It’s not easy to compare Donald Trump to previous U.S. presidents.
The only other millionaire businessman elected president without holding prior elected office — Herbert Hoover — saw prior public service as head of the U.S. Food Administration during World War I, then as secretary of commerce under Harding and Coolidge. Americans admired Hoovers’ administrative skills, though soon discovered that his political inexperience and deep-seated distrust of government regulation made him unequal to the task of mounting a large-scale federal response to the Great Depression.
Like Hoover, Donald Trump disdains government regulation of business, though unlike Hoover and some Republicans in Congress, it’s more opportunistic and personal than deep-seated and ideological. His executive orders restricting immigration from predominately Muslim countries, his proposed cuts to social programs, including Medicaid, and his proposed military buildup have real consequences for people. But nothing in Trump’s background indicates that he cares much about issues such as immigration, health care, abortion or national defense.
There is, however, plenty in his background to indicate that he cares a lot about making money — piles of it – as fast as he can. We still do not know the relationship of the Trump organization to Russian financiers, or the extent of its money-laundering deal in Azerbaijan.
This month, as we prepare our income tax returns, we don’t have a clue what the president has paid; we only know his boast during the campaign that he is “smart” because he pays as little as he can get away with.
Trump’s track record in business indicates that he has no fear whatsoever of plunging into enormous debt, then sticking others with it, whether through legal bankruptcies or simply stiffing creditors. When it comes to the federal treasury, he seems untroubled if tax cuts and spending increases bring the national debt to the brink of default. Last May, he told CNBC that “I would borrow, knowing that if the economy crashed, you could make a deal.”
In other words, Trump was sure that if worse came to worse, he could compel U.S. creditors to accept less than 100 percent of what they are owed, in the same way that the Trump Corp. compelled its creditors to accept pennies on the dollar by declaring bankruptcy. Wall Street recoiled in horror at his remark, but a year later, former Goldman Sachs executive Steve Mnuchin, who profited from the federal bailout of the Southern California bank he purchased during the economic crisis of 2008, sits in Trump’s cabinet as secretary of treasury. For many years, getting others to pick up the tab when his risky financial maneuvers have tanked has been Trumps’ “m.o.” (as they say on police shows), and there’s no reason to think he has changed.
While one cannot judge a book by its cover, the difference in the titles of Herbert Hoover’s best-known book, “American Individualism” (1922), and Donald Trump’s “The Art of the Deal” (1987) speaks volumes.
All of Trump’s executive orders, especially in relation to climate change, sacrifice long-term economic growth in pursuit of short-term profits. Everyone will pay the cost of increasing global temperatures, rising sea levels, and more violent storms, but only a handful will profit from the nation’s continued dependence on fossil fuels.
A recent proposal to sell off federal lands to reduce the deficit recalls a similar attempt in the early 1980s by Reagan’s Secretary of Interior James Watt, or the era in Washington 100 years earlier that historian Vernon Parrington called “the Great Barbeque,” when the public domain was carved up for private profit, and mining and timber companies helped themselves to heaping portions of federal assets.
Less than 100 days into the Trump presidency, it looks like we are in for another “Great Barbecue.” The man in charge is cooking up a smoke screen of social outrages to distract Americans from his personal economic agenda, which is no more dignified than a “smash and grab” heist where Trump and his friends take as much of the nation’s natural and financial resources as they can as fast as they can before they get caught, or the White House changes hands in 2021.
At this barbecue, we must keep a sharp eye on the table where the decisions are being made so we don’t wind up on the menu.
David Glassberg, of Amherst, is a professor of history at the University of Massachusetts, where he teaches courses in modern U.S. and environmental history.