Trump and the CEOs
An old line in politics is that the Fortune 500 never elected anyone, and that’s truer of Donald Trump than of any recent President. But this week’s CEO resignations from Mr. Trump’s manufacturing advisory council should still concern the President because they are a symbol of his eroding support beyond his core political base.
The CEOs of Merck, Intel and Under Armour resigned from the White House advisory group in the wake of the President’s initial remarks after the violence in Charlottesville, Va., on Saturday. Kenneth Frazier, the Merck boss, was pointed in explaining that “America’s leaders must honor our fundamental values by clearly rejecting expressions of hatred, bigotry and group supremacy, which run counter to the American ideal that all people are created equal.” Two more resigned on Tuesday, and others who stayed joined the public criticism.
Mr. Trump dismissed the CEOs as “grandstanders,” and that line will resonate with some of his supporters. Corporate America isn’t popular these days. These advisory councils also don’t do all that much, and perhaps the CEOs were looking for an excuse to dump an obligation that isn’t central to their companies.
Yet with rare exceptions like Jamie Dimon of J.P. Morgan or Fred Smith of Fedex , CEOs are also politically risk-averse. Most probably didn’t vote for Mr. Trump but they also don’t want to court his wrath with three-and-a-half years left in his term. They joined the advisory group at the start of his Presidency because, whatever their doubts about Mr. Trump as a candidate, they support some of his policies and hope that as President he will sign tax reform and ease regulations to help the economy and thus their companies, workers and shareholders.
Their decision to quit now in such public fashion shows the growing political and cultural pressure that CEOs and others in public life are under to distance themselves from Mr. Trump. The disdain for the President in the media and Hollywood isn’t surprising, and Mr. Trump wears it like a badge of honor. But the business community is, or ought to be, a natural part of a Republican President’s governing coalition.
Mr. Trump began his Presidency amid unprecedented hostility from those who didn’t vote for him. This is all the more reason to govern in a way that seeks to broaden his coalition with new allies. Yet Mr. Trump has seemingly taken every opportunity to escalate feuds and attack even allies in Congress like Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell.
As if to prove this point, Mr. Trump lashed out at Merck’s Mr. Frazier on Twitter Monday with what amounted to a political threat: “@Merck Pharma is a leader in higher & higher drug prices while at the same time taking jobs out of the U.S. Bring jobs back & LOWER PRICES!” This display of pique does nothing but make others less likely to get anywhere close to Mr. Trump’s orbit.
But then we repeat ourselves. Mr. Trump’s ego won’t allow him to concede error and he broods over criticism until he ends up hurting himself, as he showed again Tuesday by relitigating his response to the Charlottesville violence. This is how he has achieved a 34% approval rating, as even allies flee and his Presidency shrinks in on itself.