Trump Trashes Free Market Transactions
With his usual inimitable form, the president has taken to Twitter to pillory Amazon’s business practices. Ever the populist, the president trotted out the tired-old “us versus them” dichotomy of soulless big businessmen profiting at the expense of the forgotten work-a-day everyman. Except, in this instance, that individual is the U.S. Postal Service.
Now, I’ve always had some issue with the classification of Trump’s rhetoric as populist. Whether one defines this in the vernacular, where it takes on a very democratic “of the people” connotation, versus one looks more academically at the philosophies espoused by various populist movements over time alters slightly what actors can truly be considered “populist.” As Trump is a politician and spearheading a political movement, I tend to think we need to look towards the latter. And the best definition of populism in this regard comes from historian Richard Hofstadter in his book The Age of Reform. Hofstadter outlines the shared characteristics between disparate populist movements that have popped up across the annals of American history:
“the conception of history as conspiracy; an obsessive concern with the fabulous enjoyments deemed to be the lot of the plutocrats; cynicism about the two-party system; the notion that the world is moving toward an immense apocalypse; the exclusive attention to the greed and other personal vices of bankers and other selected plutocrats as opposed to a structural analysis of the social system; anti-Semitism and xenophobia; the appeal to the native simplicity and virtue of the folk.”
Trump hits most of these markers, with the exception of anti-Semitism. He does not, however, champion rural agrarianism, a distinguishing feature of populists past. Rather, he champions manufacturing and heavy industry, traditionally the predatory plutocrat villains in populist tales, and portrays them as the aggrieved victims of global corporations. This would seem to necessitate a genesis in the definition of populism. Trump’s strident defense of the Postal Service, a vestige of the federal government, only reinforces this in my opinion.
But beyond semantics, this is significant for a much more philosophically profound reason: it turns the whole ethos of American politics on its head. Americans have always been encouraged to treat government cynically; its monopoly on force and law-making power makes it inherently dangerous to our culture of individual sovereignty and natural rights. Private enterprise, whether undertaken by an individual in a locality or an individual with an enormous corporation behind him or her, has always been under threat from overzealous government regulation. Trump’s concern is that a government agency is the victim of private action.
There’s a strange sense of divorcement between some of the president’s statements and his position: it’s almost as if he doesn’t understand his own power. This is deeply concerning when it comes to respect for Constitutional restraint (and more on that in a moment), but also because it inoculates him from responsibility. Trump is the president and the Postal Service is part of the executive branch. Rather than throwing red meat to the base by raising the populist specter of apocalypse, he could do something about the injustice he perceives.
Now, the conception that the Postal Service is a victim is pure fantasy. In the first place, government has a monopoly on power; it cannot be the victim of private action, unless some actor does something illegal, in which case the court system exists to rectify those wrongs. But we’re not talking about any clearly delineated case of right and wrong here, but perception. And that’s why the president’s bizarre relationship with his own power is troubling. We’ve already seen that the president has no issue taking bold action when he feels the need, hence the Section 232 and Section 301 tariffs. Ostensibly, the president would like to do something similar in this situation, as the rhetoric is the same: the sense that an unfair trade advantage is profiting one actor (Amazon) at the expense of another (either the Post Office or small business).
Just as the “national security” rationale behind the Section 232 tariffs was based on an untrue narrative (while American steel is not produced at the levels of the past, the industry as a whole is nevertheless profitable) so is the claim that Amazon rips off the Post Office. The president has reportedly been told this many times, but nevertheless persists in his claims, again taking to his favorite social media platform to harangue his naysayers:
What’s alarming about this rhetoric is that the president used a false narrative to take unilateral action, against the counsel of all those save a few like-minded advisors, on tariffs, meaning he’s comfortable acting on his own discretion a la Obama’s famous “I’ve got a pen and a phone” quip. In this case, he seems equally unwilling to consider perspective beside his own, instead publicly lambasting any who contradict his assertions. Public officials should never attack private citizens, no matter how prominent a role they play in society, even if its ostensibly in defense of another sector of the citizenry. Representative government works on the principle that elected officials serve the people. The president is the only politician who truly represents all the people; he might disagree with certain ideas and behaviors, but short of out-and-out legality, he should never condemn his citizens. It sets a precedent that citizens are answerable to government beyond their responsibility to respect the rights of others and gives the impression that a certain standard of action is necessary to be in good public standing, that one must court the approval of elected officials to do so.
Also troubling is the return of the egalitarian vein of “fairness”: the emphasis on an even playing field. To begin with, this overextrapolates the role parity has in American society. It is rights that are equal and nothing more; the government’s concern with private affairs begins and ends with a concern for the parity of individual rights. So long as these exist, free enterprise is inherently fair. Yes, big businesses sometimes destroys small businesses, but this is often a reflection of consumer choice. The bigger business offers a better product at lower prices or offers a more convenient service. This is not the sneering scheming of money-grubbing elitists who have it out for the small, hard-working independent business owner, but the invisible hand of the market at work. (Let’s also remember that many small businesses now have a larger platform to hawk their products thanks to Amazon, meaning they can reach more customers more easily than through a brick and mortar store.) If we apply populism, in the sense that it is the will of the people, to modern trade, then free market creative destruction is the apex of populism; it embodies the choices of the masses in a way no other system has.
The president’s obsession with wins and losses blinds him to this, however. He upholds a morality that often accompanies democracy: that of numbers. Democratic victory, because it is predicated on the idea that the opinion of the greatest group ought to win out, often imputes morality to majorities. This, of course, is fallacious, as this says nothing of the merits of a losing argument, only that fewer people were convinced. It does not render obsolete the rationale of dissenters or strip them of their rights. However, it has been translated into a number of avenues: the majority by which elections are won, the number of bills a Congress is able to pass, and, in the president’s case, an emphasis on economic wins and losses. The president sees only dollar signs; this is obvious in his position on trade deficits and in his attacks on American business which he perceives as unfairly profiting. He does not consider the complex and pluralistic nature of market transactions that contribute to deficits and surpluses. And this inability to conceive of value as anything other than a numeral is detrimental to his ability to pursue public policy, for this morality is very cut and dry. It does not allow for consideration of alternative perspectives, of those whose small businesses have been bolstered through partnership with Amazon. And this brings us full circle to the president’s tenuous relationship with the power of his own branch of government. Unable to look beyond his own impressions, he acts in the interest of all, assuming their conception of good matches his own. This is dangerous not only because of his tendency to spurn dissenting opinions and take unilateral action, but because it robs the individual of the ability to be the agent of influence in their own affairs.