In 2006, two years before the crash that would destroy the livelihoods of millions of Americans, Donald J. Trump said he “sort of hope[d]” for that eventuality. He stood to make money.
Confronted by Hillary Clinton with that comment at Monday’s debate, Trump did nothing to disavow it. To the contrary, he defended it: “That’s called business, by the way,” he condescended.
Together these remarks showcase a callous indifference to other people’s hardships—an indifference that, my colleague Conor Friedersdorf writes, “may matter little for a Manhattan mogul, but matters very much for someone asking to be entrusted with representing every American.” No reasonable person who has followed along over these last few months could view such an attitude as an aberration. Rather, it fits in precisely with Trump’s long and documented history of putting himself first, even when it means demolishing those who are in his way. Here is a person, a person who may very well become the next president of the United States, who is seemingly unable to imagine what it’s like to be someone else.
But these comments represent another failure of the imagination as well, and that is a total deference to an idea of “business” to be obeyed as though it were handed down to Moses at Sinai. “Business” is not some eternal, naturally occurring phenomenon. It is socially constructed, guided by the laws and cultures of a given time and place, and the sort of business that Trump reveres is in fact very specific to America over the last four decades or so.
During the 20th century up until the 1980s, it was common for business leaders to see the purpose of their endeavors as including contributing to the public good. Corporate mission statements of this era often contained objectives such as providing good jobs for people and a responsibility to “the communities in which we live and ... the world community as well,” as Johnson & Johnson’s did in 1943. It is only in recent years that corporations have pursued a singular aim above all else: to bring returns to shareholders, even when doing so comes at the expense of jobs or investing in research.
Trump is emblematic of the values of this particular variety of capitalism, prizing profits over any social purpose. This has made him incredibly wealthy, he says. Lucky Donald. Now he has ridden that wave to the presidential debate stage, whatever the wreckage of human lives left in his wake. But all is justified under the mantle of “business,” in Trump’s telling; greed and cruelty are fine—in his estimation, often brilliant, I suspect—in the name of profit.
This is a contested view, to say the least. There are, in the pages of history and in the news, countless examples of business and political leaders who have sought to reform markets and the economy in service of some higher purpose. But Trump isn’t interested, and dismissing his erstwhile hope for economic catastrophe with a quick “that’s called business” line is to fail to engage in the question of what business is or what it could be, to assume that no other way is possible.