The new global plutocracy
Goodbye, Davos. Hello, oligarchs.
President Trump has more in common with Russia's Vladimir Putin and Chinese business titans than most people realize.
Trump represents the latest iteration of a very particular sort of global plutocrat. These super-wealthy elites have a penchant for nationalism, and often xenophobia. They boast authoritarian streaks, and exhibit total shamelessness about mixing business and politics. You often can't tell where one form of power ends and another begins.
Nowhere is this more clear than it is with Trump. He clearly isn't divesting from his globe-spanning branding and real estate empire. Every economic and regulatory policy he undertakes has the potential to redound to his own profit. Trump mixes business negotiations with diplomatic affairs, and his administration is stumping for his family's product lines. Should Trump get his corporate tax breaks for private infrastructure spending passed, you could easily imagine him selling his brand to every company who takes advantage of the deal: American infrastructure jobs, brought to you by Trump Inc., with the president's name on every new bridge, road, and seaport.
Such government-run self-enrichment schemes are classic Putin, too. The economic chaos that followed the Soviet Union's fall created a market ruled by feudalistic Russian business elites. Putin took advantage to install himself as Russia's permanent leader, enriching himself and his compatriots along the way. Russia's government now owns a considerable portion of the country's oil and gas industry.
China's economy is also a "mixed market" — largely driven by state-owned enterprises — in which political powerbrokers double as the nation's business titans.
It probably goes without saying, but this is a far cry from the liberal and technocratic global elites who flock to events like Davos, and who have long dominated Western policymaking.
The Davos crowd is largely appalled by Trump's vulgarity, xenophobia, and jingoism. But perhaps just as appalling to them is his blending of government and business. The Davos elite embrace a very strict separation of the political sphere from business. The market should evolve on its own, free from government interference.
Trump, on the other hand, is totally on board with political ambition and business ambition mixing until they're one and the same. He's exceedingly upfront that the U.S. government should foster American businesses and jobs through direct deal-making and protectionism.
Heads of major Chinese corporate behemoths, like Alibaba and Foxconn, and Japan's SoftBank "see where this guy Trump is coming from, and, at a visceral level, identify with him," Alberto Moel, an analyst at research firm Sanford C. Bernstein, told The New York Times."These guys are political animals. They live in Asia, where things are different. There's more autocracy and more connected transactions. In the U.S., people still expect things to be fair."
That's changing, and fast. Trump is bringing a new brand of elitist power to the West. And he's importing it from the oligarchs of the East.
Let's be clear: Trump's populism is not actually about empowering the people, here or abroad. It's about ensuring his own rule and popularity. Doing deals, rather than repairing the system, allows Trump to play the kingpin upon whom American workers depend for their livelihoods. This is what Putin does. This is what oligarchs do. And all of these powerbrokers are part of the same emerging global plutocratic class, with certain fundamental interests in common.
Trump's campaign rhetoric wasn't wrong: Globalization and political corruption really did screw the American working class. But Trump painted U.S. politicians and foreign workers as the final beneficiaries of American workers' exploitation. In reality, they were simply tools used by the global one-percenters who really benefited — a crowd that includes Trump, Putin, and China's wealthy elite.
That's the part Trump doesn't want to acknowledge.