Trump and The Dangerous Rise of Executive Salvation

By Peter Bloom and Carl Rhodes

Donald Trump’s election as President of the United States begs a profoundly paradoxical political question. In an election defined by an intense anger at Wall Street and the neoliberal establishment, how did a silver spoon-fed executive emerge as the champion of those ‘folks who feel left out’ by corporate globalisation and its economic spoils?

Trump’s political ascent is the apogee of a troubling trend towards ‘executive salvation’. With this trend business executives are looked on as having the skills and acumen to solve the world’s problems; all they have to do is transport their success from the corporate to the political realm.   

While Trump is an extreme, even hyperbolic, case there have been many CEO-politicians before him. The election of George W. Bush in 2000 and his popular appeal as the ‘MBA in chief’ is a case in point. Bush continually trumpeted how his executive experience made him especially qualified to take on the corruption and gridlock of beltway politics. His claimed ability to be ‘decisive’ and care about ‘results’ allowed him to position himself beyond ideology and partisanship.

While in practice Bush’s Presidency was a disaster of historic proportions that did not stop the myth of the CEO politician. It propelled Mitt Romney to the Republican nomination only four years after the 2008 financial crisis came close to destroying the global economy. It was also drawn on by Hillary Clinton in 2016 when she admitted that “I would like to see more successful business people run for office”.

This unlikely hero is a virulent manifestation of a growing authoritarian capitalism where a seemingly strong leader unflinching in his righteousness and self-belief takes charge to get things done. The CEO is the precise figure who can claim to do this, experienced as they are in decision making based on unilateral expertise rather than democratic consultation. 

With the CEO-politician authority takes on a character such that the economics and politics of capitalism converge at the expense of democracy. Saviour at the hands of the executive is promised, but the danger is that this comes at the cost of having to answer to a sovereign who feels answerable to no-one.  

This frontal attack in democracy harbours a convenient rationale for formally and informally marginalising those who would dare question either the free market or the new political authority. Democratic leadership is replaced with populist tub-thumping, precisely on the basis that the hard working executive can make politics work just as effectively as a wealthy corporation.

Corporate salvation is not, however, simply about a respect for pragmatism. With it comes a fantasy that a strong national leader can effectively reform and guide the free market so as to profit the population as a whole, just as a corporation would profit under the same leadership. Trump signifies to millions a romantic vision of the all conquering businessman hero who can make capitalism work for benefit of the population and not a small handful of neoliberal elites.

Tellingly, Trump does this using the language of the hard-nosed executive. He is going, as he audaciously claims, to make America nothing less than great, with that greatness understood in market based terms. America will be globally victorious as it uses its ‘genius’ to outsmart and outcompete its international competitors. Trump claims that will get politics done CEO-style ‘under budget and under schedule’. The result? ‘We’re going to win so much; you’re going to be so happy’.

The executive discourse that Trump relies on runs deep in the neoliberal psyche. It is premised above all else on competition and ‘winning’ understood in the context of a narrow and capitalistic notion of what constitutes success. A nation becomes, metaphorically, just like a corporation, and the President’s job recast as ensuring ensure the country optimises its efficiency – leaving little if any room for ideological debate or public deliberation.

In the 2016, Trump’s support was perhaps above all else driven by a demand for change. He responded in the guise of a strong executive who would brush away the dead weight of American democracy, cut through its red tape, and return the nation to an imaginary former glory. He offered to improve the ‘real’ Americans’ share value in “USA Inc”. This message spoke to countless rural white working class voters who felt that minorities had ‘jumped in front of them’ in the line to achieving the increasingly disappearing American Dream.

Trump’s executive populism reflects the fundamental influence of the market for shaping present day identity and understandings. Wendy Brown has condemned neoliberalism for its role in ‘undoing the demos’ such that ‘homo politicus’ becomes reduce to a ‘homo economicus’. Idolised in this late neoliberal scene is the “image of man as an entrepreneur of himself”.

Trump presents himself as an excessive case-in-point of this very ‘man’. He is a man who openly pedals in sexism and racism to win votes. Beyond populist rhetoric, this is backed up by his self-admitted history of sexual harassment and assault of women. As well he openly condones violence exclaiming to protesters “I’ll beat the crap out of you” and “I’d like to punch him in the face”.  None of this harmed his campaign.  In anything it reinforced his appeal through patriarchal values of control, domination, and ‘macho’ notion of action man masculinity.

It is precisely these values that reinforce the false empowerment of market rationality. The modern man or woman can overcome any professional or personal obstacles through the power of their own ambition and allowing no obstacles to get in their way. Indeed, this conscious and unconscious worship of the masculine image of market entrepreneurialism is so strong that it has produced its own saviour against the threat of itself – the crusading CEO.

In the wake of Trump’s victory there is much needed debate about how to progressively respond to his unsettling rhetoric, administration and policies. Thousands are already flooding the streets rejecting his xenophobia and misogyny. Democrats have started their own conversion away from being a party of the ‘lesser evil’ to one that stands boldly for liberal and socially democratic principles. It seems they learned too late,

Trump offered America a new vision of competitive corporate style success for whoever was willing and able to identify with him. He presented as an innovative executive who could shake up the bureaucracy and get the country operating productively again. This was possible because decades of neoliberalism has diluted our collective capacity to imagine a more democratic and egalitarian alternative for organising our work and lives.

The triumph of Trump was at its heart a failure of the radical democratic imagination. It is imperative to provide people – all people – a better form of salvation than the false mirage of demagogic executive rule. It is to that task that dedication is now demanded.

Peter Bloom is Senior Lecturer in Organisation Studies, Department of People and Organisation, The Open University

Carl Rhodes is Professor of Organization Studies, University of Technology Sydney 

Originally posted 22nd November 2016

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