Why Wall Street is Surrendering to Trump
Plus: Kinzinger calls out the GOP's betrayal of Ukraine
We learn from history that we do not learn from history — Friedrich Hegel
One of the fondest bits of resistance fantasy has been the notion that the nation’s economic elites — the titans of Wall Street, the beautiful people of Davos, the economic masters of the universe— would, in our moment of peril, mount the barricades to defend democracy.
To which a reasonable person might have responded: Have you met these guys?
For about five minutes after January 6, it seemed that the business community had, in fact, found or fabricated a moral compass. “There are some members who, by their actions, will have forfeited the support of the US Chamber of Commerce. Period. Full stop,” the chamber’s vice-president, Neil Bradley, declared when the group announced a ban on contributions to representatives who had voted against certifying Joe Biden’s win.
There were full-page ads and ringing declarations. “This is not who we are as a people or a country,” insisted Jamie Dimon, the chief executive of JPMorgan.
The chamber quietly dropped its ban on election deniers. The cash still flows. And last week in Davos, we found out how far Dimon had evolved on extraneous details like the peaceful transfer of power and attempted insurrections. Dimon now says that Donald Trump was right about lots of things and, like other moguls, is now okay with either Biden or Trump.
“My company,” he said, “will survive and thrive in both.”
The only surprise here is that we are surprised. In a remarkable piece this week, The Financial Times’s Edward Luce reminded readers, “The 1930s ought to have buried the idea that business is a bulwark against autocracy.”
The Financial Times had only nice things to say about Benito Mussolini in a June 1933 supplement entitled “The Renaissance of Italy: Fascism’s gift of order and progress”. Trains were running on time, investment was humming and friction between capital and labour was a thing of the past. “The country has been remodelled, rather than remade, under the vigorous architecture of its illustrious prime minister, Signor Mussolini,” wrote the FT’s special correspondent.
“Today’s America offers a reminder,” he notes.
Why is Wall Street so quickly making its peace with the twice-impeached, disgraced, indicted, authoritarian fraudster? Let’s divide the reasons into three buckets:
Venality, rational self-interest, and fear.
Let’s start with the obvious: Big business knows that Trump poses a threat to democratic norms and is a cancer on the national culture. But he’s good for the bottom-line, and that, after all, is the business of business. In their world, the trashing of constitutional norms is simply collateral damage.
So, as Matt Yglesias notes in his Slow Boring newsletter, it is not shocking that “rich businessmen remember they're Republicans.” Even though they might have preferred a less fascisty option, “they’re now reconciled to riding with Trump, who they see as a non-optimal candidate, but a lock for the nomination and perfectly capable of beating Biden.”
“And beating Joe Biden really is the important part…”
Forget the eyewash about the border or concerns about the tender feelings of the MAGA masses, he writes. “What Jamie Dimon really wants is the return of business-friendly regulations that will make more money for him personally, for his shareholders, and for his friends.”
None of this is particularly mysterious. Writes Luce:
[For] all his faults, Trump would be better for business than Biden. Trump cut the top tax rate and improved their bottom lines. He is promising to do the same again. Trump’s railing against corporatism is just red meat for the base. He would also boost the fossil fuel industry and commercial real estate. The assumption of business leaders that Trump will fulfil these promises is almost certainly right.
They are also unfazed by Trump’s threats of big tariffs and renewed trade wars, because “less globalisation is a price worth paying for lower taxes. It seems that almost anything is.”
Elites tell themselves other stories too: They want a seat at the table. They want to be in the room where it happens. They want access. And they know that if they fail to fall into line now, they risk being cast into outer darkness. Or worse.
So, they are afraid. But perhaps not afraid enough, telling themselves that Trump’s “bark is worse than his bite.” In their boundless self-regard many of them (like their counterparts from the last century) seem to think that they will be able to control him or limit his damage. In his first term, the guardrails held, they tell themselves, so how bad could it be?
But Trump is openly promising a regime of retribution; and this time around he will have far more weapons to wield. As Protect Democracy warned last week, “A second Trump administration will seek to pierce the independence of federal agencies to expand presidential control over their activities.” That includes the DOJ, FCC, FTC, SEC, IRS and all the vast net of regulatory powers that can be aimed at both individuals and corporations who fall out of favor.
As both Trump and Florida’s Ron DeSantis have signaled, there is a ravening appetite on the right for the use of government power to punish ideological dissenters in the private sector. As the Protect Democracy report noted, “Trump made several attempts, with varying degrees of success, to crack down on the media during his first term.”
He ordered a government review of postal rates and urged his postmaster general to double shipping rates on Amazon, as a part of his campaign to pressure Washington Post and Amazon owner Jeff Bezos to provide him with more favorable news coverage.
As a 2016 candidate, Trump threatened to block the merger of AT&T and Time Warner because CNN was “wildly anti-Trump” and, after he became president, the Department of Justice challenged the deal. The New Yorker reported that Trump ordered top aides to “get this lawsuit filed…I’ve mentioned it fifty times. And nothing’s happened. I want to make sure it’s filed. I want that deal blocked!”
But the media is far from the only industry that Trump 2.0 could target. DeSantis famously went to war with Disney; and the Trumpian right seems spoiling for a fight with businesses that might take controversial positions on issues dear to the heart of the new MAGA elite.
What could Trump do? In an earlier report, the folks at Protect Democracy described some of the ways that the government could punish corporate expression:
Abuses of government power can take different forms, because government officials wield the power of the state in many ways. They employ rhetoric to influence a public debate, deploy administrative and agency power to gatekeep opportunities and launch investigations, and propose and pass laws that codify the rules of the game…
Rhetorical Threats: In response to a company’s (or company leader’s) disfavored speech or expression, a high-ranking government official may threaten that the government will take action to punish the company or make a statement directly intended to chill business expression. For example, in March 2021, Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) tweeted that she would work to “break up Big Tech,” in response to critical tweets from Amazon about the senator’s characterization of the company’s tax liability. That same year, Senator Mitch McConnell (R-KY) warned businesses that they would face “serious consequences” for speaking out against a new voting rights law in Georgia and urged corporate America to “stay out of politics.”
Administrative Tools: A government official may propose using the executive branch’s administrative or investigative power in retaliation for viewpoints it opposes….
Legislative Power: A lawmaker may propose legislation or initiate an investigation directly targeting a company as a result of its expressed views. For example, in 2018 the Georgia legislature voted to strip out from a larger bill a proposed tax exemption on jet fuel, originally intended to benefit Delta Airlines, in retaliation for the company’s decision to eliminate a promotional discount for National Rifle Association members following the school shooting in Parkland, Florida.
In a second Trump term, this would be mere child’s play. But, by then, there will be little that the business elite can do about it.
How do we know?
We’ve seen this play before.
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Just What Putin Wanted
In the latest episode of The Trump Trials, Lawfare’s Ben Wittes and I discuss: the GOP’s latest surrender to Trump on the border and Ukraine; Justice Scalia speaks from beyond; how Lindsey flipped on Trump in Georgia; and why the presidential immunity ruling may be taking so long. Plus, a story about a lost puppy.
You can listen to the whole thing here. Or watch us on YouTube.
BONUS: George Conway and Sarah Longwell on the New Hampshire Primary, then a deep dive into the 91 felonies Trump is currently facing. George explains to Sarah why he thinks Trump will end up in prison.
1. Ukraine Is Committed to Europe and Democracy
For all his faults of facts and logic, Graham is right about one thing: “In the end, a free, democratic, and prosperous Ukraine anchored in the West would mark the final defeat of Russia’s aggression.” That goal is feasible. Ukrainians are giving their lives for it every day. They deserve not only help, but credit.
2. Weak Republicans Are The Millstone Around Ukraine's Neck
We are represented by small people with small dreams. Imagine having a moment to make a historic difference in world affairs, an opportunity rarely given to members of Congress, and choosing silence. These Republican members would think of themselves as a perfect candidate to “Quantum Leap” back to 1938 and convince the world the confront Hitler earlier, yet here they are in our own 1938 moment, cowering because whiney weak Donny has a following.
Along many decades, our foreign policy was basically aligned on the big things, and varied in tactics. Today, there are massive extremes represented, from pro-Hamas sympathies of Rashida Thalib on the left, to pro-Putin sympathies of Scott Perry, etc. It’s the middle that still carries the torch of American leadership, but they must find their voices and put their petty differences aside. Can the center Right and center left agree to bring a discharge petition to the floor and force a vote on aid? That will take courage, and taking on the extremes in your own party. I’m not convinced, but I hope it happens.
For each party, quit pointing out the speck in the other’s eye until you take care of the plank in your own. In this case, not a single Republican has the moral authority to declare Biden weak on foreign policy until they make efforts to stomp out the cancer in their own. I hope every reporter asks this question, over and over until they get an answer. “What have you done to bring aid to the floor and strengthen America?”
We are in a perilous moment in this country both internally and externally. Until those with power find their courage, we need to find ours, to call out and shame those with none.
3. Hamas’s Useful Idiots
South Africa’s case against Israel was bizarrely one-sided. The events of October 7 merit just a paragraph in the 85-page complaint. Compare the description of Israel’s actions (“Across Gaza, Israel has targeted the infrastructure and foundations of Palestinian life, deliberately creating conditions of life calculated to bring about the physical destruction of Palestinian people”) to the passive voice used to describe the Palestinian terrorist groups, “Rockets continue to be fired from Gaza into Israeli territory.” There is no acknowledgment of who started the war, which is usually regarded as a key factor in the United Nations, where every nation’s right to self-defense is supposedly honored. Nor is there any recognition of the special burdens involved in fighting an enemy that purposely places its military assets under schools, mosques, homes, and hospitals. When you fight an enemy that regards its own civilian deaths as a moral victory, you are in new territory not previously found in human conflict.
The ICJ is slated to issue a preliminary ruling on Friday. Perhaps reason will prevail, but that this case was even entertained is a travesty.