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How Citizens United paved the way for Donald Trump

On Life

Ruminations and provocations.

How Citizens United paved the way for Donald Trump

Stephen H. Provost

We went to sleep in Bedford Falls, and we’re waking up in Pottersville. A lot of us would rather go back to sleep.

For years, many of us have yearned for a leader who would “run the country like a business.” Well, we got what we wished for, but despite the shock of waking up more than a year ago with a six-times-bankrupt real estate mogul for a president, none of this happened overnight.

There are two kinds of businessmen. There are the old-school merchants who put the customer first, because the customer could always take his business elsewhere. Then there’s the new corporate model, which puts the shareholders first, because that’s where the real money is. Customers can’t nickel-and-dime you to death if you’ve got investors slipping millions into your back pocket at regular intervals.

There are, similarly, two approaches to government. The traditional approach — which made America great in the first place — puts the voter first. Officials are elected to represent their constituents, and if they don’t, those constituents can take their votes elsewhere. But under the new model, big-money donors come first, because they can control the conversation. Voters can’t elect you if they don't know who you are, and they can't kick you out of office if they don’t know you're robbing them blind.

Transformation

We’ve been morphing from the traditional form of government into a corporate model for some time: Ronald Reagan’s supply-side economics and the Ross Perot’s third-party candidacy were among the early signs of this progression. But the tipping point came in 2010, when the Citizens United decision opened the floodgates for corporate donors and blew the last vestiges of a fair playing field to smithereens.  

Once this model was firmly in place, its proponents thought they’d use it, along with the tool of Gerrymandering, to corner the market on public policy for the benefit of their corporate sponsors. One thing they hadn’t counted on, though, is an inconvenient aspect of corporate life: the hostile takeover.

That’s where Donald Trump came in. He knew the voters didn’t like the idea of corporate big wigs telling them what to do, so he tapped into that, presenting himself as an “outsider” who was ready to “drain the swamp” and take on the Washington elites: notably, the Clinton Democratic machine, but also Republican lawmakers like “Lyin’ Ted” Cruz and “Little” Marco Rubio.

George, I am an old man, and most people hate me. But I don’t like them either so that makes it all even.
— Lionel Barrymore as Mr. Potter in "It’s a Wonderful Life"

Whatever you think of Trump, his takeover of the Republican Party was a masterstroke worthy of “corporate raider” Carl Icahn (who later served briefly in Trump’s administration as a special economic adviser). The Republican establishment, which had banked on corporate support from the Koch Brothers, Sheldon Adelson and their ilk, was nonplussed at the idea that someone outside their ranks turning the tables on them.

Cruz called him a “pathological liar,” “utterly amoral” and “a narcissist at a level I don’t think this country’s ever seen.” Fellow candidate Lindsay Graham said Republicans should “tell Donald Trump to go to hell.” But that was during the primaries. Cruz eventually endorsed Trump (conveniently forgetting insults toward Cruz's wife and father), and Graham now plays golf with him on a fairly regular basis.

Why the change?

Two reasons: Trump runs the show, but it’s still their show.

Since assuming office, Trump has been anything but an outsider. In fact, he’s become the very thing he ran against in the primaries, morphing into the quintessential NeoCon Republican. During his first year in office, he has, almost without fail, championed the same causes establishment Republicans have supported for years: increased military spending, anti-gay policies, regulation rollbacks and overt “patriotism.” But he’s done so while playing to the crowd as though he were still an outsider.

This is likely one reason Trump has clung to his tweeting habit so tenaciously. His rash and often offensive outbursts, and the conspiracy theories that go along with them, are all that separate him from the people he ran against in the primaries. He’s basically keeping up appearances.

Whether he’s a maverick or a traditional Republican at heart doesn’t matter to Trump, just as ideology doesn’t matter to most CEOs. It’s the bottom line that counts, and for Trump, the bottom line is his own ego. The Republicans who railed against him in the primaries have figured this out, and they know he’ll execute their agenda as long as they play along with his little charade. So, that’s exactly what they’re doing.

Imperfect storm

No wonder people on the other side of the political fence are so enraged. To them, the current situation is the worst of both worlds: a Republican majority that’s still indebted to corporate interests, working hand in glove with a president who lacks a moral compass and who insults friend and foe alike.

Trump’s Mad Hatter act is, in part, a function of who he is — a self-serving narcissist who uses chaos to further his own ends. But it’s also a function of the new corporate government system we’ve created. Under the corporate model, a board of directors makes policy to benefit shareholders (not customers), and the CEO both executes and sells that policy as the face of the company. Think Bill Gates or Steve Jobs, Richard Branson or Carly Fiorina. Or, in Britain, the royal family.

Trump likes to think he's royalty, with Mar-a-Lago as his palace and a bunch of toadies groveling at his feet.

Whatever else he is, he's the face of our nation, and it’s an ugly one, rather like Mr. Potter from It’s a Wonderful Life. Maybe we’re not threatening to jump of a bridge, as George Bailey did in that iconic film, but some people are threatening to move overseas and a whole lot of others are distraught, disconsolate and downright embarrassed.

Trump didn’t create this mess on his own. He merely stepped into the role we created for him when, fed up with gridlock and do-nothing lawmakers, we clamored for a "businesslike" approach to government. We asked for it; now we’ve got it. But is this really what we had in mind?

The sad irony is that we hired a third-rate businessman with a first-rate ego to work for 1 percent of Americans.

Welcome to Pottersville, otherwise known as Trumpsylvania. But don’t make yourself at home. In this little slice of faux-Rockwell Americana, foreclosure’s always just around the corner.