The Flight of the CEOs

Corporate leaders abandoned Trump in the wake of Charlottesville. What does it mean for his presidency?

Donald Trump attends a strategic and policy CEO discussion on April 12, 2017. D. Myles Cullen / White House

The recent flight of corporate CEOs from President Trump’s business advisory councils, and the subsequent disbanding of the councils, was unprecedented. The establishment media stressed the irony of Trump the businessman failing to hold onto his business advisors. But that misses the importance of the exodus, which was sparked by Trump’s public statements expressing sympathy for the white supremacist demonstrators in Charlottesville.

Trump rose to the presidency vowing to become a kind of American strongman. He would make the country great again. He would defeat the scapegoats he held responsible for America’s flagging prospects. Political adversaries would suffer ridicule and perhaps even prosecution. Media critics would be intimidated into silence with taunts and threats. Sluggish government institutions would be re-energized, pressed into doing his bidding. At its most unadulterated, it was the playbook of a would-be right-wing nationalist ruler.

But Trump also took office lacking a key ingredient of a powerful presidency: he didn’t have the backing of the big corporations and banks that hold decisive economic and political power in the US.

After his inauguration, he set out to build that base. He named several representatives of big capital to high cabinet positions (although only two of them came from major institutions of big business: ExxonMobil CEO Rex Tillerson and Goldman Sachs president Gary Cohn). In a bid to reach further into the ranks of big capital, he set up two business advisory councils: the Strategy and Policy Forum, whose remit was economic policy as a whole, and the American Manufacturing Council, which advised on policies specifically affecting manufacturing.

These two bodies represented a key means for Trump to anchor his presidency in the capitalist class. The Strategy and Policy Forum boasted officials from big finance (Goldman Sachs, JP Morgan) and from major nonfinancial corporations (Boeing, GE, General Motors, IBM, PepsiCo, Walmart). The twenty-eight-member Manufacturing Council contained a cross-section of American manufacturing including consumer products, capital goods, aircraft producers, military contractors, high tech, and pharmaceuticals, as well as two token trade union representatives and someone from the joint business-labor Alliance for American Manufacturing. The two councils held highly publicized meetings with Trump when they were founded (although they hadn’t met since).

Trump had his work cut out for him in trying to build bridges to big business. Since the presidential campaign, the heads of giant corporations and banks hung back from their usual enthusiastic support for GOP candidates, wary of Trump’s agenda Trump. And with good reason. For one, Trump’s call for high tariffs and other protectionist measures threatens almost all of big business, from retailers dependent on imported consumer goods to manufacturing companies whose inputs come from abroad. Export-heavy sectors would face retaliatory tariffs if the US erects trade barriers. And most of big business is tied into the globalized economy.

Second, Trump’s anti-immigrant measures rankle broad sections of American big business. Agribusiness and hospitality sectors need low-wage immigrant labor, while high-tech sectors rely on highly skilled workers from abroad. Third, Trump’s penchant for going after individual companies — in an attempt to dictate their investment decisions — runs counter to big capital’s desire for maximum freedom to choose where to invest.

Beyond everyday economic interests, big business appears to be worried about various features of Trump’s governing style. In contemporary capitalism, big capital needs more than to be simply left alone — it needs an effectively run state that caters to its profit needs. Big business relies on the “rule of law” to secure its rights and property against government or private actors. It counts on the separation of powers to limit the national state. It values government competence. Trump’s rejection of facts and science unnerves corporations that must gather relevant empirical information and apply scientific advances to survive in the competitive marketplace. His unthinking, shoot-from-the-hip style rubs big corporate CEOs the wrong way.

Trump’s behavior on foreign policy is also a probable source of concern. Big capital needs the US to maintain its dominant presence on the world stage, and Trump’s actions threaten to undermine that hegemony by repelling long-time US allies and opening up space for rivals like China. Nor do Trump’s off-the-cuff threats of nuclear or conventional aggression endear him to the cautious CEOs of big companies, which may benefit from an arms buildup but do not want the instability of a war.

Trump has shown little indication that he actually cares what these CEOs think. But if he wants to install a right-wing nationalist regime in the US, he must at least win big capital’s acquiescence, if not its unwavering support.

His post-election shift on domestic economic policy, toward neoliberal policies of deregulation and calls for business tax cuts, aimed at buying that acquiescence, as well as mollifying the hardcore neoliberals in Congress. His business advisory councils were also a major part of his effort to woo big business. Now they’ve collapsed.

The real irony of the flight of the CEOs is that it was not spurred by the aforementioned clashes over economic policy or Trump’s style of rule. Instead, it was Trump’s extreme and open racism, and his very public identification with white supremacist groups, that triggered the mass departures.

The social changes that have coursed through American society since the 1960s have not left big corporations and banks untouched. In the 1920s and ’30s the Dupont family, owners of Dupont Corporation and one-time controllers of General Motors, were notorious anti-Semites and Hitler supporters. By 1973, Jewish lawyer Irving Shapiro was presiding over Dupont as the corporation’s first non-family CEO.

In the decades since, members of other previously excluded groups — African Americans, Latinos, Asians, women, LBGTQ people — have also risen to the middle and even upper reaches of corporate bureaucracies. A review of the members of Trump’s two leading business advisory councils reveals a sprinkling of women, racial minorities, and Jewish people. Women CEOs represented Campbell Soup, General Motors, IBM, Lockheed, and PepsiCo on the councils; racial and ethnic minorities represented Goldman Sachs, Merck, and PepsiCo.

In fact, the flight of the CEOs was initiated by Kenneth Frazier, the African American head of Merck. And the next three members to jump ship were all women: the Manufacturing Council representatives from General Motors, IBM, and PepsiCo.

But all of the corporations must have viewed Trump’s recent utterances as a threat to their businesses and diverse management workforces. They reportedly also feared criticism from consumers and board members for continuing to participate in Trump’s councils. When Stephen Schwartzman of Blackstone Group, the leader of the Strategy and Policy Forum, polled the council’s members following Trump’s Charlottesville statements, he found a decisive majority in favor of disbanding. Trump scrapped both councils soon after (though not before condemning the renegade CEOs).

At the same time, the president was hit with an almost open rebellion of the military brass. Trump placed generals in several top positions in his administration, an uncommon move potentially related to his desire to install a right-wing nationalist regime. After Charlottesville, the top commanders of the air force, army, coast guard, marines, and navy all took the unusual step of issuing public statements condemning racism and neo-Nazis. Even more than big corporations, the military — now reliant on voluntary enlistments — has come to reflect the diversity of contemporary American society. Trump’s racist outbursts imperil the military cohesion — not to mention offending leaders of a military that sustained massive casualties to defeat fascism. Their vocal opposition was a big setback for Trump’s right-wing nationalist project.

Even worse for Trump, his survival as president may now be threatened.

Trump rendered the service of winning the White House for the Republicans. But now he’s an albatross around their necks. A President Pence — a normal extreme neoliberal politician — must be a far more appealing prospect to congressional Republicans. It’s likely that the main thing holding them back is their fear of Trump’s still-strong support among GOP voters. Yet if a significant part of big business moves beyond disassociation from Trump to a quiet endorsement of his removal, we might see a President Pence before 2020 rolls around.