Is Trump Undermining America’s Greatness?

Last week it was reported that Donald Trump has been fined over $355m for fraud – for lying about his wealth to mislead others for his economic gain. Yet Trump is aspiring to be president for a second time and for that his key pitch is MAGA: Make America Great Again, writes Professor Simon Bridge.

Not long ago I wrote about what makes a country great and suggested that lasting strength and influence comes from economic power which itself needs the support of both a climate of trust and the rule of fair law.

In two very illuminating contributions Francis Fukuyama in his book Trust has shown the connection between trusting societies and economic growth and Daron Acemoglu and James Robinson in their book Why Nations Fail have examined the obstacle that a lack of fair and properly enforced laws can be to that growth. Between them they suggest that if people can’t trust those with whom they need to trade and if they think the law can be manipulated to favour those with political power – then many people will not try to start or grow businesses.

Therefore the recent events in Donald Trump’s life offer an interesting case study. Has he undermined the climate of trust lauded by Fukuyama by himself apparently thriving while frequently proclaiming lies? Has he sought to use his political and financial position to undermine the application of law by trying in many ways to evade or delay its application to his own actions and operations? And is he actually good at business – or did he just start with a fortune (from his father) but without managing to grow it to any significant extent?

Acemoglu and Robinson cite the Magna Carta as a significant move towards establishing the rule of law in England (and those other countries which have similar systems). They point out, not just that the Magna Carta said there were rules, but that King John, in signing it (although only under pressure from the barons), had agreed that these laws applied to him as well as to those over whom he reigned. The date of 1688 they also suggest was important because that was when William, together with his wife Mary, accepted the throne with the condition that, while they reigned, parliament ruled. Has the legacy of that been that the law here is not loaded in favour of the rich and powerful and they cannot, by virtue of their position, take an unfair advantage over others?

However, instead of accepting the law, Trump is reported to have sought to excuse some of his actions on the grounds that, as President, he was immune or above the law or, in other cases, to use his considerable resources to hire lawyers to find as many reasons as possible to obfuscate and delay the cases brought against him – an option not open to other transgressors who do not have resources for such an approach. Has he, therefore, been seeking to evade the laws of his country: laws the application of which have been a foundation for its greatness.

And some of those illegal actions involved telling lies: making false statements with the intention of misleading others who might have wanted to trust his word. Again how can you do business with someone whose word you cannot trust?

Therefore will this example of the apparent flouting both of truth and the law, if uncorrected, contribute to long-term American economic decline or is last week’s judgement a clear signal that the American system is taking steps to favour the law not the transgressor.

Alternatively does the apparent continuing support for Trump by so many people, despite his behaviour, suggest that he is not the trigger which might now initiate the undermining of America’s economic greatness, but just an obvious example of what is already happening, albeit an example which will further exacerbate that process?

Daron Acemoglu and James Robinson, Why Nations Fail (London: Profile Books, 2013)

Francis Fukuyama, Trust: The Social Virtues and the Creation of Prosperity, (New York: Free Press Paperbacks, 1995)

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