The Grifter: Trump, The GOP, And The Cult Of Businessmen

Former Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney arrives with his wife Ann to speak at the Republican National Committee
Former Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney arrives with his wife Ann to speak at the Republican National Committee Winter Meeting in San Diego, California January 16, 2015. REUTERS/Mike Blake (UNITED STATES - Tags: POLITICS)

The candidacy of Donald Trump, and the rise of Trumpismo more generally, have been seen as a kind of Rorschach Test for the condition of the Republican Party. Mostly this has amounted to variations on a "ye reap what ye sow" theme. Personally, I like to think of Trump's operation being run by Nigel from the movie Spinal Tap: Trumpismo represents everything about the GOP turned up to 11.

Beyond the racism, the bigotry, the bullying, the nativism, the misogyny - I'll stop there - Trump's candidacy is of a piece in another way too. However much some prominent Republicans are outraged by Trump, he is the third GOP nominee of the last four to sell himself to the party and the nation as a businessman. In fact, the Republican Party's disdain of government has been matched by its veneration of businessmen (yes, almost entirely men). So whatever kind of referendum Trumpismo offers on the Republican Party, it certainly reveals a lot about the world of business.

In 2012, Mitt Romney ran away from his career in public service, and especially his tenure as governor of Massachusetts, and flaunted his boda fides as a successful businessman. And without question he made a boatload of money in a private equity firm. He was turn-around guy, he claimed. He found distressed companies and brought them back. He promised to do the same for an American economy that had not fully recovered from the Crash of 2007.

Bain Capital wasn't a service organization, of course, and people pointed out that private equity firms often found assets to gut, strip, and otherwise sell off. Short-term profits at the expense of. . .well, everything else, including jobs, communities and long-term economic health.

Honest people can disagree over Romney's work at Bain, but what was truly remarkable was how badly this businessman ran his own campaign. Not just the wooden, awkward public appearances and the flat stump speeches. Behind the scenes, Romney, wizard of high finance, was outclassed by the Obama campaign in data, technology and social media.

In fact, while Bain Capital may have billions under its management, Romney seemed incapable of counting to 270. Faced with polling numbers telling him he was losing, Romney kept believing he would win, in part, I suspect because he was surrounded by people who told him what he wanted to hear. All of which made one wonder: if this is how Romney operated at Bain, maybe one should invest elsewhere.

In 2000, Texas governor George W. Bush offered himself as the nation's first candidate to hold an MBA. And from Harvard no less! Never mind that Bush's own track record as a businessman was risible, or that his only success came as part-owner of and principle cheerleader for the Texas Rangers, whose value soared after they moved into a new, publicly-funded stadium. Bush had the business smarts to lead the economy.

We all know exactly where he led it, and several wags noted that Bush embodied the acronym MBA: Mediocre But Arrogant. What do they teach people at the venerable Harvard B-School?!

And so here we are again. Another businessman running for the Republicans promising us that his career as a successful businessman makes him ideal to run the country. Trump clearly suffers from the delusions common among those who live in the cosseted isolation of CEO-land. Surrounded by sycophants and lackeys and yes-men and women, never is heard a discouraging word at Trump central. You would get fired for that kind of insubordination.

Romney, at least, really does seem to have made money. In Trump's case, it's hard to tell what "success" means. The more we get to know about Trump Inc. - the byzantine labyrinth of ownerships, subsidiaries, and liabilities; the staggering debt; the pattern of stiffing contractors and his own workers - the more it all begins to look like a Trump Taj Mahal of Mirrors.

We know that Trump made money for himself - though we probably won't ever know just how much - but beyond that? Trump hasn't built anything of lasting importance or economic significance. He isn't a businessman, in the traditional sense. He's a grifter.

But running a con requires a mark. And in Trump's case the marks have included major banks, other real estate firms, the state of New Jersey, and the courts. I'm only secondarily astonished at the complexity of Trump's business shenanigans.

More egregiously, Trump's wheeling and dealing has relied on a whole host of perfectly reputable enablers, like Deutsche Bank, as the New York Times reported. What does it say about our financial system that it keeps lending him money? Why don't more business leaders have the courage to call him what he is, like Michael Bloomberg did at the Democratic National Convention? How much confidence should we in private sector institutions given that are repeatedly suckered by The Grifter?

Trump's ascendancy may speak volumes about the Republican Party. But it pulls a curtain back on the business world as well and what we're seeing isn't pretty.

Steven Conn is W. E. Smith Professor of History at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio. He is currently working on a history of American business schools.