Trump's corporate servility

Time and again, the president kneels before the monolith of big business

President Trump.
(Image credit: Illustrated | Yuri Gripas-Pool/Getty Images, AndreyKrav/iStock)

President Trump is basically a ready-for-hire hatchet man for business interests. For the latest piece of evidence, witness the trade fight America nearly got in with Ecuador over breastfeeding.

Earlier this year, Ecuador had planned to introduce a measure encouraging breastfeeding as the healthiest source of food for infants at a meeting of the World Health Organization. It was one of those noncontroversial things that everyone expected to pass with widespread ease, since the medical community has long clearly recognized that breastfeeding is indeed the healthiest option for babies.

But then the White House stepped in, insisting the resolution be watered down, and then that it be scrapped. "The Americans were blunt," The New York Times reported. "If Ecuador refused to drop the resolution, Washington would unleash punishing trade measures and withdraw crucial military aid." Ecuador caved, and a host of other countries refused to take the measure up, citing fears of U.S. retaliation. Ironically, it was Russia that ultimately stepped in to rebuff the U.S. demands and carry the measure through.

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As it happens, the Trump administration's stance aligns very neatly with the preferences of the $70 billion formula industry. What a coincidence!

For its part, the White House claims that it's just sticking up for women. "Many women are not able to breastfeed for a variety of reasons. These women should not be stigmatized," said Health and Human Services spokeswoman Caitlin Oakley. And this from the president:

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Oakley is absolutely right that many women need formula as a necessary alternative to breastfeeding. But it's a little hard to take the administration's position seriously as a stand on principle, as the U.S. also scrapped support of soda taxes from a statement on obesity, and tried to scuttle a roadmap for giving poor countries cheaper access to otherwise-expensive medicines.

It's also hard to take seriously given the entire sweep of Trump's pro-business policy. He always sides with business interests over regular people.

First off, there were the tax cuts. They were presented as a high-minded reform, aimed at simplifying the tax code and boosting job and wage growth. In fact, Republican lawmakers may well have made the tax code more byzantine, and more vulnerable to games by the wealthy, while evidence of any positive effect on jobs and wages is pretty much nonexistent. The only thing the GOP tax overhaul definitely delivered was a massive giveaway to corporations and the wealthy.

Then there's deregulation. As far as I can tell, the way this works is businesspeople come to the president and complain about some government rule they find costly or inconvenient. And Trump's inevitable reaction is to breezily scrap it, or at least try to.

The president has already rolled back rules meant to strengthen and stabilize the portfolios of "mid-sized" banks. (Which, keep in mind, are still very large.) Trump regularly rails against financial regulations like Dodd-Frank, claiming they stifle credit and hold back the economy. Mick Mulvaney, Trump's interim appointment at the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, did everything he could to slow down and shackle efforts to protect consumers from predatory financial services.

Trump took an Obama-era effort to strengthen overtime pay and threw it under the bus. He killed a regulation that would've preserved consumers' right to bring class-action lawsuits against banks and other financial firms, rather than getting forced into one-on-one arbitration setups that almost inevitably find in favor of the corporation. Trump made it harder to enforce laws against wage theft and unsafe working conditions, to prevent misuse of federal land, or to limit methane gas emissions. His picks to head outfits like the Environmental Protection Agency and the Department of Education have been busy making it easier for companies to pollute, and for private colleges to fleece students, respectively.

This list only scratches the surface. The White House even went out of its way to oppose a law against "unreasonable" airline fees for baggage, cancelations, seats, and same-day changes — just in case you were thinking there might be some business request so petty and grasping that Trump wouldn't stoop to indulging it.

The White House is not always successful in its attempts to unshackle business. This is not exactly group of people known for their policymaking acumen. What's striking, rather, is their almost universal obsequiousness to any company that might come knocking.

Of course, there are complications to any narrative. You could look at Trump's eagerness to launch a trade war with China as evidence that he isn't always pro-business. So too his relative indifference to GOP demands for more hawkish monetary policy, or his desire for more robust antitrust enforcement.

But these things are better understood as disagreements among business leaders. Corporate America is not a monolith; it has its own tribal divisions. Wall Street and the biggest companies tend to oppose tariffs, antitrust, and easy money. Trump's background is in construction and real estate, and his instinctive cultural sympathies lie more with these "hard hat" industries. At the same time, none of these differences are big enough to puncture Trump's obliviousness that some Americans may have needs separate from, or even antithetical to, the desire to run a highly profitable business however one sees fit.

The only part of Trump's platform that just about every business interest probably dislikes is his hardline take on immigration. It's also one of the few issues Trump seems to have a genuine ideological commitment to. And it happens to be crucial to holding together the Republicans' weird (and ever-shrinking) coalition of big business and the reactionary white middle class. In short, Trump combines a few crucial gut-level cultural bigotries with a breezy, sweeping attitude that what's good for U.S. business must be good for America writ large.

As it turns out, this makes him an almost perfect fit for leading the modern Republican Party.

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