The Business Class Has Never Liked Democracy

Today, on Inauguration Day, we shouldn’t forget that the business class has long stoked fears of democracy — and bankrolled the conservative movement that gave us the events of January 6.

Donald Trump speaks to reporters on the South Lawn of the White House before boarding Marine One on July 15, 2020 in Washington, DC. (Drew Angerer / Getty Images)

The word from the National Association of Manufacturers (NAM) was swift and unequivocal: “Manufacturers Call on Armed Thugs to Cease Violence at Capitol.” Issuing its statement at 3:37 PM on January 6, the trade association was one of the first business groups to condemn the riot at the Capitol — at that moment, still ongoing — and to denounce Donald Trump for continuing to circulate the “baseless claim” that he had won the election. “This is not law and order. This is chaos. It is mob rule.”

Four years earlier, NAM had written Trump to extend its congratulations and call for unity. The president came to speak to NAM members, his embrace of manufacturing in line with the organization’s aims. NAM encouraged its members to back Trump’s tax proposals, his raft of deregulation, and his support for expanding oil and gas drilling. The organization even honored Ivanka with its inaugural Alexander Hamilton Award as recently as February 2020.

But now, NAM’s leaders — and the many other businessmen who bankrolled the Republican Party as it tacked hard right — have to ask whether the sympathetic appointments to the National Labor Relations Board and the tax breaks are worth the boots on Nancy Pelosi’s desk and the crazed warnings that Biden is a satanic pedophile. Can the open rejection of the “peaceful transfer of power,” the legitimacy of popular elections, and, more deeply, the power and authority of the United States government really be deemed in keeping with the old notion of business interests?

Perhaps most plaintive postriot was Home Depot founder Kenneth Langone, who declared he felt “betrayed” by Trump’s actions. Langone, who previously compared Occupy Wall Street to the Nazis, has supported Trump and conservative candidates for years. But after witnessing the storming of the Capitol, he told CNBC, “I didn’t sign up for that.”

Many Republican politicians around the country, however, recognize that their base is far friendlier to Trump’s postelection machinations than Langone and other funders might be. While most of these legislators might reject the theatrics of January 6 — the effort to prevent the Senate from certifying the vote, the potential plots to kidnap the vice president or congressional leaders — the Right has for years deployed warnings of election fraud to challenge the legitimacy of elections and prevent voters they deem unworthy from appearing at the polls. It is no surprise that so many might believe that the election was rigged, for one fantastic reason or another.

Beyond this, the persistent ambivalence toward democracy and the very idea that ordinary people are intelligent and capable enough to exercise some control over their lives is one that many right-wing intellectuals — from William Graham Sumner to Friedrich von Hayek — have articulated over and over again. The reluctance of Republican elites to break from Trump and the MAGA politics he’s mobilized reflects not just their fear of political reprisal, but the many ways they share his underlying beliefs. And it suggests the political possibilities that entrepreneurial ideologies and politicians have been able to tap into — ones they are unlikely to leave behind.

The far right has flourished in tandem with the rest of the Republican Party, taking hold in a society decimated by attacks on the collective institutions that might power a political alternative. Going back to the 1930s, that destructive furor has received ample support from the very business class now rushing to distance itself from Trump. The years of assaults on unions, on public institutions, and on the ideals of democracy and egalitarianism have created the conditions for this new force, driven by a politics of conspiracy that reflects the incoherence of our common life.

In the current crisis, the US elite has been unified in its rejection of Trump’s attempts to overturn the election. No major media outlet, no substantial part of the business class, has seen it in its interest to back the forces Trump has tried, however clumsily, to bring forward. But that does not mean it will always conclude as much, and one has to wonder if, facing a different political context — that alternative universe in which Bernie Sanders won the election, for example — at least some factions of the business class would have found it more appealing to ride the forces of dissonance farther still. As Richard Hofstadter wrote in 1954, “in a populistic culture like ours, which seems to lack a responsible elite with political and moral autonomy, and in which it is possible to exploit the wildest currents of public sentiment for private purposes, it is at least conceivable that a highly organized, vocal, active and well-financed minority could create a political climate in which the rational pursuit of our well-being and safety would become impossible.”

For right now, Inauguration Day will move forward in a capital filled by the National Guard, the uneasy reliance of civilian pomp on military power more visible than usual. But the forces that coalesced in the explosion of January 6 will haunt the solemn proceedings, even as the likes of Langone and NAM view the fruits of their long labors and insist they bear no responsibility for how we ended up here.