Tillerson and Trump: Are they pragmatists?

The headline in yesterday's print edition of The Washington Post read "Tillerson built a career on ties with autocrats: Dealmaker is thrust into policy divide between pragmatism, principles." And, at Politico, the headline read "Tillerson's record at Exxon shows a tough pragmatist." Is this a correct formulation for understanding who Rex Tillerson, the nominee for secretary of state, is?  And, by extension, is Trump properly understood as a pragmatist?

During the campaign, Trump certainly behaved like a pragmatist, except that his pragmatism often lapsed into opportunism. His ability to speak in a fact-free way about any subject, contradicting himself as often as he contradicted basic facts, evidenced a canny if frightening disregard for anything except winning the moment. Pragmatism, a philosophy no Catholic can share, should be made of sterner stuff. But, given what we know of Trump's limited attention span, and his evident lack of knowledge about so many things, trying to posit a particular philosophy that suits him strikes one as a fool's errand. He is more child than sage, a child who may be very good at getting what he wants by manipulating the circumstances to meet his immediate need for gratification, but a child nonetheless. 

Mr. Tillerson has a long career working for, and eventually leading, a large multinational corporation. Such leadership undoubtedly involves making many pragmatic choices. In the world of modern corporate leadership, aided by far too many economists, morality has been written out of the equations they confront. Efficiency and the bottom line are the gods they worship, and they have created a closed system of analysis to insulate themselves from all but the narrowest moral concerns. Theologian David Cloutier's wonderful book The Vice of Luxury, which I reviewed recently (here and here), makes the case explicitly. He cites economist Charles Clark's summation of the ruling ethic governing market economics: "Individuals maximize utility by choosing goods, and the proof that the goods maximize utility is that individuals choose them." A first-year philosophy student can recognize that as a tautology, which proves nothing.

I fear that many Americans will see Trump's Cabinet of billionaire titans of finance as a modern day version of the Eisenhower years. "What's good for GM is good for America," famously claimed Charles Erwin Wilson, Ike's secretary of defense. But, let us remember that in the 1950s, when that claim was made, corporate America and its leaders still understood themselves as responsible to stakeholders, not merely to shareholders. Appeals to patriotism did not fall on deaf ears as they do with so many leaders of large multinational corporations. The titans of industry felt some measure of responsibility to their workers, while the titans of finance know they can find cheaper workers half a world away. Even in Eisenhower's time, progressives needed to articulate important social goods that were unacknowledged or unmet by the moneyed interest, but the task was made easier by the presumption of a moral conscience on the part of those people who represented the moneyed interest. That presumption seems antique and quaint today.

When questions are raised about the behavior of corporate leaders, we are told that they have no choice: They have a fiduciary responsibility to their shareholders. But, shareholders are people, are they not? Is the only thing that matters to a shareholder the size of their dividend? Do they not also have concerns about environmental degradation? Do they not worry about selling arms to potential enemies? Do they not recognize that giving their workers a living wage advances the long-stability of their communities? Alas, in an earlier day, we could confidently say that, yes, corporate leaders and shareholders did entertain such questions. Today?

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James Hohmann, writing the other day in The Washington Post, posited the thesis that Trump is a devotee of Ayn Rand and that he is filling his Cabinet with Randians. I think he slightly overstated the thesis. Certainly, the people he cites, including Tillerson, have had complimentary things to say about Rand and her novels. But they read them a long time ago, and they spoke about the books the way I suppose they speak about a Cabernet that they tried: They can't quite recall if John Galt was the hero of The Fountainhead or Atlas Shrugged just as they are not exactly sure whether that was black cherry or raspberry that they tasted in the Cabernet's finish, but they liked both the books and the wine at the time. None of the appointees cited in the article come across as an intellectual, which is not to say that government service should be reserved for intellectuals. It is to say that trying to paint a detailed philosophic portrait of the Trump Cabinet might be expecting too much, or might best be rendered as a paint-by-numbers portrait, something young and amateurish.

The lack of ideological depth, however, is no blessing. They may or may not be full-throated libertarians, but it is part of the culture of large multinational corporations they have led to adopt a functional amoralism that itself masks a deeper ideological bias, one that is not coherently framed but works just fine on a day-to-day basis, and that is the ideology of the market and the idolatry of money. Let there be no doubt on this: Tillerson did not think twice about undercutting U.S. policy in Iraq by inking a deal with the Kurds for their oil, at a time when American troops were fighting and dying to prop up the fledgling Iraqi government. His rationale? You guessed it: "I had to do what was best for my shareholders," he told the State Department at the time.

Mike Kinsley may have been closer to the mark than Hohmann when he described Trump's emerging philosophy of government as fascist, in the clinical sense of the term. Trump things you get big government (all those generals) and big corporations together and they can figure out what is best for the masses. It is scary, and Kinsley's diagnosis leaves a lot out of the picture, but the fear is that he is on to something. And, as Alan Wolfe has written persuasively, the difference between libertarianism and fascism might not be as great as you think. 

Fascist or Randian or simply a protean, self-absorbed plutocrat, Roman Catholics can find nothing to like in this cast of mind which seems to dominate the emerging Trump administration. That fact does not keep some from trying: Remember Fr. Sirico's attempt to paint John Galt as a Christ-figure? I am sure our friends at Sirico's Acton Institute are thrilled that the extraction industries that have been so generous in the past will now have the executive power of the government in their grasp as well.

Pope Francis is not shy about his critique of market ideology and the idolatry of money. He has called for a social market that responds to needs current economic thinking pushes to the sidelines, needs such as inclusion of all, concern for the poor and care for Creation. Catholics should follow the Holy Father's lead and not be shy either in voicing our critiques and our concerns. I have said previously and will say many more times in the months ahead: There are several ways to frame the next four years, but one of them is Pope Francis versus Donald Trump. I know which side of that divide I will be on.

[Michael Sean Winters is NCR Washington columnist and a visiting fellow at Catholic University's Institute for Policy Research and Catholic Studies.]


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