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What a Swell Party It Was

What a Swell Party It Was

Donald Trump effectively severed the 150-year-old link between the Republican Party and big business.

Eli Lehrer

Whether offering McDonald’s quarter pounders at a White House reception, palling around with brutal dictators, attacking judicial independence, or refusing to release his tax returns, former President Donald Trump violated norms and broke with tradition. One such break stands in historical importance beside his efforts to prevent a peaceful transfer of power: Trump’s presidency created a rupture between the Republican Party and big business.

The alliance between the GOP and the country’s wealth-creating enterprises was just about the party’s only constant for the 150 years after Abraham Lincoln took the presidential oath in 1861. In that time Republicans were revenue maximizers, tax cutters, free traders, tariff supporters, welfare-state builders, and small-government libertarians trying to chip away at that same welfare state. Throughout, their policies always matched the then-current agendas of big, successful private enterprises. And why shouldn’t the GOP have been proud of the congruence? Big companies pay better wages, offer better benefits, generally charge lower prices, excel at many types of innovation, and, contrary to conventional wisdom, create most new jobs. Even if you dislike big business, modern life is unimaginable without it. Small enterprises can’t manufacture commercially viable cars, airplanes, or microprocessors; nor can they build nationwide telecommunications networks or handle the logistics of the speedy nationwide delivery needed for e-commerce.

Lincoln’s agenda, apart from the Civil War, included a revenue tariff, the Homestead Act, new canals, major bridges, the transcontinental railroad, and land-grant colleges. These items also, not coincidentally, made up a wish list for the textile barons and railroad magnates who ran the nation’s first big, modern companies. Similarly, Gilded Age trust tycoons stood behind William McKinley’s efforts to make America a world power while establishing a gold standard; auto CEOs supported Dwight Eisenhower’s plan for an interstate highway system; and aerospace executives salivated at Ronald Reagan’s proposals for a defense buildup and supply-side tax cuts.

All five presidents who had actually run sizeable modern commercial enterprises—Warren Harding, Herbert Hoover, George H.W. Bush, George W. Bush, and Trump—were Republicans. Theodore Roosevelt’s trust-busting did break with some big businesses late in his second term; but the 1908 election was a direct referendum on big business, with Democratic candidate William Jennings Bryan campaigning against both large enterprises and William Howard Taft, Roosevelt’s hand-picked, pro-big-business successor.

In the 2016 presidential campaign, by contrast, Donald Trump promised to make the GOP a “workers’ party,” attacking the trade, immigration, and climate policies favored by major enterprises. True, many of his early actions in office were overtures to big business, in line with the historical Republican brand. For secretary of state, Trump tapped ExxonMobil CEO Rex Tillerson—a non-politician who hadn’t donated to the Trump campaign and had endorsed action on climate change. Trump announced an American Manufacturing Council that included high-profile, big-company CEOs like Elon Musk and Michael Dell. As part of his Strategy and Policy Forum, he brought IBM CEO Ginni Rometty and Walmart head Doug McMillon to the White House. He promised tax and regulatory relief, two priorities for many businesses. Eight months into his term, National Association of Manufacturers (NAM) president Jay Timmons called him a “true champion for our industry, who has fought for manufacturing since Day 1 of his presidency.”

There’s no doubt that many of Trump’s major policies were indeed “good for business.” His tax legislation reduced America’s highest-in-the-developed-world corporate tax rate. His deregulatory efforts were aggressive and consistent, though there were many stumbles along the way. Interest rates stayed low, and ever increasing federal spending juiced consumption.

Points of Departure

Still, Trump made significant departures from the policies that a more typical Republican would have followed—and each departure damaged big business, often deliberately.

Trump’s trade wars and protectionism hurt every major economic sector but were particularly bad for big exporters like Boeing, Apple, Ford, and Intel. His inflammatory statements about non-white immigrants, combined with his restrictive policies, slowed the talent and entrepreneurship pipelines central to America’s continued technological dominance. His withdrawal from the modest Paris climate change agreement created massive uncertainty in industries ranging from insurance to energy.

Trump hurt big business even when he followed parts of prior Republican orthodoxy. His ham-handed efforts to undermine Obamacare and his repeal of the individual health insurance mandate boosted younger entrepreneurs and many small businesses but did nothing for most big businesses. He may even have raised the latter’s costs by weakening the individual insurance market. The same actions also hurt business for major companies like CVS Health and UnitedHealth Group that benefit from Obamacare. Even companies that got boosts from Trump cronyism often found themselves unhappy. Berkshire Hathaway’s U.S. reinsurance businesses, for instance, benefited from tax barriers imposed on their non-U.S. competitors; but Berkshire Hathaway CEO Warren Buffett blasted Trump’s trade war with China.

By the midpoint of Trump’s presidency, every one of his overtures to big business had fallen by the wayside. Tillerson lasted at State for just fourteen months. Trump’s manufacturing and strategy groups were dissolved by tweet when the members began resigning en masse after Trump’s comments about white supremacist marches in Charlottesville, Virginia. By the last year of his term, the valuable, highly successful enterprises that comprise “big tech” were among Trump’s biggest enemies. He claimed, without solid evidence, that Amazon was ripping off the U.S. Postal Service. He further insisted, also without evidence, that Google was rigging search results against him. He issued an Executive Order designed to cripple Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, which undergirds virtually all of contemporary social media.

It is not surprising, therefore, that the roll call of prominent Republicans who have not done Trump’s bidding reveals a notably consistent theme: close ties to big business. The big-company executive who has played the biggest role in public policy over the last decade, Koch Industries’ Charles Koch, never supported Trump’s campaigns. Indeed, just before the 2020 election he specifically renounced his Republican partisanship, writing that it had sent him “down the wrong road,” politically, “for the better part of a decade.” Former Michigan Congressman Paul Miller, the one member of Congress who left the Republican Party over Trump’s election-related behavior, was also one of the handful to have served as the head of a large corporation before taking office.

Likewise, Mitt Romney, the only Republican Senator to vote in favor of conviction after Trump’s first impeachment trial, was the son of an auto company CEO and spent his own business career as a consultant, investor, and CEO in the world of big business. Arizona Republican Governor Doug Ducey, the most prominent Trump supporter censured by his own state party for rejecting the President’s effort to overturn the election, is one of the handful of state leaders who ran a major commercial enterprise—Cold Stone Creamery—before entering politics. Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger, a Trump supporter who also refused to indulge the President’s election-related demands, spent his pre-politics career running a sizable engineering firm. Finally, former Hewlett-Packard CEO Carly Fiorina, the only former big-company chief executive to run for the Republican presidential nomination in 2016, endorsed Joe Biden in 2020.

The core institutions of big business have followed the same path. During the second half of Trump’s term, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, long a bedrock of the Republican establishment, began what the Washington Post called a “dramatic cultural change” meant to “disentangle” its brand from that of the GOP. In January, after Trump’s attempt to overthrow the election, some twenty of the country’s thirty largest corporate political action committees (PACs) announced that they would stop donating to Republicans who had voted against certifying Electoral College votes. Since a majority of the House Republican caucus did so, 2022’s House races may see most big business PAC money going to Democrats.

Perhaps most surprising was a statement on January 6 from NAM president Jay Timmons, previously executive director of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, calling Trump’s insurrectionists “armed thugs” and declaring that “throughout this whole disgusting episode, Trump has been cheered on by members of his own party, adding fuel to the distrust that has inflamed violent anger.”

As for prominent big business figures offering Trump full-throated support by the time he left office, the list was pathetically short. The last corporate bosses to make widely reported visits to the Trump White House were MyPillow CEO Mike Lindell, previously best known as a QVC pitchman, and Patrick Byrne, the conspiracy-theory-fixated former head of Overstock.

The breakup with big business may be seen as a good thing by some parts of the Republican Party. Social conservatives can breathe easier with less pressure from big business to get the party out of the harmful-to-profits social issues game. The less skilled, less educated workers who now provide the bulk of Republican votes are likely the ones who benefit from the immigration restrictions that have become Republican orthodoxy. Even advocates of a more diverse GOP may be in for a pleasant surprise: Despite Trump’s incendiary statements about minority groups, he outperformed expectations in attracting new non-white voters in 2020. Nearly all these new Republican voters are workers without college degrees. A candidate with similar policies and George W. Bush’s inclusive style could “steal” far more votes from Democrats.

There’s also the distinct likelihood that a Republican faction solidly on the economic left will emerge, skeptical of big business but favoring a more robust welfare state. This position is expressed by many Republican voters in polls but not really represented in today’s GOP. In the decisive state of Florida, which appears to be emerging as the center of this type of thinking, voters who chose Trump also approved a state constitutional amendment establishing a fifteen-dollar minimum wage, making Florida the first state in the South to do so. Florida’s Republican governor, Ron DeSantis, has launched distinctly Trumpian attacks on successful technology firms. Conservative stalwart Senator Marco Rubio (R-FL) has introduced a bill that would ban many non-compete agreements—a priority for some in the labor movement.

This may be just the beginning. Changes in the Republican coalition will almost inevitably mean corresponding changes in the Democratic coalition, as certain groups start to feel increasingly unwelcome in some places and, by contrast, increasingly welcome in others. It is clear that the Republican Party’s alliance with big business ended during the Trump years. Quite possibly because he intended it but perhaps by accident, Donald Trump’s most important legacy may be the transformation of the GOP into a workers’ party.

Eli Lehrer is president of the R Street Institute.

United States