Management in an Age of Crisis: Trump, Brexit and Those Incompetent and Co-opted Experts

Donald Trump was never going to win the 2016 American Presidential election. He was not even going to throw his hat in the ring. Prior to his official announcement made in Trump Tower on 16 June 2015, he certainly gave indications that he would run. However, he was really just an overly indulged carnival-barker with a twitter account. His US-Mexico wall idea was comparable to mid-twentieth-century eccentric millionaire Howard Hughes’s H-4 Hercules concept. The showy Spruce Goose, as it was better known, was an enormous but useless seaplane that was originally trumpeted as the ultimate solution for Axis-power submarines sinking US supply ships in the Atlantic after the country entered the Second World War. Members of Roosevelt’s War Cabinet were unimpressed with the idea, but ultimately Hughes Aircraft Corporation secured a development contract with the Department of the Navy to build three prototypes (McDonald 1981). The Wall was to be Trump’s Spruce Goose, expensive and inefficient, flamboyant and headline grabbing, but in the end, more about style than substance.

Trump supporters break down a door at the U.S. Capitol Building, Washington 6 January 2021.
Photo Credit: Reuters

It was not that Trump did not have marketing skill and the sectional appeal that inevitably comes from hard-hitting rhetoric, an ostensible real-estate empire and a list of authored books with menacing titles like Think Like a Champion (2009), Time to get Tough (2011), Think Big and Kick Ass (2007), and The Art of the Deal (1987). Undeniably, his capacity to manipulate the media was impressive. It was reminiscent of actor Orson Wells who, in 1938, created mass panic in the tristate area when he read aloud on a wireless broadcast H.G. Well’s War of the Worlds; announcing that Martians had landed in a carpark at Grover’s Mill New Jersey and 7000 US servicemen had been deployed to face them down. Orson Well’s career took off following this incident. Similarly, Trump’s posturing about being President aimed merely to secure a fifteenth series of the Apprentice with NBC, to promote brand Trump, and to fire a warning shot across the bow of the real contenders who, according to him, were losers and needed to lift their game. At 68, Trump was too old, lacked discipline, knew nothing about bureaucracy, championed ridiculous and impractical ideas, and had no experience with elected office. Besides, Trump could not run because he could not allow his tax returns to be released or certain of his disreputable business dealings to be scrutinized. In declaring Chap. 5 bankruptcy, he had walked away from the Taj-Mahal Casino in Atlantic City with debt owing to ordinary people; dishwashers, painters, carpenters, plumbers, glaziers, and drapery installers (and this was not the first time). He had a class action against him by former Trump University students. Depending on one’s political sympathies, he was either a branding genius or a shameless narcissistic self-promoter. Either way, the idea of him being a candidate was Barnumesque, an off-the-wall publicity stunt but nonetheless patently absurd as a matter of practice. This was what the experts said. They were wrong.

The story of the 45th US President’s political ascendancy embodies the paradox of the last 50 years.

When Trump did announce his candidacy, it was clear he could not win the primaries. He was competing in a field of 17, which included experienced State governors, Senators, and credible business people. There had not been such a large showing on the Republican side since the Lincoln-Douglas election of 1860. Moreover, Trump had no background in the GOP, no debate experience, no SuperPac, and continued to say things that embodied simultaneously incoherence and viciousness. He made crude and offensive remarks about women and seemed to have an adolescent’s preoccupation with their weight and appearance. He ridiculed and insulted people who were unable to respond. He showed limited engagement with complex issues and an unyielding preference for the glib and superficial over the scholarly and analytic. Perhaps most offputtingly, he crossed a sacred line by casting aspersions on the bravery and patriotism of Senator John McCain. During the Vietnam War, McCain, then a Navy pilot serving on the U.S.S. Forestall was captured and horrendously tortured for 6 years by the Vietcong in circumstances where he ultimately could have secured his freedom but refused to do so unless every prisoner being held alongside him was also released. Trump said about the Senator on 18 July 2015 at a campaign event at the Family Leadership Summit in Ames, Iowa…

He’s not a hero. He’s a hero because he was captured. I like people who weren’t captured.

Once again, the experts said Trump would not – could not – become the Republican standard-bearer. They were wrong – for the second time.

Following Trump’s nomination on May 3, 2016, he was not going to beat Hilary Clinton in the general election. This could not happen because the whole of America participates, or at least has the right to participate, in deciding who will be their nation’s President. The influence of the lunatic fringe was now diluted. The polls were showing that there would be regression towards the mean, attenuation. The Electoral College system, while not perfect, had been conceived by the wise founding fathers and thoughtfully refined after the Civil War. It invariably produces an optimal solution. Although the Democratic nominee was not especially inspiring and came with baggage, survey data indicated that she would naturally fall into the role. It was not even necessary for her to campaign much, hold press conferences, or go to red states. All she needed to do was what she was already doing and was comfortable with; stay mostly in New York and California and appear on shows that appealed mainly to liberal-minded women such as The View and Ellen. In the second Presidential debate held on the 16 of September, during a clash about the causes of poor quality public schools and ageing infrastructure, Trump seemed to wear it as a badge of honor that he does not pay his share of tax. “That makes me smart,” he said. Expert commentators on CNN denounced this utterance as unprecedentedly injudicious (e.g., Diaz 2016 27 September). It defied logic and reason. Trump had forgotten that the bulk of people who would soon vote were taxpayers. In asking why they – the battlers – should be subsidizing a millionaire at tax time, they would join the dots about what sort of man Trump was. However, this was all prologue. Later his candidacy would fall off a cliff. On October 7, when the tawdry Access-Hollywood tape came out which revealed an exchange in which Trump shamelessly boasted that his fame gave him the green light to sexually assault women as and when he felt like it, he was undoubtedly finished. Now it was a matter of the iron-law of arithmetic. His base of voters was, from that moment forward, to be only some percentage of males, 50% of those who would be casting a ballot. Boolean logic predicted he would soon be rendered a historical footnote. He was about to become the twenty-first-century’s Gary Hart, the 1988 Democratic party frontrunner who was forced to drop out in favor of Michael Dukakis when it was revealed that he had a girlfriend, Donna Rice, while he was married. Inductive reasoning was relevant here. Hart was a former diplomat. He was an intelligent and attractive man. However, what he did or was alleged to have done, despite being comparatively trifling, finished him. Ipso facto, 28 years later the star of The Apprentice was soon to get an ignominious dose of his own medicine; he would be fired. This was, once again, the consensus of experts offering narrowly focused analyses. They were wrong – for a third time. Zero out of three for the intelligencia concerning their analysis of the rise of Trump.

The story of the 45th US President’s political ascendancy embodies the paradox of the last 50 years. Experts have let down the public – at least most of them – with their prescriptions for societal betterment. Whether well intentioned or disingenuously attempting to create a pretext which allows the wealthy to further enrich themselves at the expense of everyone else, they have often been wrong. Their remedies and proselytizing have seemingly arisen from disciplined analysis. Wallowing in the intellectual debris of post-industrialism, more experts used more theory and logic to misread who was to be the President of the United States in 2016. Despite the risk of throwing the baby out with the bathwater, the decimated middle-class and those worse-off who would never likely get to be part of it were fed-up with the experts, and not without justification. A new and dystopic era had emerged. It was post-neoliberalism – post-industrialism. For the first time since Henry Ford worked out how to combine capital with labor and the state thoughtfully responded to make sure that no one was left behind, the world was a-theoretical. Philosophy was no longer to undergird public policy. The airplane was being built as it was being flown and the way people felt was more important than ideas defended using evidence-informed application of reasoning. Action without theory may have haltingly started with the emergence of Sarah Palin but had now reached its crescendo with the election of Trump. The rise of the brazenly brash and overtly anti-intellectual American politician was a manifestation of a larger phenomenon. Theory and ideological commitment was being cast asunder everywhere. Consider the UK’s Justice Secretary, Michael Gove’s comment about Brexit, made on June 6, 2016, before the Presidential election. In refusing to name any European economist who thought Britain’s exit from the Union was a good idea, Gove said in an interview with Faisal-Islam

I think that the people of this country have had enough of experts with organizations with acronyms – saying that they know what is best and getting it consistently wrong, because these people – these people – are the same ones who got consistently wrong.

quote reproduced verbatim

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Trump and the Failure of Academic Analysis

In his introduction to the Section, Management in an Age of Crisis in the just-released Palgrave Handbook of Management History, the Tacitus Forum’s Anthony Gould observes how,

The story of the 45th U.S President’s political ascendancy embodies the paradox of the last 50 years. Experts have let down the public… they have often been wrong … Wallowing in the intellectual debris of post-industrialism, more experts used more theory and logic to misread who was to be the President of the United States in 2016 … the decimated middle-class and those worse-off … were fed-up with the experts, and not without justification. A new and dystopic era had emerged. It was post-neoliberalism – post-industrialism

Anthony M. Gould

            Once more – as with the 2016 US election – the failure of polls and mainstream analysis has been laid bare. Despite predictions of a Democratic landslide, Biden’s margin in the key battleground states – Pennsylvania, Michigan, Wisconsin, Nevada – is less than the vote won by the conservative Libertarian candidate. In other words, more people voted for Trump or the Libertarian Party than voted for Biden and the Democrats. In the House of Representatives the Democrats lost seats. Pending the outcome of run-off elections in Georgia the Democrats remain several seats short of a Senate majority. More broadly, Trump and the Republican Party have begun to prise the all-important Hispanic vote away from its long-term allegiance to the Democrats. Overall, a third of Hispanics voted for Trump in 2020, a far higher percentage than was obtained by the Republicans in 2008 and 2012. In the Hispanic-dominated Rio Grande Valley the Hispanic support for Trump was in the 41% to 52% range. In Florida, 45% of Hispanics voted for Trump. Even among African-Americans support for Trump doubled between 2016 and 2020, albeit to a still low 12%.

            Why is it that Western pollsters and academics continue to be blind-sided by political and social trends: be it Brexit, the support for the Conservative Party in northern England, or the continuing mass appeal of Trumpism?

            In large part this failure is attributable to the tendency to prioritize political and social activism over reason and the cold-eyed scrutiny of evidence. As the Tacitus Forum’s Bradley Bowden noted in his recent article, The Historic (Wrong) Turn in Management and Organizational Studies, among critical theorists we also witness a belief that a postmodernist / anti-realist perspective is a precondition for the enactment of “a leftist ideology”. Attractive as this is for many, this approach to scholarship constantly causes one to confuse what one wishes to occur with what is actually transpiring. From this Manichean perspective there is also a tendency to divide the world into two categories, those who fall into the progressive camp and those whom Hillary Clinton described as the “deplorables”.

            What does a cold-eyed use of reason – the guiding principle for the Tacitus Forum – allow us to conclude from an analysis of Trumpism and US politics? First and foremost we can detect a fundamental realignment of politics in ways akin to the transformation that occurred in the mid-to-late 1960s. Whereas prior to the 1960s the Democratic Party represented an uneasy coalition to Southern segregationists and Northern Catholics and organized labor, after the 1960s it was the Democratic Party that proved most attractive to both racial minorities and the growing number of university-educated professionals. Achieving an historic high-point under the Obama presidency, this coalition emphasized matters relating to racial and gender diversity and climate change over more prosaic issues relating to jobs, economic growth and private-sector viability.

            Even the most cursory scrutiny of the US election results indicate a profoundly different alignment of forces to that which underpinned the Obama victories of 2008 and 2012. In the large metropolitan centers oriented towards finance, education, IT and the public-sector (New York, Philadelphia, San Francisco) and / or those with large African / American populations (Detroit, Atlanta) the Republican voter is an endangered species. Also firmly in the Democratic Party camp are the university-educated and broad swathes of big business, most notably Big Tech. The enthusiasm of big business for the Democratic Party is indicated by the scale of business donations during the election campaign, an outcome that allowed the Democrats to far outspend their Republican rivals. Behind the Republican Party, however, we can in addition to the remnants of its historic constituency – church-goers, farmers, small businesspeople – the enthusiastic mass support of the old regional working class that had voted Democratic for generations: the steelworkers of Gary, Indiana, the coal mines of West Virginia and the chemical workers of Ohio. Also rallying behind the Republican Party are large swatches of the Hispanic population for whom work, family and faith are the decisive touchstones. We can thus conclude that Trumpism is not a passing phenomenon. Indeed, it is a much a symbol of a new pattern of social and political alignment as a cause.

            At the Tacitus Forum we are intent on applying reason – rather than wish and ideology – to the problems of our time. Accordingly, in addition to providing a forum for transformative academic research, we will also continue to provide reasoned analysis on the key issues of our time.