Looking back on Trump’s erratic business career littered with broken promises and law suits, echoed by an equally erratic personal life, some have wondered if he has any guiding principles. I think he might.
In 1968 a guy named Albert Z. Carr published an article in the Harvard Business Review called “Is Business Bluffing Ethical.” You can read it online if interested. The essence of it is that ordinary norms of what most people would call ethical have little or no place in business. Business is a winner take all game in which any form of bluffing, lying, cheating, or double dealing is fair as long as it’s not blatantly illegal. It’s not only fair, it’s the way successful business executives become successful, so wrote Carr. Try to be ethical, and you’ll be a loser. I have no idea what Trump read when he was at Wharton, but my guess is that this could have been a favorite, maybe the only thing that stuck. It’s not that long, so people with short attention spans can handle it. Whether he read it or not, it’s certainly been the credo that has guided his business dealings, and not without some success. It often works well in the short run. It can work for a long time if one stays just inside legal boundaries, and has a bit of luck avoiding others more devious than he or she. Think of J.R. Ewing on the old oil field soap opera “Dallas.”
Ingrained as a habit of the heart (so to speak), it seems to be the same light guiding his politics. Why should he care that the Carr article was challenged from every side, and has continued to be challenged these last forty-eight years by those who believe ethics are important in business? Trump, like Carr, tosses challengers into the loser trash bin and goes merrily on his way. Who cares about losers? Not Trump. His message to his minions is couched in the language of loser making revenge. “All those (liberal) elites that look down on you, call you deplorable, and make your life hard, well stick with me and I’ll make them losers, losers every one.” It sells. Is it a bluff? Not really. He cares nothing for his minions, but he does care about revenge, and he understands the Carr philosophy perfectly. Well, maybe he doesn’t understand it, but he knows how to use it.
What’s the right response? First, never take at face value anything he agrees to or promises. Go out and tell the press you had an interesting conversation or think he’s a man you can work with if you want to, but don’t deceive yourself. Second, always remember that his friendly smile, warm handshake, and complimentary words have no enduring meaning whatsoever. They are well calculated to keep you off guard and off balance. You can stay on his good side as long as you are loyal and useful. Quit being useful and even loyalty won’t count for much – loser. Third, while we might converse with each other about morality and ethics in politics, it is not an easy sell to a public that doesn’t trust politics or politicians, and has little understanding of American civics. Evaluate everything he says and does in strictly practical terms. What is actually happening? What are the announced intentions? What are the verifiable results? Who benefits? Who gets hurt? And, as always, follow the money. Fourth, make it public in every possible way, but avoid snide, humiliating language.
Fifth, and this is for those of you who are clergy, you have a responsibility to teach Christian ethics to your parishioners, not as an abstract religious ideal, but as a way of life in the secular world. As important as they are, most of those sitting in the pews are not making daily decisions about abortion, sexuality, global warming, pipelines, etc. They are making ethical decisions every day about how they live life and do business, and they need solid instruction about how to go about that as followers of Jesus, not Carr. That’s your job. If you don’t know how to do it, I have some basic materials that might help get you started.