🔒 Wall Street must stand up against Trump: Francis Wilkinson

In the looming shadow of a potential second Trump presidency, Francis Wilkinson warns of the alarming convergence between corporate America and the GOP’s authoritarian trajectory. Despite damning assessments from former top officials, Trump’s dominance in the Republican primary raises concerns for corporate leaders aligning with a party embracing thuggish politics. The GOP’s shift towards authoritarianism, exemplified by legal attacks and violence, poses a critical challenge for business elites torn between courage and cowardice, with the spectre of eroding governance and unpredictable risks in a second Trump era.

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Wall Street Needs to Stand Up to Trump: Francis Wilkinson

By Francis Wilkinson

“A shadow looms over the world.” That’s what the Economist said in November, citing Donald Trump as the “biggest danger” the world faces in 2024.

Some calls are easy to make.


Trump is dominating the Republican presidential primary even as his former top advisers, including his attorney general, chairman of the joint chiefs of staff, national security adviser and secretaries of both defense and state label him categorically unfit for office and a menace to the US and the world. No credible argument exists to refute these first-hand assessments.

Corporate America has typically supported the party of low taxes (at least for corporations and the wealthy) and limited regulation (albeit not for uteruses, universities and such). In 2024, corporate leaders will have to decide whether they want to stick with the GOP, aligning their habitual partisanship with a large helping of authoritarian thuggishness.

Corporations are said to dislike political surprises; the GOP doesn’t appear to have many on offer. The main question is whether, in power, the party would fashion itself as more Viktor Orban or Vladimir Putin. Trump stopped pretending to play at democracy long before his attempt, culminating in the violent attack of Jan. 6, to overthrow the nation’s democratically elected government. House Republicans have fully endorsed Trump’s perp-walk politics and are poised to be his accomplices in future assaults on rule of law and democracy. Former House Speaker Kevin McCarthy was a pliable Trump tool; current Speaker Mike Johnson’s leadership rests on the twin pillars of MAGA Christian nationalism and Johnson’s previous efforts to help Trump overthrow the republic.

Meanwhile, election denial is more common among Republican politicians in 2023 than it was in 2020. A small but potent portion of the GOP base — 29% of which subscribes to Q-Anon fantasies — brays for violence. MAGA, an authoritarian movement, is now fully in control of a major party.

Business, of course, doesn’t necessarily require rule of law to prosper. Gangsters can make plenty of money under the right circumstances. Corporate leaders have a reputation for the kind of short-term focus that authoritarians can exploit but also reward, at least until things get ugly.

Trouble is, there won’t be much warning before it’s ugly. The contemporary GOP is rife with crackpots, grifters and demagogues. All of them need “issues” to buff their populist credentials, whether to make airtime, make a buck or make a lunge for power. Those “issues” sometimes come at the expense of the party’s erstwhile friends.

Walt Disney Co. knows something about that, having attracted the attention of the goon squad in Florida. Pfizer Inc. is learning about it now in Texas, where the state’s corrupt attorney general, Ken Paxton, has filed suit against the company claiming — well, it doesn’t really matter, does it?

Paxton is a man who needs friends. Members of his own party impeached him in May. (The Texas Senate acquitted him.) His own deputies sought an FBI investigation of his alleged crimes and supported his removal from office. Paxton’s lawsuit is legal junk, but it provides a jagged political edge that he can use to rally MAGA conspiracy theorists against Pfizer’s successful vaccine and the company itself. “COVID-19 cases increased after widespread vaccine administration, and some areas saw a greater percentage of deaths from COVID-19 among the vaccinated population than the unvaccinated,” the lawsuit states. (In the real world, Covid death rates are many times higher among unvaccinated cohorts than among vaccinated populations.)

Some GOP attacks won’t target a lone victim, such as Pfizer, but the entire herd. The legal hammer of Trump’s authoritarian regime-in-waiting, Stephen Miller’s America First Legal, has already filed complaints against corporations seeking to intimidate them into abandoning diversity efforts. The theme of the complaints is that White men, those fragile flowers to whom MAGA’s existence is dedicated, are society’s great victims. (More than three-quarters of Fortune 500 CEOs are white males; more than half of board seats are held by white men.)

“We are going to completely transform the legal architecture in this country,” Miller told Bloomberg News this month. You can be certain that Miller, who rose from being an obscure Senate staffer to czar of US domestic policy under Trump, envisions an architecture worthy of the adjective “brutalist.”

Of course, women, Black people, college professors, LGBTQ Americans and other usual suspects will take the brunt of violence and vengeance. But corporate leaders are not terribly popular among the bigots, conspiracy theorists and extremists who make MAGA go boom. Some CEOs and companies will be targeted, too. Meanwhile, the chaos that exists everywhere Trump breathes exerts a peculiar menace all its own. In August, Fitch Ratings, citing Jan. 6, lowered the US debt rating a notch in part, it said, due to “erosion of governance” — one of countless euphemisms for Trumpism.

The next year presages a difficult struggle between corporate courage and cowardice. The US Chamber of Commerce, a flaccid tower of equivocating jelly throughout Trump’s transgressive reign, did not respond to successive emails seeking comment on how it perceives its role in the coming contest with authoritarianism. A spokesperson for the Business Roundtable promised a reply to a similar request, yet only silence ensued.

Many CEOs surely presume they can play MAGA’s thug game deftly enough to come out on top. In the wake of Jan. 6, at least 231 companies halted political donations to members of Congress who aided Trump’s attempted coup. According to Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, only 65 companies have held the line. The organization has since tracked more than $50 million in donations from corporate and industry groups to the GOP “sedition caucus.”

Democracy and rule of law have served business remarkably well over a century or two. Some people recognize that. The risks of a second Trump presidency are “incalculable and unpredictable,” billionaire Thomas Peterffy told Politico this month.

Peterffy has it half right. The cost of losing rule of law, to American society and business, is indeed incalculably high. A catastrophic moral and strategic failure by business elites to safeguard capitalism’s golden goose might be all too predictable.

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© 2023 Bloomberg L.P.

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