The Republican frontrunner’s rants against Muslims are bad for business.
Racist, hateful, un-American, and shameful—these are four recent descriptions of Donald J. Trump’s call to seal the U.S. borders from Muslims. It’s time to add a fifth.
Bad for business.
A Best Picture nominee from 40 years ago is remarkably prescient about how Trump remains so popular and why his latest proposal should be rejected by right-thinking businesspeople around the world.
The movie Network, written by Paddy Chayefsky and directed by Sidney Lumet, was a satire when it premiered in 1976 but now seems closer to a documentary. It’s most famous for Peter Finch’s monologue in which his character, a deranged TV anchor named Howard Beale, exhorts his viewers to scream out their windows, “I’m as mad as hell, and I’m not going to take it anymore!”
As Dave Itzkoff detailed in his 2015 book, Mad as Hell: The Making of Network and the Fateful Vision of the Angriest Man in Movies, this fictional portrait of an unhinged television personality spawned many of today’s demagogues who have enormous followings in politics and the media. Beale tapped into a deep frustration of Americans who felt helpless, angry, and overwhelmed by a world seemingly out of their control.
Consider this line from the movie:
Everybody’s out of work or scared of losing their job, the dollar buys a nickel’s worth, banks are going bust, shopkeepers keep a gun under the counter, punks are running wild in the streets, and there’s nobody anywhere who seems to know what to do, and there’s no end to it.
It’s an observation we might associate with Rush Limbaugh, Ted Cruz, or Donald Trump, but Paddy Chayefsky wrote it four years before Ronald Reagan was elected. People who feel downtrodden need an enemy to focus their anger upon. For Trump, that enemy isn’t merely the relatively small, radical faction of one of the oldest and most populous religions in the world. The enemy is the religion itself.
There is a way out of this morass, however, and it’s another character in Network who shows the way.
When Beale adds big business to his list of grievances and encourages his audience to stop a take-over of his network’s parent company by a Saudi Arabian conglomerate, the company’s CEO calls an urgent meeting with the unraveling anchor.
“We no longer live in a world of nations and ideologies, Mr. Beale,” chief executive Arthur Jensen says, observing that there are no Arabs, Russians, or Third Worlds. “The world is a college of corporations, inexorably determined by the immutable by-laws of business. The world is a business, Mr. Beale!”
Jensen is intended to symbolize the ridiculousness of capitalism as Chayefsky sees it, but his words make a lot of sense in light of Donald Trump’s current ideology. Trump’s point of view is wrong on its own terms, but it also spells disaster for The Trump Organization. As Hala Droubi, Julie Creswell, and Nelson D. Schwartz reported in the New York Times, Trump’s comments are already putting a dent in his company’s relationship with the Middle East.
“He insulted 1.8 billion Muslims worldwide, and he has business in the Arab world,” Khalaf al-Habtoor told the Times.
Khalaf is a self-made billionaire and chairman of the U.A.E.-based Al Habtoor Group. He used to support Trump, but no longer. “He will lose because respectable Muslims will refuse to work with him,” Khalaf said. The Dubai-based Landmark Group is one company that has already severed ties with Trump.
It wasn’t the first time that Trump’s mouth cost him money. Earlier this year, after he referred to Mexicans as drug dealers, criminals, and rapists, NBC said two words that Trump was more used to exclaiming himself: “You’re fired.” The PGA also cancelled a golf tournament that was to be held at a Trump property in L.A., and as Phil Wahba reported in Fortune, Macy’s discontinued its Trump menswear.
The strangest aspect of Trump’s business losses is that they don’t seem to be rooted in any conviction other than remaining ahead in the polls.
“Look, Donald is my friend, and we have been friends for a long time,” Qatar Airways CEO Akbar al-Baker told the Times. “I think it is an exercise only to gain political mileage. Nothing more. This is the opportune time to excite more extremist people so that they could give him their votes.”
It’s no coincidence that Trump issued his proposal just after a poll showed him to be losing his lead as a Republican presidential candidate. He found a way, as he often does, to keep the media focus on himself.
So the acquisition of wealth isn’t what drives Donald Trump, after all. It’s also hard to believe that his bluster is a tool to, as he puts it, “make America great again.” Instead, it seems that Trump’s objectives are simply to remain a top news story and achieve power for its own sake. These are dubious goals. It’s in the financial interests of business leaders around the world to reject both.