Covert Capitalism


A former Miami University colleague and lifelong mentor would always advise his students,  “If, at the end of a day, you cannot say, ‘I had fun or learned something today,’ it’s time to do something else.”  Five years and 580 posts later, I still have not hit that wall.  That said, there are still challenges which make some mornings at the keyboard more difficult than others.  This morning was one of those occasions.

The dilemma was what many might call a good problem to have.  Which of the topics deserving attention should I tackle first?  Having just watched the most recent video from The Lincoln Project, I wanted to address the conspiracy theories life-long Republican operatives like Rick Wilson and Steve Schmidt have an ulterior motive behind their efforts to help Joe Biden evict Donald Trump from the White House. Meanwhile, Trump continued his months long crusade to offend one demographic after another within the coalition on which his 2016 victory depended.

As the old adage promises, “Good things come to those who wait.”  Sure enough, there was a solution.  The key being, instead of too many competing topics, there were too few.  The missing piece of the puzzle turned out to be activist James Lawson’s remarks at John Lewis’ funeral during which he referred to the wealth gap in America as “plantation capitalism.”  Thus, this post became a juggling act, keeping all three balls in the air.

BALL #1: The Lincoln Project.  I am under no delusion Rick Wilson and Steve Schmidt have become flaming liberals or will be supportive of much of Joe Biden’s policy agenda.  They have staked their flag on the Democratic front line of the 2020 electoral battlefield because they share a concern Donald Trump is an existential threat to what American should stand for.  I have no doubt, if successful, their next project will be to try and re-establish a saner version of a political party grounded in conservative principles.  I can live with that.

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Democrats, questioning their motive does not bode well for post-election governance if you cannot see this arrangement is no different than Senator Majority Leader Bob Dole and President Bill Clinton coming together, in the midst of the 1996 election, to address the  ballooning federal deficit.  Or House Speaker Tip O’Neill and President Ronald Reagan joining forces to save social security.  Democrats and Republicans used to be able to put aside differences on those rare occasions when the consequences of not doing so were unacceptable to either side or more importantly the public interest.  There will always be time later for a return to partisan and ideological wrangling, something the founding fathers acknowledged was inevitable in any representative democracy.

BALL #2:  James Lawson.  I cringed when Lawson, who otherwise made a strong case for active engagement in the affairs of state, uttered the phrase “plantation capitalism.”  Was this the 2020 equivalent of Reverend Jeremiah Wright’s “God Damn America” rant in 2008?  How can Democrats, so often, be on the right side of an issue and fail to find a way to express their opinion without offending those they hope to convert?

I know what Lawson meant.  Those who own the major corporations (i.e. stockholders) and those who run them reap the benefits of the harvest while the laborers are left with the chaff.  One need only look at the major stock indexes at the same time GDP declines at an annual rate of 32.9 percent and 30 million Americans are out of work.  Or the fact that CEO income has risen 1008 percent over the last four decades while worker pay has increased by only 12 percent over the same period.  It is unconscionable, but you make no friends calling it “plantation capitalism.”  Who came up with that?  The same people who tagged law enforcement reform as “defund the police”?

Which is why Democrats and liberals, in this time of desperation, need allies like the Lincoln Project and Republican Voters Against Trump.  These are the same people who came up with a campaign theme in 2000 to gut the social safety net under George W. Bush called “compassionate conservatism”.  And turned a underqualified small town mayor from Alaska into the darling of the Republican right.  Theoretically, I might consider a defense lawyer who successfully represents the most disgusting clients the scum of the earth.  But if I am  the one facing ten years in the slammer, hand me his business card.

BALL #3: Donald Trump’s 2020 Election Strategy.  If Trump’s base of support was an onion, every action he has taken this year has been the equivalent of discarding one layer after another.  Criminal negligence handling the pandemic response has alienated the elderly.  Racial dog-whistling has offended suburban women.  Intervening in the prosecutions of his partners in crime has exposed the hypocrisy of his tacit support for justice reform.  His infomercials for Trump properties and promoting products like Goya foods and My Pillow reek of self-dealing and corruption.  And of course, his gaslighting the legitimacy of an election he is trying his damnedest to lose has generated a backlash among conservative voices from Rupert Murdoch’s  Wall Street Journal to William F. Buckley’s National Review to Steven Calabresi’s Federalist Society, the folks who brought you Brett Kavanaugh.  Trump has transformed his 2016 inside straight into a royal flush of remorse.

Too bad for Trump the masters of Republican advertising are on our side.  Otherwise, the campaign’s response to under the table dealings and abuse of power would be sold as “covert capitalism”.  Trump would be touted not as someone who RAN government like a business, but the person who MADE government a business.  The administration would be a pantheon to American capitalism in an arena where the fight was never intended to take place.

How did this happen?  Because Plan A, “overt capitalism,” was sidetracked when 77,000 voters, Russia and James Comey contributed to Trump’s victory in 2016.  Pre-2015, the Trump brand was associated with wealth and luxury. His target market was the rich and famous.  But as Mary Trump states in the title of her tell-all book, it was “never enough.”   Enter Trump University, a vehicle to fleece the poor and forgotten.  How better to reach that new market than free airtime and a campaign financed by the Republican Party?  Plan A was to lose the election but gain 40-50 million potential customers.

Plan B, “covert capitalism,” looked good on paper.  But the return on investment has been disappointing.  The brand has taken a hit with its original market as evidenced by the declining revenues at Trump resorts and hotels, even prior to the coronavirus.  Hosting certain public events at Trump properties is viewed as a conflict of interest and off-limits (e.g. the G-7 meeting and the WGC Golf Tournament at Doral National).  And government watchdogs are building a mountain of receipts that document the family’s self-dealing and potential misappropriation of campaign funds.

The only logical explanation for the Trump 2020 campaign is customer retention.  One has to wonder if Ivanka, Junior and Eric haven’t held an intervention in which they convinced daddy it is time to go back to Plan A.  Exhibit #1.  Last week the Trump Organization applied for a trademark for the term “telerally.”  The application stated “telerally” would be used in “organizing events in the fields of politics and political campaigning.”  And who do you think will be the audience for these events?  I won’t insult your intelligence by answering that.

Welcome to Trump Overt Capitalism 2.0.  The same voters who believed their lives would be enriched by a real estate shyster and reality television host will pay for the opportunity to listen to him whine about his victimhood, don Chinese-manufactured t-shirts and ball caps proclaiming “We Was Robbed,” and stay at Econo-Trump motels.  They will long for the “good old days” as they watch telerallies on the One America News Network, likely to be renamed the Trump Resistance Channel.  Yet, each and every one of them will still benefit from the health care and government transfer payments of which Trump did his best to deprive them.  And complain about it all the way to the bank.

For what it’s worth.