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The CEOs Won’t Save Us

Why do we keep falling for the myth that business leaders are the moral pillars of America?

Jeff J Mitchell/Getty

Our everyday lives have become so consumed by partisan politics that fabulously wealthy and powerful CEOs can become folk heroes for defying a president. Since Donald Trump preempted mass resignations from his business executive panels last week by disbanding two of them (on manufacturing and economic policy) and canceling a third (on infrastructure), pundits have fallen over themselves to praise CEOs as the moral conscience of the nation.

The same corporate celebrity culture that elevated Trump from the boardroom to the White House is now building monuments to the bold CEOs who criticize him. But like the sets of The Apprentice, the backdrop is fake. Public relations spin aside, major corporations remain committed to the Trump agenda, and they have practically been the sole beneficiaries of the administration’s actions thus far. The only difference after Charlottesville is that all their lobbying and favor-trading has gone underground.

Let’s first stipulate that these corporate advisory panels, a staple of presidencies in the modern age, shouldn’t exist. They merely allow CEOs to influence the president directly, rather than through registered lobbyists. If you’re not remembering any made-for-TV White House meetings in which Medicaid or food stamps beneficiaries detailed their plight to President Trump and made the case for increased benefits, that’s because such open groveling only happens with business titans.

But CEOs didn’t really need to nudge this administration toward their preferred goals. Don’t believe the nonsense that the Trump-business alliance has somehow been “uneasy.” Since the inauguration, Trump’s executive branch has sought to strip as many regulations out of the federal register as possible, employing teams of subordinates with industry ties to do the job. The Environmental Protection Agency under Trump is on track to become the most responsive federal agency to corporate entreaties in history. And the Trump administration legislative agenda reads like a corporate wish list as well: huge corporate tax cuts, privatizing the nation’s infrastructure, and so on.

The advisory panels were always an appendage. When they began to anger the growing majority of consumers who don’t like the president, they became utterly superfluous. The neo-Nazi rally in Charlottesville, and Trump’s abhorrent comments afterward, became a convenient trigger for CEOs to hit the eject button on public ties to the president. But the private ties persist.

As Politico reported, CEOs will continue to lobby the White House aggressively to shape tax and regulatory policy. They won’t show up in a room with Trump when cameras are rolling, but otherwise it’s business as usual, with private outreach calls and routine staff-level communications. And because the Trump administration has eliminated the public release of White House visitor logs, we won’t know which CEOs are meeting with the president or his top associates.

CEOs who gave Trump advice before Charlottesville will surely continue now, if only because of the massive benefits. Stephen Schwarzman of private equity firm Blackstone has been a vocal ally of Trump, speaking to him often. This relationship netted Schwarzman’s company a $20 billion investment from the government of Saudi Arabia for a private infrastructure fund, which the kingdom announced while Trump was in the country. Schwarzman may no longer be the chair of the now-defunct Strategic and Policy Forum, but the idea that he’ll drop off the White House radar is absurd.

CEOs may snub a president who apologizes for white supremacy, but they’ll continue to ring up Vice President Mike Pence, the repository of millions of dollars in corporate lobbying. Pence’s own former congressional chief of staff has lobbied him on behalf of insurance company Aflac, tech giant Microsoft, biofuels trade group Fuels America, and telecom firms Verizon and AT&T.

The AT&T lobbying may have already paid off. Though candidate Trump threatened to nix the company’s $85 billion merger with Time Warner, reports indicate that the Justice Department will wave through the deal. AT&T’s CEO Randall Stephenson recently intoned how much black lives matter, but judging from his actions, the lives that matter most to him are shareholders’.

All you really have to do to see where corporations stand on Trump is watch some television. The Business Roundtable, a collection of leading corporations, has scheduled millions of dollars in television ads supporting corporate tax cuts, Trump’s biggest agenda item for the fall. “It is a priority of Business Roundtable to get tax reform done this year, and we remain committed,” the group’s vice president confirmed to Politico.

The chair of the Business Roundtable is JPMorgan Chase CEO Jamie Dimon, last seen leaking that he totally wanted to leave the president’s business forum after the fact, and thundering that “the evil on display by these perpetrators of hate . . . has no place in a country that draws its strength from our diversity and humanity.” If Dimon was so opposed to the president’s hatemongering, he wouldn’t be ponying up the advertising support for his legislative agenda.

This is what makes the deification of the CEO class so revolting. A few executives may have turned down some glorified photo-ops, but that was just an exercise in brand management. Business support for Trumponomics remains strong. Mere words of opposition do not amount to a profile in courage. Nor does the dissolution of a public lobbying campaign in favor of a private one. Anti-racist groups like Color of Change, which pressured corporations to back away from Trump, shouldn’t be fooled.

It’s amazing how many have embraced this fake revolt as a signal that American capitalism is about to turn a corner. “It took Donald Trump to convince corporate leaders that maximizing profits for shareholders is not all that matters,” gushed Steven Pearlstein in the Washington Post. But no corporate leader actually believes that. There is no moral authority in the executive suites. Instead, there is an enduring partnership between CEOs and the White House on policy.

Perhaps the clearest example of how these resignations represent self-interest rather than public interest comes from corporate raider Carl Icahn. He quit his unofficial post as White House regulatory czar, not because of moral compulsion, but because he knew that The New Yorker was about to drop an article revealing the extent of his self-dealing on behalf of his refinery company. Hilariously, Icahn’s bid for personal enrichment failed only because more powerful oil company CEOs lobbied against it.

Far from selfless arbiters of right and wrong, CEOs are as responsible as anyone in America for skyrocketing inequality, climate crisis, waves of consumer fraud, and the biggest financial meltdown since the Depression. Condemning the unpopular views of an unpopular president whom they see as an inferior businessman is no sacrifice, especially when they are simultaneously plotting with administration officials to win as many perks as possible. CEOs aren’t “finding their voice”; they’re finding a way to control government like a marionette, while hiding the strings.