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Trump’s Shameless, Corrupt Wooing of Plutocrats Is Suddenly Backfiring

Donald Trump is sometimes euphemistically described as “transactional,” when in fact the correct word is “corrupt.” Nowhere is this truer than with his efforts to woo the plutocratic class with veiled threats and something akin to naked solicitations of bribes.

In recent days, Trump has urged Big Oil executives to raise $1 billion for him while dangling specific deregulatory promises he’ll enact if reelected president. He reminded a roomful of top donors that it’s in their interests to cut him large checks because he will keep their taxes low. As The Washington Post delicately reported, Trump “frequently” makes such solicitations “explicit.” Meanwhile, Trump recently raged that top executives who aren’t backing him now “should be FIRED for incompetence,” an apparent warning to get on the Trump train—or else.

But there are signs that these tactics are backfiring. While a media narrative has taken hold that corporate elites are rushing to support Trump—shelving misgivings about his threats of authoritarian rule—the reality is much more complex. His corrupt entreaties appear to be contributing to a sense that a second term would be unsettlingly chaotic and disruptive to the business climate—and this has emerged as a key argument that President Biden’s allies outside the White House are quietly making to business leaders in urging them not to back Trump.

In an interview, White House chief of staff Jeff Zients said that he and other administration officials have been meeting one-on-one with CEOs in what he called an “all-hands effort.”

“The most important thing for U.S. economic growth and for progress and good fortune,” Zients told me, in describing the pitch he makes to CEOs, is “to have a stable, predictable environment.” Zients said he argues that “you might not agree with everything that’s done,” but “there’s an opportunity to talk things through, and there aren’t surprises.”

“It’s not chaos,” Zients continued, further summarizing his argument. “That’s quite a contrast from the former administration.” Other officials making this case include Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen, Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo, and top White House adviser Steve Ricchetti.

Recently Trump met with the country’s most powerful executives at a gathering of the Business Roundtable, a leading corporate group. According to The New York Times, he explicitly promised to cut corporate tax rates yet again after having signed his massive 2017 corporate tax cuts. Anonymous sources told the Times that Zients, who also made a presentation that day, argued to the executives that Biden had preserved domestic and global stability and that Trump’s threatened trade wars and mass deportations would send the country backward.

In our interview, Zients offered a similar account while providing a fuller picture of what he argued to those executives.

“There are areas where we might disagree,” Zients said he told them. “But when you think about the pillars of American capitalism, independent institutions like the Federal Rreserve, the rule of law, an independent judiciary, and America’s reputation and America’s role on the world stage, the president firmly believes in all of this, and I think it aligns with what you believe in.” This is the case Zients now makes regularly.

Recently there’s been reason to fear the elite capitalist class is entering into a massive corrupt bargain with Trump, in which these executives get enormous tax cuts and regressive regulatory rollback in exchange for letting him wreck our national future. After all, lately a handful of billionaire financiers who previously broke with Trump over his insurrection have been sidelining those worries and endorsing or reconsidering him. Tens of millions of dollars from the financial sector recently poured into Trump’s campaign.

It really did look as if business leaders are ready to collectively accommodate themselves to Trump’s worst designs. They’ll overlook his threats to launch mass removals of millions of undocumented immigrants, reverse efforts to preserve a livable planet for future generations, turn over the professional, evidence-based civil service to corrupt loyalists, jail political enemies and persecute the “vermin” opposition en masse, and cancel his own criminal prosecutions. To evade niggling climate rules and get tens of billions of dollars of their tax burden transferred to the lesser classes—as Trump’s economic plans probably would do—they’ll cheerfully turn the country over to a crazed dictator. So went the emerging story, anyway.

But this week the Times published another report taking a closer look at the situation, and found more complicated dynamics at play. While many CEOs are frustrated with Biden, the only discernible move has been among those who previously backed Republicans (but not Trump). Beyond that, the paper reported, there is “little evidence of a major shift of allegiance.”

After all, corporate profits are booming. While the Biden administration is the most pro-labor in memory—and is implementing the most aggressive effort to combat climate change in U.S. history—it is hardly deaf to business concerns in drafting regulations. What’s more, business leaders left that Business Roundtable event alarmed by Trump’s incoherence. And Yale University business management guru Jeffrey Sonenfeld said bluntly on CNBC that Trump’s second term would be “extremely inflationary” and “plunge” our gross domestic product due to tariffs, and would pull apart the “fabric of society.” Somewhat shockingly, he said many corporate leaders are concluding that those things are bad for business.

This, in fact, is the argument other business leaders are privately making to colleagues. Kenneth Chenault, the well-known former head of American Express, said he’s been telling CEOs that our democracy is “facing an existential threat,” and that for business to function, the rule of law is “absolutely sacrosanct.” And Reid Hoffman, the billionaire entrepreneur, noted that he’s been arguing to fellow executives that “stable rule of law and democracy” is actually “more important for business” than a “lower tax rate.”

One problem here, both Chenault and Hoffman told me, is that they run into some resistance. Some CEOs tell Chenault, bafflingly, that they take solace from the failure of Trump’s insurrection: “In essence, they’re saying, ‘Look, we just don’t think that can happen again,’” he said. Chenault also said some corporate leaders say they’re reluctant to voice concerns about Trump and democracy publicly for fear of “retaliation.” At times they actually cite previous examples of Trump, as president, targeting corporations, he noted.

Hoffman, for his part, sometimes runs into a wall of shortsighted self-interest. “I’ve argued with CEOs and business leaders who tell me they believe that Biden is as bad as Trump for business,” Hoffman told me. In reality, he said incredulously, they are prioritizing “their own narrow interests” over the imperative of maintaining a “stable society.”

Still, the real rub here is that both men are finding that CEOs are not flocking to the former president. “What I don’t see is a mass movement supporting Trump,” Chenault told me. Hoffman noted that “the vast majority of business leaders” admit, at least privately, that the fate of democracy is “much more important than a difference in the corporate tax rate.”

To be sure, we shouldn’t be sanguine about where corporate support for Trump will end up. If those who do fear Trump will sabotage U.S. democracy don’t ever make this public, it will do little good. Conversely, corporate leaders who profess confidence that democracy will hold under Trump—or say they fear retaliation—might be just giving themselves cover to stick with Trump and take a position motivated by what (they think) benefits their bottom lines.

Also, when Trump dangles promises in exchange for campaign checks while openly vowing an autocratic presidency, he’s basically promising corporate leaders a form of corrupt authoritarian oligarchy. As David Dayen points out, executives in finance, tech, and energy are responding to Trump’s sleazy entreaties by enthusiastically writing him checks. Put simply, at least some business leaders appear to be backing Trump precisely because he’s promising them an oligarchy in which they get juicy cuts of the spoils.

But overall, it’s plainly obvious that there is no mass stampede of corporate leaders to Trump, after all. And if this holds, it will be a form of poetic justice that Trump’s own bluster, threats, and solicitations of quasi-bribes are helping to create the aura of chaos around him that is keeping them away.


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