Billionaires’ love for Trump could backfire

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A while ago, I gave a talk to investors in which I mentioned that Donald Trump was a threat to democracy. It seemed to me a banal statement of the obvious. Trump doesn’t believe in the rule of law, as witness his incessant attacks on “biased” courts; and he doesn’t believe in elections, as witness his baseless mantra that the one he lost was “rigged”. Well, rule of law and elections are the two main pillars of democracy.

The investors were unimpressed. Some literally rolled their eyes. Just another leftie with Trump Derangement Syndrome, they thought. Trump was a “business guy” who would unlock the economy.

Admiration for Trump is common among businesspeople. Take the billionaire investor Nelson Peltz, who, although troubled by the attack on the US Capitol on January 6 2021, supports Trump because Joe Biden’s “mental condition is really scary”. Many businesspeople see Trump as one of their own. They should be careful: he’s a threat to their self-interest.

The admiration for Trump is a complicated blend. Businesspeople often conflate what’s good for business owners with what’s good for business, for the economy and for citizens — all of which are very different things. For instance, tax loopholes benefit business owners, but probably not any other entity. Monopolies help incumbent businesses but hurt the economy and citizens. Binning environmental regulations benefits certain businesses and kills citizens.

Love of Trump intermingles with self-love. Many rich people feel that they deserve more recognition for — as they see it — winning the game. Trump embodies the cult of the businessman, even though he’s actually more like an entertainer with six bankruptcies who plays a businessman on TV.

Any understanding of his potential second presidency has to combine his anti-democratic instinct with his psychological need to be rich. Trump was always phoning Forbes magazine (sometimes posing as the fictional public-relations adviser “John Barron”) to boost his position on its billionaires’ ranking. Forbes’ editor said in 2015 that of the 1,538 Americans who had ever made the list, “not one has been more fixated with his or her net worth estimate … than Donald J Trump”.

A trend of our era is the merging of wealth and power. Rich people obtain power, and powerful people get rich. Trump and his family monetised his presidency: foreigners and Americans ingratiated themselves with government by patronising the Trump International Hotel in Washington; China granted 41 quick trademarks to companies linked to Trump’s daughter Ivanka, and Saudi Arabia’s sovereign wealth fund put $2bn into his son-in-law Jared Kushner’s real-estate business. Now the Trump Media & Technology Group is monetising his political supporters. Despite revenues of $3.4mn in the first nine months of 2023, Trump’s stake is currently worth billions.

In a second presidency, he’d be more efficient at turning wealth into power. He couldn’t, in the most “lawyered-up” of countries, grab private wealth with the ease of strongmen in established autocracies. He can’t transfer businesses from oligarchs to his own coterie like Vladimir Putin. Trump can’t lock up billionaires in a Ritz-Carlton for a “sheikhdown”, as Mohammed bin Salman did in Saudi Arabia. He lacks China’s power to make disobedient business leaders “disappear”.

But there’s a lot he could do. The plan is for him to take direct control of the Department of Justice and government agencies.

Theoretically, he could set federal cops or tax inspectors on uncooperative businesspeople — exactly as he alleges that Biden is now doing to him. He’s threatening to investigate the “Biden crime family”, but in fact would probably forget about them after becoming president, just as he lost interest in locking up Hillary Clinton after winning in 2016. He’d have richer fish to pursue. You won’t donate to the Trump-controlled Republican National Committee, or give the Trump Organization a sweetheart deal? Well, he could have your tax affairs investigated, or get Congress to make a law against you, or set Maga militias on your family.

Even the most selfish businesspeople might reflect that the two best wealth-preservation devices are a predictable rule of law and domestic peace. Then reflect that Democrats don’t exactly have a track record of eating the rich. Under Democratic presidents for 20 of the past 32 years, the stock of American billionaires has skyrocketed. As one Democratic aide joked when Barack Obama left office, his plot to destroy the stock market failed. Average economic growth has been much higher under Democratic than Republican presidents since the 1930s. Billionaires for Trump are being politically naive.

Follow Simon @KuperSimon and email him at simon.kuper@ft.com

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