Forty Years of the Firm

Trump's entire mode of politics is drawn from his business background. And that's why he's floundering.

Trump Tower in December 2016. Robert Fitzpatrick / Flickr

In his classic article “The Nature of the Firm” — which I wish would be put on the list of required reading for political theorists; it really should be in the canon — the economist R. H. Coase divides the economic world into two modes of action: deal-making, which happens between firms, and giving orders, which happens within firms. Coase doesn’t say this, but it’s a plausible extrapolation that making deals and giving orders are, basically, the two things businesspeople know how to do.

In the last year, it’s occurred to me, on more than one occasion, that Trump is a Coasian grotesque. Making deals and giving orders: that’s all he knows how to do. Except that he doesn’t. As we’re seeing, he’s really bad at both.

Regardless of whether he’s good or bad at the ways and means of the firm, what Trump definitely doesn’t know is politics. Authority, legitimacy, persuasion, leadership: these are arts that Trump is completely unpracticed at, and it shows. When it comes to wielding power in the political sphere — I’m not talking about executive orders, of which Trump has issued many, and which are a sign of his weakness, not his strength; I’m talking about exercising power that requires the assent and cooperation of other political actors — he’s completely out of his league.

There’s a reason for that: the conception of power he has — such as it is and however bad he is at it — is drawn from the Coasian world of the firm. To that extent, we can read Trump’s failure not simply as a referendum on Trump, not simply as a referendum on the Republican Party, but more largely and more importantly, as a verdict on forty years of politics in the United States.

For what neoliberalism has meant, among other things, is not simply the rise of markets and money and all the rest; it has also meant, as Wendy Brown has argued so compellingly, the rise of economic modes of reason and their insertion into politics. Not just their insertion, but their domination. Such that our entire conception of political leadership is drawn from the world of the firm (that’s not Brown’s argument; it’s my tangent to her argument).

This is not a story of the rise of Reagan or the Republican Party. It’s a completely bipartisan story. It was Jimmy Carter, in 1975, who helped begin the story, when he launched his presidential campaign with the claim: “I ran the Georgia government as well as almost any corporate structure in this country is run.” Four decades later, managing a firm no longer provides a standard of leadership. It is the substance of leadership.

A substance, as we are now seeing, that is increasingly irrelevant to the challenges of our age. Trump’s problem is not that he’s bad at making deals or giving commands. Even if he were good at that, it’d not be sufficient to manage the crises of his coalition. A different sort of art is called for, one that is not drawn from the firm.

If we had a real political opposition, if we had a real left, they’d be using Trump not as an example of right-wing lunacy or Republican perfidy; he’d be Exhibit A of Forty Years of the Firm.