David Brooks addressed Trump Island in his recent article describing the way Donald Trump is poisoning the world. More specifically – the headline is clickbait – the relevant quote is from Trump’s advisers, Gary Cohn and H.R. McMaster:
“The President embarked on his first foreign trip with a clear-eyed outlook that the world is not a ‘global community’, but an arena where nations, non-governmental actors and businesses engage and compete for advantage.”
The quote sets up an interesting discussion about the role of the US. It evokes discussions of the US as world policeman and of the isolationist views discussed during the Republican primaries. It provokes discussions of the proper role of businesses in their domestic and international communities and whether the Trump Trade is evidence of a growing trend of the marriage of business and politics. It contemplates the meaning of community itself.
As a quote, it demands a partner. Straddling the 16th and 17th centuries, John Donne wrote:
“No man is an Island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the Continent, a part of the main; if a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as well as if a manor of thy friends or of thine own were; any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in Mankind; And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; It tolls for thee.”
John Donne was a clergyman and a poet of great passion. This passage has earned the accolade of being quoted far more than the underlying poetry is read. The poetry is worth an extensive visit, but the quote is poignant in today’s US political context.
The Theory of Self-Interest
Theorists advocating the existence of the Trump Trade make the case that if all countries, businesses, and individuals pursued their own self-interest without regard for the interests of a broader community, choosing partners with aligned interests and competing for advantage, the result would be a carefully crafted set of compromises where each actor gets enough to be happy but not all of what they want. Ayn Rand would love it.
That does, however, beg the question of how those who come to the negotiation determine in advance what they want. Everyone is assumed to have goals and strategy for achieving them.
When an individual, company or, indeed, nation emerges from its metaphorical cave to encounter the world and those who populate it, the game changes. Others are involved. The farther one moves into the world, the more the web of interactions begins to demand careful thought. The strategies of one must consider the strategies of others.
Business and Trump
Ray Dalio felt initially optimistic that a Trump presidency would be positive. Shaking up the structure of Washington D.C. might be good for business: lower taxes; less regulation; a restructured health care system; a more rational trade policy. All these could help. And yet, he fears, it is not happening and may never happen.
Karl Rove, a political operative who often writes for the WSJ, commented recently that Trump is killing his presidency one tweet at a time.
So, why has the stock market continued to improve, tweets notwithstanding? Because the market is not trading on Trump – there is no ‘Trump trade’. The market is trading on fundamentals: corporate earnings; interest rates; inflation. Trade policy is not changing. Tax policy is not changing; nor is healthcare – at least, not at the federal level.
States are doing what states are supposed to do. They are trying things out to see if they work. Oregon, Indiana, California and, most recently, Nevada have launched or have considered launching alternative single-payer healthcare systems. Some have failed and some have produced surprising results that are now informing efforts to improve the original plan.
States such as Washington, California and New York have pledged to continue to engage in the global climate change agreement process, Trump notwithstanding. Companies are doing what they are supposed to do. They are moving forward with renewable energy initiatives because it makes sense concerning job creation and shareholder value. Exxon Mobil and Chevron are among US companies reiterating their support for the Paris Accords.
Does Global Community Exist?
Perhaps Trump was thinking of Global Community in the terms described in the Left Behind series where the Global Community was the successor to the United Nations and, ultimately, fell into tyranny until all was wiped out by the second coming of Christ. It is a theory and it is hard sometimes to discern where reality ends and fiction begins in the current administration.
The reality is, Trump, McMaster and Cohn notwithstanding, that the interconnectedness of the world is not fading. Information flows and connections grow. People find common cause across boundaries of state and geography. People with common interests think more alike wherever they are than people who clash in the same political geography.
The Trump Trade is a myth because trade is beyond the control of the US president. America First is a slogan beloved of someone who cannot grasp substance beyond the affirmation of social media. In or out of the Paris Accords, American companies, cities, states are paying attention to the dynamics of climate change.
Trump is a distraction – a virus that will be overcome. Ray Dalio is right.