Can Business Restrain Trump?

The NFL demonstrations this weekend were an encouraging signal.
09/24/2017 08:51 pm ET
BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI via Getty Images

Donald Trump still seems to think he can govern by decree. His latest demand, that professional sports franchises fire players who protest racism by refusing to go along with rituals involving the flag or the Pledge of Allegiance, suggests that Trump understands neither the First Amendment nor the American free enterprise system where presidents don’t get to tell corporate executives or professional athletes what to do.

He also seems to be a fool in whom he keeps picking fights with. It’s bad enough to get into a playground insult contest with the one world leader who is even crazier than Trump – Kim Jong-Un. But he topped even that by getting into a fight with LeBron James.

Both Kim and James got the better of our Dear Leader.  Kim called Trump mentally deranged ― it takes one to know one ― and quipped that “a frightened dog barks louder.” Kim’s best line, or maybe his translator’s, was calling Trump a “dotard,” which sent editors scurrying for their dictionaries. The word means “a person in a state of senile decay marked by a decline of mental pose and alertness.” That about says it ― and is much more elegant than Trump’s goofy epithet, “Rocket man.”

Trump even made NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell look good ― and that takes some doing. Goodell defended his players, and put out a statement calling Trump divisive. James, perhaps the world’s most revered professional athlete, called Trump a bum.

Whenever Trump crosses a line into outright racism, business leaders are quick to desert him.

Now maybe Trump is crazy like a fox. A lot of the fans of the NFL and the NBA are part of Trump’s base, and it just so happens that the athletes he is attacking for disrespecting the flag and the Pledge of Allegiance are black. So Trump is continuing his strategy from the Steve Bannon playbook of racializing politics.

While most Americans are appalled, this kind of talk shores up his support with his white nationalist base. And if he can keep a sense of crisis going with North Korea (without blowing up the world), a good foreign policy crisis also causes people to rally behind the president.

One thing, however, is encouraging about our president’s latest antics. Nobody is doing what he demands. He is spitting into the wind.

Trump is a would-be Great Dictator. But if you go back and compare Trump’s tinpot fascism with the real thing, there is one big difference. Both Hitler and Mussolini quickly moved to stamp out all parliamentary and civic opposition, so that they could govern by decree.

Trump has been unable to do that. His party holds a nominal majority in both houses of Congress but even the Republicans can’t manage to deliver for him. The courts recognize his executive authority, but only up to a point.

As for big business, whenever Trump crosses a line into outright racism, business leaders are quick to desert him. In August, after Trump’s comments about events at Charlottesville, so many top business leaders quit Trump’s two business advisory councils in protest that Trump had to disband them.

Shutting down the councils after top CEOs quit was a bit like rescinding invitations to the White House after professional athletes refused to come.

It’s encouraging that our constitutional institutions are withstanding Trump’s assaults and that the occasional business leader tells him to take a hike. The health insurance industry has come out strongly against his efforts to kill the Affordable Care Act.

I’d feel even better, however, if big business was not also playing footsie with Trump over his plans for big cuts in corporate taxes and his efforts to gut health, safety, environmental, labor and financial regulation. Perhaps that’s too much to ask.

It’s great when business leaders draw the line at crude racism. Blocking Trump’s other assaults on a decent society will take a progressive movement.

Robert Kuttner is co-editor of The American Prospect and professor at Brandeis University’s Heller School. His latest book is Debtors’ Prison: The Politics of Austerity Versus Possibility.

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