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President-elect Trump using new bully pulpit to bend business to his will

Dec 10, 2016

Nothing’s stopping Donald Trump from bullying businesses.

He bashes Ford Motor and Carrier, the air-conditioning maker, for shipping jobs to Mexico. He accuses Boeing of using contracts for a new Air Force One to rip off American taxpayers. He asks for a list of all U.S. companies planning to move jobs outside the country.

All of which shows a president-elect using his new bully pulpit to bend business to his will — and strengthen his populist chops in the industrial Midwest.

He tweets that Team Trump plans to “substantially reduce taxes and regulations” on business. He says any company that leaves for another country, fires employees, builds a new plant overseas and then tries to sell products back home is, in all capital letters, WRONG.

Teddy Roosevelt, another New York Republican who challenged business, would be proud. Trump is taking aim at the CEO class because he can, because he thinks it’s necessary, and because it’s popular with the American people.

Any CEO whose products and workforce flow across international borders is on notice: either demonstrate your bias to build and employ inside the United States, or risk public browbeating by the new president in 140 characters.

Trump’s two exceptions appear to be foreign-owned companies that compete with U.S. companies and import foreign-made goods into the country. And, of course, Trump-branded products made overseas where costs are lower and sold here.

The president-elect is not the first to nakedly wield the implied power of the office to achieve politically preferred results; he’s just doing it before his inauguration. President Barack Obama did it with his handling of the Detroit automakers and Wall Street in the aftermath of the global financial meltdown. President Reagan did it early in his first term, and so did JFK with his muscling of Big Steel.

Trump’s argument to business is that American labor becomes more affordable and can stay put if corporate taxes decline, economic growth accelerates, and the overall cost of doing business recedes.

It’s an if-come proposition for business leaders who’ve witnessed more than a few politicians make promises they never delivered. But it’s the basket of carrots Trump is offering business to avoid his rhetorical stick.

Trump’s tack scores points with Joe and Jane Lunchbucket, too. They’ve waited decades for a politician willing to call CEOs on labor arbitrage that almost always works in favor of foreign workers at the expense of Americans. It also bridges partisan divides and regional differences, aligning the likes of his Trumpists with Bernie’s Sandernistas. 

This being the heart of the industrial heartland, the downsides around here to such high-level interference are a distant second to the fact that Trump is prepared to stand athwart global capital flows and yell stop in the name of American workers and their communities.

If you don’t think that pays political dividends, then you aren’t paying attention to the roaring stock market and to the message sent loud and clear by the Midwest on Nov. 8.

Daniel Howes is a columnist at The Detroit News. Views expressed in his essays are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of Michigan Radio, its management or the station licensee, The University of Michigan.