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Understanding Trump the businessman President

David James |  09 November 2016


Donald Trump's presidential victory has been greeted by most of the mainstream media with shock and apprehension, which is to be expected given that they were barracking for his opponent. It is worth examining just why the antipathy to Trump has been so great among those used to pulling the levers of power.

Donald TrumpThe usual reason given is that he is, so it is claimed, a 'sociopathic con artist' and narcissist. 'As opposed to what?' one might ask. As the Clintons have demonstrated with their appalling charitable foundation, there is some pretty steep competition in that area.

Another, less noticed, reason why Trump creates such anxieties, especially in the political elites, is that he is, first and foremost, a businessman.

In modern times, has there ever been a major political leader of a democracy, let alone president of the United States, who spent their whole adult life in business before moving to the top of the political tree? When we look at him from this perspective his behaviour becomes entirely predictable.

The first step for a business person is to make the sale, usually by over-promising and tapping into the emotional triggers of the customer. That is exactly what Trump did. Over and over, he assured everyone that electing him would be 'fantastic'; he would deliver; customer-value is in the bag. It was a pitch he had made countless times in his business career, albeit mainly with hotels rather than to electorates.

He even continued the rhetoric in his acceptance speech, which looked more like an annual meeting for a business that has had a year of stellar profits than a political event. Top performing staff were singled out and the supporters were praised as if they were staff members who had put in a good year. Even his comment about the 'potential' of Americans sounded like a speech to boost employee morale.

The next step for a business person, once the sale is made, is for a hard financial logic to be applied. Trump's hype will be, at the very least, toned down, if not unwound. Watch for him to shift. Once the customer has coughed up, business people typically become extremely pragmatic. That will be how Trump behaves.

It is often said that the 'business of America is business', implying that having a businessman at the helm is culturally appropriate. But the anxiety indicates that many in the power elite think otherwise.


"He has not ever been in the armaments industry and judging from his comments about Russia, he seems to appreciate that endless wars make for very bad business — they are a waste of not just blood, but also treasure."


We get a hint of why by looking at what kind of businessman Trump has been. The three most powerful business lobbies in Washington are the finance sector, the armaments industry and the oil and gas industries. For finance and armaments, the 'client' is government. Finance needs to be bailed out when things go wrong and to have rules that allow them to pillage the system. The armaments industry needs government to buy its weapons. Likewise, the oil and gas industry has for decades been instrumental in shaping American foreign policy. The State Department and the CIA have acted in tandem with the big energy corporations.

Trump does not come from any of those industries; indeed he is likely to be quite hostile to at least one of them. Having almost been bankrupted by banks, he is likely to have the aversion that many business people feel towards bankers. That is perhaps why he has made the re-introduction of the Glass-Steagall, which prohibits commercial banks from engaging in the investment business, part of the Republican Party's platform.

He has not ever been in the armaments industry and judging from his comments about Russia, he seems to have an appreciation that endless wars make for very bad business — they are a waste of not just blood, but also treasure.

What Trump has done is build things. Thus, it was no surprise that he talked mainly of building infrastructure in his acceptance speech. This is where he is comfortable and it is likely that significant resources will go into improving this area.

Many have expressed concerns, reasonably enough, about his politically incorrect comments. To some extent that was part of his pitch to the disenfranchised, but it is also common for business people to nurture low-level prejudices, much as people do from other walks of life. Yet they tend to be superficial, ill thought out opinions, not politically organised campaigns. Most of the mental energy of business people is taken up with serving customers and running their businesses. That is very different from what happens in politics, where acting on prejudices and dislikes routinely becomes the central focus.

Where Trump will be caught out is in the areas where politics is very different from business. He will be too ready to think society is just a business, when it is not. Also, his history of risk taking in business does not augur well for budget restraint. But it is wrong to think his behaviour is unpredictable, it is just not something we have previously seen in US politics.


David JamesDavid James is the managing editor of businessadvantagepng.com



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Submitted comments

Just an honest, orthodox and hard-working high-priest of Mammon, then. Just as long as we know the score, we can sing along...

Joan Seymour 10 November 2016

An astute analysis of The Donald, now Mr President, thanks David. He is a very successful businessman, his field of expertise. Even though he has uttered politically incorrect, insensitive and misogynistic mantras, the American people have spoken. If we don't start listening what does that say about us?

Pam 10 November 2016

Good points! Re-introducing Glass-Steagall will be a good move. Even Adam Smith, who had seen financial crises, knew that banks needed regulation if their actions “might endanger the security of the whole society.” It’s the financial sector that continually causes massive problems. Building infrastructure, especially using US-made steel, sounded like a Roosevelt-type solution to unemployment, although I too worry about the budget. An inherited $20 trillion of debt would seem to restrict what he can do. I’ll be interested to see how he handles international trade where “more than 20 nations” are accused of currency manipulation, thus giving them an unfair trade advantage. China has been accused of undervaluing its currency by 30 to 40 per cent, and currency manipulation is blamed “more than any other subsidy” for destroying American manufacturing jobs. I do look forward to him draining “the Washington swamp” of the political hangers-on.

Ross Howard 10 November 2016

There was much consternation amongst the commentariat - both Right viz the Australian and Left viz the ABC - on Donald Trump and his win. Public figures of the extreme Right: David Duke ex head of the Klu Klux Klan; various Hindu Nationalists and Right wing anti-immigration parties in Europe applauded his victory. I think they have got him wrong. He may be OK with reservations. Your analysis is a useful half-corrective. The other half is up to him.

Edward Fido 11 November 2016

Joan Seymour, I just love your comment! And Pam from what I have read the word "successful" might not apply? Hasn't he made many bad investments?

Janet 14 November 2016

Thank you David. You made me think rather than react according to my prejudices about Trump. That is always a useful exercise. A very helpful article.

Paul Collins 14 November 2016

Very interesting perspective. He is clearly a threat - to the thieving, war-mongering establishment !!

john frawley 14 November 2016

Every time I read someone's world view as seen through the spectacles of business, I am reminded of the story of Jesus rampaging at the presence of traders in a temple. There's a more to a leader, particularly one who leads the present world's most powerful nation, than business acumen. There is the person, he or she; his/her world view on human conditions, compassion and faith. I believe that these human characteristics are paramount; the make up of the person. Their views may vary from one economic cycle to another, but the psyche that make them what they are must be contained within a shell of human compassion and charity. Trump, whatever his business acumens, is not the kind of person that follows the rules that make us all civilised. So, please, no more Chamberlain-like excuses.

Alex Njoo 14 November 2016

So where do ethics come into this? The many business people I respect are concerned to ensure a high level of corporate citizenship and would not appreciate a depiction of Trump as the business norm. This article has chosen to ignore the legitimate adverse assessments of the character of President-elect Trump, assessments that should help the world to mitigate the grave risks introduced by the election of this very self-centred individual to the most powerful position on earth.

Peter Johnston 14 November 2016

It seems Trump got through to ordinary working people in a way that Hillary did not. Trump got more Black and Hispanic voters than did previous Republican candidates. http://mobile.nytimes.com/2016/11/13/us/politics/michigan-voters-donald-trump.html?_r=0&referer=https%3A%2F%2Fwww.google.com%2F

Alice 14 November 2016

As uncomfortable as this reality may be, Hillary did support abortion up to the day of birth. This would have cost her some of the Catholic vote.

Alice 14 November 2016

Alice. Hilary also accepted millions of dollars towards her campaign from Saudi Arabia perhaps the biggest financial contributor to radical Islamic terrorism. She would have done anything to win the prize.

john frawley 14 November 2016

Hi Janet. Trump Tower is certainly a symbol of success to many people. I'm not sure Melania could afford those beautiful clothes if his 'bad' investments outweighed his overall investments. So a successful businessman he is! His suitability as President is yet to be determined.

Pam 14 November 2016

"The next step for a business person, once the sale is made, is for a hard financial logic to be applied. Trump's hype will be, at the very least, toned down, if not unwound. Watch for him to shift. Once the customer has coughed up, business people typically become extremely pragmatic. That will be how Trump behaves." Leaving aside that 'racketeer' is probably a better description of this man than 'businessperson', I somehow doubt the folks who 'coughed up' a vote for him are going to see things this way.

Tony Thompson 14 November 2016

Why is the Clinton Foundation described as appalling?

Peter Horan 14 November 2016

I like your take on Donald Trump which is refreshingly pragmatic. Even more, your concern for the poor. As an economist you have much to offer. Thank you.

Marie Bourke 26 November 2016

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