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Thursday, October 19, 2017

Anytime a reporter interviews Donald Trump voters about their reasons for supporting him, you can count on one of them to cite his capitalist credentials. The president has “a businessman’s approach to running the country,” a Chicago business owner told a Chicago Tribune reporter in a story this week.

If only.

Trump is completely lacking in government experience, unlike almost every one of his predecessors. But during the campaign, he touted business background as evidence of his ability to handle the presidency. Never mind that his fortune was built on a large inheritance from his wealthy father, that he went through six bankruptcies, and that many of his ventures (Trump Steaks, Trump Airlines, among others) vanished without a trace. He and his supporters preferred to focus on his successes, which he promised he could duplicate in the White House.

But no competent business executive would operate a company the way Trump has operated his administration. Protecting the brand is a key mission of every company. As plenty of defunct corporations can attest, it takes years to establish a reputation and secure the trust of customers — and that reputation can be destroyed overnight.

Ask Volkswagen, whose managers rigged cars to defeat emissions tests; or Samsung, which sold phones that were prone to catching fire; or Chipotle, which had repeated outbreaks of food poisoning. Through ethical lapses or performance failures, these firms drove away the consumers who made them successful. And the damage may never be undone. Those companies are now striving to prove that they have learned from their mistakes and will do better in the future.

Trump, by contrast, goes out of his way to raise doubts about his honesty, competence and willingness to correct mistakes. His tweets accusing President Barack Obama of wiretapping created a fantastic lie that was promptly debunked by everyone with knowledge of the facts. This embarrassed many of his Republican allies in Congress and drove his approval ratings down to historic lows. Had he done anything so self-destructive as the CEO of a publicly traded company, he would have been fired.

A key to success in business is filling jobs with good people. But Trump has failed to fill thousands of jobs with anyone at all. He complains that Democrats have slowed confirmation of his Cabinet appointees, but Democrats don’t have enough votes in the Senate to block these nominations. Part of the problem is that he was slow to make some of his choices because he saw no need to devote any attention to such matters until after the election. Another is that some of his nominees, being exceptionally wealthy, require more extensive vetting to head off conflicts of interest.

The problem is even worse that it appears. CNN reported that there are some 1,900 job vacancies in the executive branch, most of which don’t have to go through the Senate. Even conservatives have chafed at the delays. There is “a personnel crisis in the Trump White House,” wrote John Fund in National Review. “Trump has named only 20 sub-Cabinet-level positions, including two who withdrew — a list that includes nominees for ambassadorships, counsel positions, and commissioners, according to a tracker from the Washington Post and Partnership for Public Service.”

Sean Hannity claimed Trump is being sabotaged by “deep-state Obama holdovers” in the government. But if the president wants loyalists who will carry out his policies, he has to actually appoint them. A corporate executive who encountered persistent obstruction from top or middle managers would waste no time replacing them. Trump, by contrast, has wasted two months and will undoubtedly waste more.

Most businesses do business with other companies that are crucial for their success — suppliers, distributors, lenders, advertising agencies and the like. Able executives understand the value of proven partners and treat them with respect. Trump, by contrast, has undermined our chief military alliance, NATO; heaped contempt on the leader of a vital ally, Germany; and done everything possible to antagonize a previously friendly neighbor, Mexico. Business leaders sometimes have to fight, but the smart ones avoid unnecessary quarrels with those whose cooperation they may someday need.

If Trump brings any business executives to mind, it’s those who ran Enron, a high-flying energy company that was ultimately destroyed by its own fraud. What one documentary said about the people who ran Enron may someday be said about Trump and his accomplices: “It’s astounding that they got away with it for so long.”

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