Howes: Business leaders for Trump skip Michigan CEOs

Daniel Howes
The Detroit News

Hours before Wednesday’s presidential debate, Donald Trump’s campaign issued an open letter from 100 business people supporting the Republican nominee — none of them apparently from Michigan’s influential business community.

Maybe that’s because the home of Ford Motor Co., one of Trump’s favorite corporate targets, would have produced few takers. Business leaders hardened by the school of economic hard knocks here understand today’s politics well enough to see little percentage in publicly backing Trump, especially as his poll numbers sink.

“They never even asked me,” says a politically connected CEO from the southeastern corner of the state, who asked not to be identified to avoid becoming a target for Trump supporters or the candidate himself. “We’ve got a conundrum here.”

Namely, business may instinctively support many of Trump’s professed policies on cutting taxes, boosting growth and reducing regulation. And it may generically agree with the letter’s call for a “president who understands free markets” and “who understands how government can hobble innovation, destroy opportunity and restrain growth.”

But his anti-trade rhetoric and promises to “build a wall” as the cornerstone of his immigration policy are anathema to most politically astute business people operating in today’s global economy. So are his antics — the narcissism and endless tweeting, the bickering with Republicans, the loose grasp of policy, the myriad allegations of sexual harassment by women that would ensure his resume stayed buried in just about any company’s HR department.

Would you hire him? “No, but I wouldn’t hire her, either,” the CEO says, referring to Hillary Clinton, the Democratic nominee, and her well-documented record of being many things to many people. For starters, see the stark contrast between her sympathetic speeches to Wall Street and her public denunciations during her primary battle with Sen. Bernie Sanders.

Yet come Jan. 20, Trump or Clinton will become president, and business will have to deal with that cold, hard reality. With the election’s impact on capital markets and consumer sentiment; with the next president’s geo-political thinking and management of international alliances; with a new White House’s take on existing trade agreements and how adjustments to them could affect international business relationships and bottom lines.

Business leaders in Michigan and beyond may be taking a proverbial powder during this election cycle because it’s the path of least resistance. They may be sheepishly backing Clinton. They may be very quietly deciding to vote Trump because his candidacy is considered toxic in polite political circles. Or they may be mulling a third option.

They won’t, however, be able to stand aside for the next four years because politics, wielded smartly, is an extension of commerce. That means business leaders waiting out this year’s presidential campaign because they can’t stomach the options, or won’t risk reprisals, will find a way to work with the next administration. Their businesses too often demand it.

Ask the government affairs offices of any Fortune 500 company, including this town’s automakers. Ask members of Congress continually trimming their politics to comport with the economic interests of constituent companies back home. Ask a CEO, though don’t expect an answer on the record.

Today’s political climate is too toxic, and the risk of blowback too great, for business to be candid lest it antagonize customers or employees, directors or investors. At last month’s World Mobility Leadership Forum, a moderator tried to lure General Motors Co. CEO Mary Barra into a discussion about politics and she jovially replied something like “please don’t.”

Ford’s executive chairman, Bill Ford Jr., used the same venue to share his frustration with Trump’s repeated (and deliberately misinformed) slams on the automaker’s decision to ship its small-car production to Mexico from its plant in Wayne — a move expected to have no impact on plant employment because it is slated to build two new vehicles.

The coarsening of American political culture risks causing business and other influential voices to withdraw from the process. In willing hands, social media accessible to anyone with a smartphone and an attitude becomes a rhetorical cudgel against anyone or any company that strays from orthodoxy.

Exhibit A is Donald Trump.

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Daniel Howes’ column runs Tuesdays, Thursdays and Fridays. Follow him on Twitter @DanielHowes_TDN, listen to his Saturday podcasts, or catch him 3 and 10 p.m. Thursdays on Michigan Radio’s “Stateside,” 91.7 FM.