "The Closest of Strangers: Liberalism and the Politics of Race in New York" (1990).

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