How Trump Uses Entrepreneurship for Political Profit
For many Americans, the only thing more baffling than the President’s behavior is the blind loyalty of his core supporters. The president has consistently used exaggeration, hyperbole, and flat-out lying to cause complete confusion in political dialogues across the country and the world. He has also created more serious problems through questionable selections for key positions, inattentiveness to essential responsibilities, and a chaotic approach to engaging traditional roles and responsibilities associated with the presidency. The result has been a litany of questions regarding his seemingly irrational contradictions of his party’s platform, as well as his own self-interest.
Yet, with every mistake and questionable act his supporters only reaffirm their devotion to him. As with all devotion it begins with complete acceptance of Trump’s claims of preeminence. Next is the establishment of strong bulwarks of avoidance, “whataboutism”, and willful ignorance with regards to any arguments or evidence threatening those claims. Finally, they have proven willing to proactively attack the sources of the evidence and arguments as part of the ongoing ‘information war’ against his detractors and their “fake news”. Whether it’s illegal immigration, the benefit of recent tax cuts, bringing back coal, the legitimacy of climate change, or even Obama’s birth certificate, this framework has come to define “Trump’s core supporters”. But it has also come to define the Left’s attempts to understand Trump and his supporters most often symbolized by anxiety, anger, and confusion.
However, when viewed from the perspective of the President’s most important skill set, entrepreneurship, things become much clearer. Once elected, he was not settling into an established government position, he was creating the political version of a business startup. He was never a candidate with a platform, he was a entrepreneur looking for opportunities in a new market. And his supporters were never looking for a political advocate, they wanted anyone who could promise the cure for ‘Obama-Hillary disease’. In the end, Trump’s greatest achievement might be the creation of entrepreneurial politics, the manipulation of political groups through marketization of their key issues for personal gain.
“Good marketing makes the company look smart. Great marketing makes the customer feel smart.” — Joe Chernov
From the very beginning Trump marketed his approach to American politics using the skills and experiences he accumulated through a lifetime of entrepreneurship. He began with no experience in politics or any other form of public service. He did not have a personal social or political crusade built on years of being a minority, a veteran, or an environmentalist. In fact, he had no clear position on most key social and political issues in America today. Those issues he did attempt to make clear statements on during the 2016 election for instance were often contradicted by previous statements he had made years earlier when he was in fact friends with the Clintons and other Democrats.
What he did have was a brand that had been carefully cultivated for decades, and a product line that seemed to create instant customer loyalty amongst some Americans. Even if you didn’t know exactly who Donald Trump was, you recognized the name from somewhere. And as the “birther conspiracy” gained in momentum he was increasingly committed to making sure it was connected to him politically, despite the broader tones of racism and xenophobia that were suggested. And what exactly was his product? He was promising conservatives the strongest antidote available for the Obama-Hillary disease they were convinced was afflicting the country. He was promising them cover for their own perspectives by always being the loudest voice at the rally so to speak. He gave them the opportunity to speak out against immigrants, Muslims, the media, and Democrats without the shame and embarrassment normally associated with pseudo-racist, xenophobic, or excessively paranoid behavior.
The foundation of success for the MAGA movement has been its combination of emotional clarity and political vagueness. Trump’s marketing of MAGA allowed individuals across the political right to define what a “Great America” should (or did) look like, while offering an umbrella of patriotic rhetoric under which they could all collect. If you had real frustration or anger over environmental regulations, Obamacare, or immigration then it wasn’t hard to convince yourself to buy what he was selling. Unfortunately, if you also had darker motivations such as racism, misogyny, or xenophobia it was even easier to make him your champion precisely because of the vagueness of his principles and goals.
He was not as interested in developing a shared psychology with his supporters, he just wanted them to invest quickly realizing they would do so, “even if he shot someone in the middle of the street.” And like his customer base, he had no use for the existing political system and its traditions, reliance on ‘political correctness’, and norms of procedure. Donald Trump was not intending to “drain the swamp” in order to uncover some long-forgotten foundation of virtue and justice in America’s political system. His goal all along was to invent a system that he would feel comfortable running and so it’s not surprising that large parts of our government exhibit the same type of chaos associated with a newly started business.
“Modern man is not the man who goes off to discover himself, his secrets, and his hidden truth; he is a man who tries to invest himself” — Michel Foucault
The single biggest mistake made by pundits and observers since the 2016 election has been viewing Trump’s core supporters as traditional political actors. In truth, the large majority were investing the emotional equivalent of their life savings into his message, even as it continued to evolve and change. The difference between political and emotional commitment is the difference between compromise and seeing the world as a zero-sum game. By accentuating the emotional component over the political he transformed conservative politics into an ‘all-or-nothing’ proposition in which his supporters had to become 100% committed. As a result, the Republican party has become less the home of an alternative vision of America’s future, and more the hometown team that conservatives must root for regardless of how bad they seem to be playing.
Trump supporters are not political actors with full faith in America and its systems. Not only do they believe their interests will not be met ‘by the other side’, Trump’s core supporters are convinced that the left will consistently undermine and attack those interests at every turn. They are not voters backing a politician who may or may not win, they are investors in a product that must succeed at all costs.
They must be as loyal to the product as someone trying to sell Mary Kay knowing that the person across the street is selling Avon. There can be absolutely no question of the product’s legitimacy or effectiveness as it has a singular value wrapped up in the name of the product itself. If one aspect of the product is shown to be a fraud or ineffective than it immediately calls into question the entire company. And considering the number of investors who have put everything they have behind Trump and his message there is now a ‘too big to fail’ aspect to his core support.
They cannot allow anyone (e.g. Michael Cohen) or anything (e.g. the Mueller Report) to plant the seed of doubt about the thing they’ve invested the last 3+ years of their life in. So, anyone who questions their decision is relying on fake news, pre-existing bias against conservatives, or an irrational hatred of Trump himself. And anyone who suggests that they are selling a better version of America is their new mortal enemy! Because if they are right, then everything Trump supporters have invested in has been a waste.
The reason why Trump supporters are completely oblivious to the legal, ethical, and moral ramification of his behaviors is because they must be. It is much the same for top officials and other appointees within the cabinet and administration. If you are part of the team then it is implicit that you have accepted and in fact are willing to promote the behaviors and perspectives of your chief spokesman. The result is a continuous series of campaign stops, press conferences, and Fox News echo chambers linked together to create one long commercial for MAGA.
“The quality of a leader is reflected in the standards they set for themselves.” — Ray Kroc
The most direct indication that Trump thinks he’s running his business and not the country is his leadership style itself. There are a couple of key differences between business and political management that continue to be beyond his ability to adapt to. The first is how the concept of accountability is defined within the political and economic spheres. From a political standpoint accountability is often more tied to behavior than accomplishment. It is reversed from an economic standpoint however as accountability is tied almost exclusively to outcome and across the, i.e. profits. If you can produce a profit, then how you achieved it (and thus your success in general) is unquestioned if you are never convicted of serious crimes. Conversely, in the political realm all you need is the appearance of a criminal act and all the substantive success you’ve had is for naught. So, despite the numerous ongoing and pending investigations of him, his business practices, and his campaign, Trump continues to sell the product and attack his competitors. There are an increasing number of investigations, discoveries, and policy decisions however that give the administration the feeling of a failing business trying to make as much profit as possible before the market collapses.
The second impact of Trump using entrepreneurship to fulfill presidential responsibilities and roles is his inability to separate the requirements of the position from the brand that got him there. He is the unquestioned master of his own brand, but that requires he maintain complete control over everything associated with it. He, his supporters, and his advisers can never break from character because it is his brand. For Trump to give them anything else would be like trying to serve Pepsi to Coca-Cola fans.
If he was ever to truly engage traditional presidential behaviors, he would be acting directly counter to what his investors have come to expect from him. This of course assumes that he is intellectually and emotionally capable of filling that role despite evidence over the last two years to the contrary. In the end, he continues to promote the product because it’s the only one he has. If he’s able to maintain control over the political market that is Washington, DC he will be able to keep his product on the shelves. And if he’s able to do that his investors will continue to be ecstatic with their returns regardless of what ethical, moral, or legal boundaries may have been broken to get them.
The last point, and the one that may leave the most lasting residue on American politics, is his personalization of the presidential role itself. He has convinced himself that his brand is the only one on the shelf and the endless desire to reinvest on the part of his core supporters has only reinforced this perspective. The president has consistently spoken in the first person at times in which he should have been speaking on behalf of the country. From natural disasters and relationships with allies to variations of the stock market and the national news cycle, Trump has done everything possible to position himself as being the living embodiment of Uncle Sam. By shipping MAGA out in flag covered boxes he connected himself more directly to patriotism within the minds of conservatism than any politician since Ronald Reagan. And as is often the case, his most reliable consumers have been able to overlook fundamental flaws in the product itself because of the packaging and frankly a desire to be part of the fad. And it is this component that feeds into Trump’s product the most because as everyone knows, entrepreneurs love a fad.
Dr. Darius Watson, PhD is a professor of international relations, political theory, and security studies. He is also the primary contributor to the news and analysis website drillbitnews.com, as well as the senior consultant for Watson Consulting & Analysis, LLC. Dr. Watson is an active scholar, analyst, and instructor with a record of commitment to publication, professional presentations, and most importantly his students.