“This seems… not how things are done in a free society.”
Under pressure by President Donald Trump, almost two dozen leading executives from various industries and trade unions pledged on Thursday to fund the training of millions of workers without college degrees.
In a White House ceremony attended by industry moguls and government officials, President Trump signed an executive order creating the “Council for the American Worker,” aimed at adapting government training programs to the needs of employers.
“Every day we are getting our forgotten Americans off the sidelines,” said Trump at the event.
Microphone in hand, he walked around the room, giving CEOs the opportunity to stand up and announce to the rolling cameras exactly how many workers they plan to train.
But Trump’s critics have expressed concern about two issues.
Reality check: The new council will operate under the Labor Department. Though many rosy proclamations were made during Thursday’s conference about the future of the American workforce, Trump’s current budget proposal actually includes a 40 percent slash to some of the department’s largest worker training programs.
Behind the theater: A deeper concern actually comes from the right.
Atlantic writer David Frum, a long-time Republican and former speechwriter for George W. Bush, worried in a pithy tweet about the president compelling businessmen to commit to his populist agenda.
This seems … not how things are done in a free society https://t.co/O6Jx7SDhoV
— David Frum (@davidfrum) July 20, 2018
“This seems… not how things are done in a free society,” he wrote.
He’s not wrong.
The image of industry moguls bowing their heads to the country’s populist leader is taken straight out of the rule book of regimes in which the state, rather than the free market, gets the final say in business.
In 2006, facing an economic upheaval and sinking approval ratings, Russian President Vladimir Putin deployed a publicity campaign to show the public that he — and only he — really holds the reins of the market.
The event, in which CEOs and factory owners were forced to sign a pledge to keep their businesses running and their workers employed, was publicized as the Russian president’s ultimate victory over greed and corruption.
“Top businessmen not immune to Putins wrath [sic],” boasts the headline of a video by the state-owned network Russia Today.
From early on in his presidency, Trump has shown a proclivity for this kind of strongman populism. Before even taking office, Trump pressed the manufacturing giant Carrier to keep jobs in the US. Similarly, Trump is happy to slap tariffs on European, Canadian, and Chinese goods, gaining popular support while throwing economists, investors, and CEOs alike into a panic.
He even readily tweets out personal attacks against businesses that won’t play ball.
Whether effective or not, these tactics pose a stark break from the Republican commitments to small government and the freedom of the market.
These commitments, which form the backbone of American conservatism, are driven by a fear of graft and abuse of power, but also by the deeper conviction that freedom from paternalistic intervention is a moral right and is the only path to real social prosperity.