All so striking about the characterizations of President Donald Trump by both the left and right punditry is what isn’t on the list. For some on the right, he’s now a sociopath. The left has reduced him to a racist and/or white supremacist. Some of us, I admit, have called him a Bonapartist. But all of those labels, their appeal notwithstanding, are debatable. Indisputable, however, is that Trump is a capitalist, the most authentic — certainly the most experienced — who has ever been in the White House.
Nothing is more essential to capitalism than what its cheerleaders politely call self-interest, or what the rest of us term selfishness — the “I-got-mine-you-get-yours” ethic. Is there a more fitting description of Trump’s behavior? Self-centeredness is his most salient characteristic, verging on if not veering over into narcissism — and I’m being charitable. President Herbert Hoover, a self-made millionaire, might have been the first capitalist before Trump to enter the White House (others have since retired from there as millionaires). But in his former life Hoover had, significantly, helped to organize food relief to the starving masses in Europe after World War I — that is, displayed disinterested assistance to others. One searches in vain to find anything comparable in Trump’s history.
Trump may not be a Martin Shkreli, the jailed CEO who bragged about jacking up the price of a life-saving drug by a factor of 60 and justified doing so in the name of capitalism. But Trump is clearly on that end of the spectrum — along with Big Pharma that supplied the 76 billion opioid pills that resulted in at least 400,000 deaths in the U.S. And before that crew, think of the tobacco and sugar industries, or the addiction that Silicon Valley promotes. As well, the late David Koch, who unapologetically prioritized his private interests above the rest of humanity. Why should anyone be surprised that Trump treats the presidency as his personal business from which to profit? Self-interest, again, is baked into the DNA of a capitalist.
Not every capitalist, I recognize, who would be president might behave as Trump is doing. But the unmistakable fact is that it is a hereditary capitalist who is behaving in such an unprecedented way in the presidency — not an accident, I argue. And to be clear, it’s the shameless nakedness that is singular.
The failure of both the left and the right to acknowledge what’s so obvious about Trump speaks more to their own politics than to Trump himself. Both have a class interest in being myopic. For the right, it’s understandable. His authentic capitalist credentials are almost an embarrassment. The Business Roundtable’s recent Paulinian-road-to-Damascus moment is a transparent attempt to pretend that its members represent a capitalism that has now seen the light; naked self-interest à la Trump is a thing of the past. “Stakeholders’” interests, we’re now told, have priority over those of “shareholders.” Right, and let me tell you about that bridge in Brooklyn!
For the overwhelming majority of the left, would-be reformers of capitalism, Trump and his essence is an inconvenient truth. Rather than address what is unmistakable about him, Trump the capitalist, they prefer Trump the racist. It avoids the more instructive discussion about what has been from the beginning, at least in the U.S., the template for racial oppression, class oppression — capitalism being its modern manifestation. Contrary to what much of the commentary about 1619 suggests, the first captured Africans to be brought to what would become the United States didn’t come as chattel slaves. They were sequestered in Africa in a class-driven network in all skin colors and genders. On the other side of the Atlantic, they were then forced into indentured servitude — an institution of equal opportunity class exploitation par excellence for those not only in black, but, as well, in white and red skin. Permanent servitude for those in black skin came later. (By the way, I have yet to hear from those who make the racist charge about Trump’s supporters, in all their skin colors and genders, explain why he always gets big cheers of approval at his rallies whenever he claims that he is responsible for lowering black and Latino unemployment to now historic lows. Are they just enabling his self-centeredness or is it more complicated?)
To some of my relatives on the eve of Trump’s inauguration in January 2017, I advised caution about their hope that he would “grow into the presidency.” “A 70-year old billionaire,” I warned, “is not about to change his stripes.” The same, I argue, for the system that birthed him. To reform Trump is to reform capitalism: “It ain’t gonna happen!”
The unreformability of capitalism, a system that treats everything as a commodity for profitable deal-making, what Trump so epitomizes, is what makes contemporary politics so uniquely contentious and polarizing — not seen since its last major crisis, the Great Depression. That’s the real significance of the Business Roundtable’s newfound wisdom. It fears, rightly, that increasing numbers of working people are turned off by their system; hence the need to put lipstick on the pig. But they can’t disown Exhibit A for all that he and they represent — no more than Trump’s liberal critics can deny what’s so obvious about him.
There certainly have been racists in the White House and, arguably, the most consequential of them for subsequent race relations was Woodrow Wilson. The most academically credentialed of all U.S. presidents, the original meritocrat, Wilson, a Democrat, promoted policies that not only set back the post-Civil War gains of African-Americans but enabled the resurgence of the Ku Klux Klan to a level about which David Duke can only dream. Wilson, like his modern-day counterparts, was smart enough to refrain from the kind of public xenophobic race baiting that Trump wallows in; but his actions, nonetheless, were devastating.
This summer a century ago was called “Red Summer,” in recognition of the hundreds of blacks throughout the nation who were murdered at the hands of what today might be called white nationalists and white supremacists. The carnage spilled over into the next year into Minnesota and elsewhere. For all his racist rants and dog-whistles — if that’s what they are — there is no evidence that Trump wants to or, more important, can repeat what Wilson enabled. More statues dedicated to Wilson’s Confederate heroes have been removed since Trump’s ascent than at any time since they were erected — a reality check for all of us about the true state of race relations in the U.S. in needed historical perspective.
What is incontestable, again, is that there has never been in the White House a more dyed-in-the-wool capitalist than the current occupant. The president is owed — he’ll like that as a capitalist — a debt of gratitude for helping to lay bare a system, aided and abetted by Republican and Democratic administrations, in all its grotesque reality.
August H. Nimtz Jr. is a professor of political science and African American and African Studies and Distinguished Teaching Professor, University of Minnesota.
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