Corey Robin, Fear: The History of a Political Idea (2004), 228
What will we be after Election Day? Discarded employees or disabused voters? Donald Trump may have the answer.
Except for a passing nod to the TV franchise “The Apprentice,” pundits and editors have paid little or no attention to the extent to which CEO Donald Trump’s tactics of intimidation first achieved public legitimacy by virtue of changes in US corporate management culture dating from the 1980s and how Trump has parlayed them into a potent political campaign. In many respects Trump’s successful strategy to become the nominee of the Republican Party was a textbook hostile takeover bid of a company--memorably dramatized by Michael Douglas as corporate raider Gordon Gekko in Oliver Stone’s 1987 film Wall Street--that appealed to the shareholders (the party base) to revolt against a smug and inept management (the Republican establishment) by promising a price that could not be beat: unalloyed expression of their voter outrage at the status quo in a bid “to make [white] America great again.”
Trump is the proud graduate of the Wharton School of Business that in the late twentieth century spawned some of the most destructive businessmen and Wall Street operators (Lewis Ranieri’s notorious Salomon Brothers gang) who created mortgage-backed securities (bonds), those weapons of mass destruction of “shadow finance.” Yet he is also an independent businessman—real estate mogul--who affects none of the smooth talk of corporate communications but all the rough street speech of under-socialized Wall Street bond traders and the outsized personality of free-wheeling entrepreneurs for whom every day is a new day and what you lose today you can win back tomorrow. Each day represents an opportunity, each day a new move in which anything is negotiable. Action and movement are everything; like Gekko he radiates the pure macho energy of risk and success: if you stand still, you die.
To boot, Trump enjoys the clout of a CEO without any accountability to a board of directors or aggressive mutual fund managers. Unlike George W. Bush, touted by Republicans as the first “CEO president,” he is his own man and beholden to no one (clan, party, or donors). He possesses the magical freedom and irresponsibility of celebrities while embodying the savvy worldliness of the makers and shakers of capitalist America.
Trump made this more than clear at the outset in the first televised Republican debate hosted by Fox News in Cleveland on August 2015. In response to the panel’s first question posed by Brett Baier that asked the ten assembled candidates who would not support the winner of the Republican nomination, Trump stood alone with his hand raised and even refused to pledge that he wouldn’t run as an independent candidate. Given his wealth and wide-spread name recognition (what he terms his “brand”), it was a credible threat of a nature rarely seen in national political life. The public bullying of an entire political party before a national cable TV audience by one of its own candidates was unprecedented and broke with the Republicans’ iron-clad ethos of loyalty and discipline to which even earlier insurgent populist candidate Pat Buchanan submitted.
Long before Trump’s candidacy burst upon the national political stage, the U.S. business press and workplace had been roiled by intimidating and bullying CEOs since the early 1980s. The return in force of finance capital in the U.S. during the Volcker recession (1980-82) accelerated a managerial revolution begun in the 1970s that radicalized the old militarized command-and-control autocratic management model inherited from the Second World War (embodied by Ford CEO and later Defense Secretary Robert S. McNamara). The new obsession with stock prices and short-term profits (the 20% return) that sought to match new unheralded high returns on certificates of deposit offered by banks and the awarding of exorbitant executive pay lay the foundation for a surge in abusive behavior by managers and employees in the workplace.
Together with corporate downsizing of front-line workers and middle management, the outsourcing of traditional company tasks, the introduction of “best-practices” of flexible employment, constant “forced ranking “of employees in the name of shifting definitions of “excellence,” performance pay and stock options, and the recourse to workers reclassified as “independent contractors,” these new practices opened the door to what business columnist Stanley Bing in Crazy Bosses termed “management by terror” and put in place a system of “short-term greed and long-term insecurity.” It was an infernal circle: according to economist David Gordon in Fat and Mean, in the 1980s as employees’ wages were cut and workers’ incentives evaporated, aggressive supervision of a demoralized workforce by the overworked remaining middle managers increased exponentially.
Consequently, workers with little job security found themselves caught in the jarring contradiction between, on the one hand, human resources’ rhetoric of “teamwork” and “flexibility" that promised informal, cooperative relationships and promoted the value of interpersonal skills and employees’ ever greater personal investment in their jobs and, on the other, the day-to-day experience of workplace intimidation that either reinforced hierarchies of authority and status (teams working under an authoritarian leader) or sought to introduce them in settings where they are not visibly acknowledged. It was a system of one-way loyalty that empowered senior management as rarely before that the business press glorified.
For two decades running, Fortune and Business Week featured awe-struck, admiring articles such as “America’s Toughest Bosses” or “Tough Times, Tough Bosses” that promoted this new figure christening him the “bullying boss”: one who was aloof yet mercurial, manipulative, abusive, arbitrary, and vindictive, and, to the delight of the press, often colorful and quirky. Media exposés followed with admiring nicknames such as “Chainsaw,” “Old Blood and Guts,” “Rambo in pinstripes,” “Jack the Ripper,” and “Prince of Darkness.” (Less impressed by this male personality type, female employees offered one of their own, “BSD” or “Big Swinging Dick.”)
Thus a new American folk hero was born who was afforded every indulgence and every reprieve. His management tools of choice? Fear and suffering. As one chief executive summarized his management philosophy in the original 1980 Fortune article, “Leadership is demonstrated when the ability to inflict pain is confirmed.” The earliest names included Donald Rumsfeld (CEO of G. D. Searle Pharmaceuticals), Steve Jobs (NEXT Computing), Andrew Grove (Intel), Jack Welch (General Electric), Carl Icahn (TWA), and Harvey and Robert Weinstein (Miramax Films). Thirty years later many of these names are still with us.
Meanwhile, the new over-the-top management ethos became an intimidating spectacle in its own right: first in the US workplace where the public theater of firing employees quickly became a well-rehearsed one in offices; then in the media. Trump’s brilliant coup was to make firing the stuff of TV melodrama in hosting (and co-producing) the global reality TV show The Apprentice (2004 -) starring Trump who plays the role of a boss much feared and admired by young interviewees who compete to be retained by him to help run one of his companies. Each show ends with Trump pronouncing in dreaded judgment of a hapless contestant, “You’re Fired!” It’s a spectacle of humiliation whose pleasures won’t be denied and which disavows what viewers fear most in their own lives. Trump quickly secured his status as a global household word and embodiment of the new abusive management style. The way was cleared to translate his successful brand into enormous political capital that he is now cashing in.
Bad behavior is nothing new but what is singular in the current reign of the public bully is the interplay of economic and non-economic humiliations and indignities encountered in daily life under globalized market economies and the endless War on Terror. Arguably, this is what lends contemporary bullying and intimidation its widespread reach and edge from the school and the workplace to the media and political spheres to cyberspace. This is the culture in which Donald Trump can thrive. By virtue of his outsized persona he has been successful in articulating a sense of personal grievance as a collective one. As political scientists Corey Robin and Wendy Brown have pointed out, if today the workplace (along with consumer activities) has replaced the school as the main vehicle for educating people in the ways of power and new forms of (non) democratic citizenship, then CEO Trump was uniquely poised to capitalize on this new political culture of intimidation and fear.
So bullying and intimidation have become a special form of power widespread today. It is more than just exerting pressure; it is far more consequential. Targets of repeated attacks can lose not only control over their self-representation but even their capacity to pursue their studies or training, work productively, enjoy effective voice in public discourse, or run for office.
Trump is perfectly aware of this. Educated in the Cold War art of the political smear by his mentor and lawyer Roy Cohn, Trump expertly engages in stigmatizing the identity of opponents. Had we thought that the stake had been driven into the heart of the Cold War culture of fear and intimidation once and for all, the War on Terror should already have disabused us of that illusion. But overlooked by pundits and reporters is the peculiarly entrepreneurial twist Trump lends to the older bullying enterprise: he introduces an aggressive timeline in which the future is everything and the present and past exist only to be overcome. Trump successfully melds as perhaps no other before him the entrepreneur’s and the politician’s shared obsession with the short-term in which the future is pure promise of change and transformation of which he, Trump, is the sole broker. This is the sales pitch of most every U.S. politician and businessman.
Let me explain. Trump’s peculiar power of character assassination is twofold. First, and more recognizably, allegations about an opponent’s character or motives are by nature difficult to disprove, as in the question, “When did you stop beating your wife?” They create an intimidating field of aggression that is unconstrained by fact-checking or empirical verification. In a sense he is the ultimate practitioner of what Brown has termed in her essay "American Nightmare" the declarative mode of neoconservative discourse in which inner conviction preempts questions of veracity or facticity. Second, and perhaps more originally, Trump’s accusations present the advantage of imprisoning the victim in a mocked identity whereby she—or he—has no future, only a discredited past and present. So a loser is not someone who has lost an election or a deal; rather, it is someone who always loses and is a perpetual victim of circumstance. Trump on the other hand, he speaks as a free man from the future: in truth, ever ready for the latest deal or next primary, he has no identity, only a future-oriented readiness to negotiate anything (real estate, the constitution, the law) and with anyone (Putin, Kim Jong-on). Others have an identity—which he names—and it is entirely deficient and disabling—and stuck. Such is Trump’s negative identity politics that seeks to caricature and dishonor opponents’ personhood.
The real identity he embodies needs no naming: the great free-born white American male. Part of his peculiar power and privilege as inveterate aggressor is his ability to fend off attacks through his openly acknowledged self-interest and penchant for violence, pre-emptive self-parody (his campy hair), and even claims of victimhood (at the hands of women, immigrants, liberals, Muslims, protesters, the press, the judiciary, etc.). Here, aggression and a very traditional conservative sense of grievance against an overwhelming modernity are intimately intertwined. One’s own weakness or vulnerability is the fault of maligned others. It is an aggressive discourse that is all controlling but never accountable, a form of victimhood that according to historian Robert O. Paxton in his essay, “The Five Stages of Fascism,” is endemic to authoritarian and fascist movements. It promises the re-assertion of violent personal sovereignty over others through identification with a charismatic and sadistic leader. In neoliberal economies like the U.S., this most likely means a businessman.
So what may seem hysterical or out of control is actually a method. And one that often works. In this world, no holds are barred and nothing is sacred. Bullying strives to impress upon both actual and potential victims its literally boundless character that exceeds all possible imaginings and logic. It matches the limitlessly intrusive character of unregulated capitalism itself in daily life. As it is with Trump as boss, so it is with Trump the politician: he never answers criticisms, he simply launches new attacks. Offense is everything. Relentlessly expansive and seeking out new targets, bullies like him are extremist and arbitrary by necessity: public bullying intimidates in part because it makes violently clear to one and all that it is supremely indifferent to any type of social, psychological or ethical boundary. Fox News reporter Megyn Kelly’s physiology. Heidi Cruz’ physical appearance. New York Times journalist Serge Kovaleski’s disability. Federal Judge Gonzalo Curiel’s ethnicity. Or vulnerable Trump University students’ private financial hopes and fears.
A demand for accountability is met with further disrespect of the target; in the case of Kelly it takes the form of paternal advice to toughen up: "But you gotta get over it. Fight back, do whatever you have to do." Or in the case of Hillary Clinton who belittled his foreign policy proposals, the form of an outright threat of her arrest and incarceration should he become president. You either enter Trump’s world on his terms and follow his script or you’re out. That is, you’re fired or, in a new twist, put behind bars.
Like many political attack ads that preceded Trump’s entry into politics, to achieve his ends Trump doesn’t always need to destroy his opponent but simply to dishonor or paralyze her or him and introduce a doubt in the minds of the audience. And Trump is free to abandon a position or statement on a whim—such is his privilege and power--as when he claimed that his advocacy of a ban on all Muslims entering the U.S, was “just a suggestion,” an opening negotiating position or bid. Which he can then return to and double-down on as he did after the Orlando mass shooting. What’s important is to grab the limelight and define the debate. The content is often less important than the pre-emptive violence and excess that intimidate rivals and awe potential voters. In a sense Trump uses his own contradictory statements to his advantage: they create a deliberate ambiguity that confuses opponents. Like the relentlessly opportunist populist leaders of far-right movements described by Paxton, Trump’s behavior follows no coherent program or ideology—nor apparently does it need to--other than the expression of the pure free energy and forward movement of his entitled self in defense of a declining America and its embattled middle and working classes.
Trump treats political issues--and politics generally--like his business holdings, employees, clients, and family members as an asset to be manipulated—and abused. This is the force and freedom of a fully entrepreneurial politician. And now that the repellent details of his business and personal dealings are coming to light and reaching the general public, what will provoke revulsion may also stimulate perverse fascination with the fact that despite his sordid past that would have destroyed common mortals like ourselves, Trump has not only magically survived but flourished. This is one of the take-aways from a cursory read of Wayne Barrett’s biography titled aptly, Trump: The Greatest Show on Earth.
By March 2016 Trump had taken the next step: he graduated from verbal bullying to frequent calls to physical violence towards protestors at his rallies. Far from slowing his relentless rise in the polls, Trump seemed to legitimatize a vein of violence in the public sphere that has begun to feed on itself: he and his supporters appear to revel in it, glory in it, and find each other and bond through it. He has now edged closer to a truly pre-fascist political style that is aggrieved, xenophobic, nostalgic, paranoid, and physically violent. Beyond the law and its routine protections. And perhaps successful. This will partly depend on how well the Hillary Clinton understands the danger posed not only by Trump’s right-wing populist message but also by his very methods. They not only express voters’ fears and grievances of living under a destructive market economy but also a public culture of intimidation and bullying that in itself silently legitimizes the most authoritarian behavior and policies.
Trump’s populist genius is at once to personify all that unfettered capitalism promises and to lead a revolt against all its disappointments in the name of those very same promises. That contradiction may still explode before Election Day if, for example, the Trump University scandal of him shamelessly exploiting financially vulnerable white consumers for personal gain doesn’t go away. No longer admiring spectators of Trump’s bullying of others, his populist base may identify with his victims and hand him his pink slip. Still, perhaps Trump’s greatest enemy may not be his shady business deals, the Democratic Party, or the media but the overly long dysfunctional U.S. election cycle that can sap even the most robust and powerful campaign that under a different electoral system would have perhaps already put Trump in office.
Trump was uniquely poised to carry out an insurgent bid for the Republican nomination in a time of popular discontent: successful entrepreneur, financially and politically independent, global brand, reckless bully persona, media-savvy celebrity, old-fashioned paternalist, and political outsider. However, whether after Election Day we find ourselves to be discarded employees or disgruntled voters, and even if Trump loses the election and retires from politics, the enabling social and economic conditions of his rise will remain in place awaiting the emergence of another aggressive capitalist folk hero. Like Trump he—not she--will be granted every indulgence, every reprieve—and will be most likely not from New York and discredited Wall Street but from Silicon Valley in the form of a charismatic, libertarian but younger and less brazenly self-interested and contemptuous venture capitalist or hedge-fund manager. With or without The Donald, “trumpism” will continue to convulse not only the Republican Party but the entire body politic.