LONDON – Under President Donald Trump, the United States seems to find itself confronting an extraordinarily ego-driven administration. In fact, it's worse: in his first month in office, Trump appears to be consolidating a type of governance by id.
The chaos now prevailing on the US political scene reflects this. Policies are based on "alternative facts" and Trump's own mythology as a straight-talking billionaire business mogul (though his back story is riddled with holes). Ignorance of the law has become an excuse to flout it, and to engage in ethically dubious behavior, such as inviting Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe to his Mar-a-Lago resort, or attacking the department store Nordstrom for dropping his daughter Ivanka's clothing line. (Trump re-tweeted his attack on the company from the official @POTUS account, and his adviser Kellyanne Conway then plugged Ivanka's line on national television.)
Not surprisingly, businesses, which tend to be governed by superego, are actively preparing strategies for managing a presidential tweet barrage. After all, Nordstrom wasn't Trump's first target (though it was the first whose shares actually closed higher that day). In fact, many companies are being forced to make firm and public choices about where they stand in relation to Trump, his seemingly endless stream of controversial executive orders, and the politicians who ultimately back him. This is nowhere near business as usual.
Ironically, this bizarre new operating environment partly reflects Trump's own business background. Trump is used to running his own company with a small team, selected based on his own criteria. His successes and failures were his own. He could choose what to withhold from the public, and he could sell whatever people would buy, caveat emptor.
His current job is a different story. As much as Trump may like to claim that he alone can fix the US, the truth is that government is too complex an enterprise for one person to manage and direct. Nor can he invent his own performance standards – especially if they prize personal loyalty over knowledge and experience. And his failures are not his alone: the entire country – and much of the world – stands to suffer.
But there are some commonalities between running a business and running a country. In both settings, leaders are expected to act in the best interests of the wider community, not simply their own constituencies, whether voters or shareholders. Basic principles of good business governance – including transparency, integrity, reliability, trust, and legality – carry over to political leadership.
What Trump can't ignore are checks on presidential power. To be sure, the Republican-led Congress has (so far) been disinclined to fulfill its responsibility to constrain Trump. The Senate rejected none of his cabinet picks, despite their lack of relevant experience and inadequate vetting (though two Republicans did vote against Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos).
The judicial branch, however, has resisted Trump's bullying. Trump's executive order to ban people from seven Muslim-majority countries from entering the US has been rejected three times in court, and the White House now says that it will not appeal the case to the Supreme Court.
But the most vital check on power in a democracy is the people. And, in the US, the people – peacefully but resolutely – seem to be finding their voice.
The day after Trump's inauguration, women led what is estimated to be the largest single-day protest in US history. Citizens have been contacting their legislators to demand better representation of their interests. Utah Representative Jason Chaffetz, a Republican, recently faced thousands of his constituents chanting "Do your job!" at what was supposed to be an ordinary town hall meeting.
It's not just elected officials who are being put on notice. Not long ago, consumers, workers, and community members rose up in a global shareholder spring, aimed at companies that were acting in bad faith, by rewarding failing CEOs, flouting environmental regulations, or failing to respect workers' rights. We are now seeing a similar movement, with consumers turning against companies that support an administration embodying values they reject.
The #GrabYourWallet campaign may have contributed to declining sales of Ivanka Trump's clothing line (the reason cited by Nordstrom and others for their decision to drop it). The #DeleteUber movement punished the ride-sharing company for undermining a taxi strike at New York City's Kennedy Airport in support of those caught up in Trump's travel ban, and helped push the company's CEO, Travis Kalanick, to resign from Trump's economic advisory council. When Under Armour's CEO, Kevin Plank, expressed support for Trump, athletes associated with the brand declared their opposition, compelling the company to issue a statement distancing themselves from Plank's comments.
Trump is a case study in how not to lead, either in business or in government. With his jingoism and hair-trigger temper, Trump's election seems to be wholly the result of many voters' wishful thinking and stubborn passivity.
And perhaps that is the real lesson of Trump's presidency so far. The unthinkable can happen – as it did in the United Kingdom, with the Brexit vote, and as it may in France, if the far-right Marine Le Pen wins the presidency. But what happens in a democracy is only what the people allow.
Lucy P. Marcus is CEO of Marcus Venture Consulting.
© Project Syndicate 1995–2017