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Opinion | Richard North Patterson

Running America like a (dysfunctional family) business

Photo illustration by Globe Staff/EPA

An evergreen of political idiocy is that a successful CEO could “run America like a business.”

Hardly. A CEO rules by fiat; a president cannot fire Congress. CEO’s must placate a few hand-picked directors; presidents must comprehend a diverse country, disparate foreign cultures, and the nuances of military power. A CEO works in private; a president must rally fellow citizens with whose welfare he is charged.

A CEO acts through a handful of subordinates. The president relies on many people with varied expertise and, to succeed, must administer a sprawling government with countless missions and no bottom line.

Thus our greatest presidents — Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln, and the two Roosevelts — had a multi-faceted grounding in politics and/or the military. So, too, another contender, Harry Truman — who, strikingly, failed at business. True, at least Fortune 500 CEOs must rise within their silo on merit. But America’s first CEO president emerged from that swampland of nepotism and dysfunction, the inherited family business.

This explains much. Trump’s father and role model was a vain, self-promoting taskmaster on whose favor Donald depended. If narcissists are made by excessive parental praise or pressure, Trump may reflect both. As to the impact, Trump’s own children are telling.


None of his three oldest are self-actualized: His two sons work for him; Ivanka exploited his brand. All avoid this uncomfortable reality by insisting they rose on their merits. Ditto for Ivanka’s husband, Jared Kushner, who took over a family real estate empire when his father was jailed for tax evasion. Now, like Trump, Jared and Ivanka have assumed primacy in a White House where qualifications are optional, family is all, and a petulant patriarch rules by whim.

Jared’s rise partakes of satire. In American history, he is surely the only totally unqualified 36-year-old whose portfolio includes Middle East peace, the opioid epidemic, relations with China, Canada, and Mexico, reorganizing the government, and evaluating our tactics against ISIS. “If you can’t produce peace in the Middle East,’’ Trump publicly informed his callow son-in-law, “nobody can.” And so eminences like the chairman of the joint chiefs are forced to cultivate Jared’s favor, like courtiers seeking the ear of the imbecile king.


The erstwhile retainers whose exile Jared and Ivanka expedited include Cory Lewandowski, Paul Manafort, and Chris Christie — the latter in apparent reprisal for prosecuting Jared’s father. Now Steve Bannon stands on Jared’s trapdoor. In Trump’s satrapy, no one but family is safe, and the family is accountable to no one but Trump — nepotism armed with presidential power.

To wish White House chief strategist Steve Bannon gone misses the point. A fractious White House fearful of family is inimical to a rational process wherein meritorious ideas and people prosper. With no clear hierarchy, critical jobs remain unfilled and fretful chaos prevails. Senior adviser and anti-Muslim xenophobe Stephen Miller, once Bannon’s ally, now looks to Jared and Ivanka. Reince Priebus, who should be establishing order as chief of staff, instead glances over his shoulder. And press secretary Sean Spicer personifies, to a comic extreme, the soul-warping necessity of serving Trump’s reality.

Some appointees are carving out zones of competence, most notably politically sophisticated generals like Jim Mattis and H.R. McMaster. But Rex Tillerson — an ex-CEO whose chief credential for secretary of state seems to be that he epitomizes the square-jawed, grey-haired, white male authority figure that establishment Republicans adore — is being stripped of his budget and his department’s respect. Such is our principal instrument of foreign relations when a president who knows nothing about diplomacy values nothing but himself. In a world whose bottom line is nuclear, this is dangerous indeed.


Turbocharged by the presidency, the unmerited and unaccountable self-indulgence bred by a family business can cause the metastasis of the patriarch’s most dangerous habits — impulsiveness, volatility, intellectual laziness, hostility to criticism, craving for adulation, a twitchy attention span, a sense of omnipotence and, above all, an inability to recognize legal, moral, or even practical limits on one’s desires. Thus does governance license a preternatural preoccupation with the family brand, an ethos where ethics are malleable, transparency contemptible, conflicts of interest a matter of right.

What about actual governance — programs and policy? Trump’s beliefs are mouse droppings of prejudice, fake news, and random information bereft of context or comprehension. Pick an issue — Syria, Russia, NATO, or health care — and all has changed, but for how long or to what end no one knows, least of all Trump. His disorderly White House cannot manage the awesome task of disciplining a disorderly mind, or curbing Trump’s habit of blaming others for whatever misadventure he provokes.

He is, indeed, running America like his business.

Richard North Patterson’s column appears regularly in the Globe. His latest book is “Fever Swamp.’’ Follow him on Twitter @RicPatterson.