When Donald Trump accepted the Republican party’s presidential nomination in 2016, he touted his credentials as an executive who understood how to create jobs.
“I have made billions of dollars in business making deals — now I’m going to make our country rich again,” the property developer turned television star declared, pledging to make the American brand as great (again) as he had made his own.
It was a rare theme the iconoclastic candidate shared with two of his most recent Republican predecessors — Mitt Romney, who co-founded the private equity group Bain Capital, and George W Bush, whose oil industry career prompted magazines to dub him “the CEO president”.
It was also in keeping with a Republican party that had for decades pitched itself as the natural party of business, espousing low corporate taxes, deregulation and free trade.
But in 2020, as Mr Trump faces a bruising re-election battle against the life-long Democratic politician Joe Biden, a significant number of corporate America’s leading voices are being raised against him. Angered by his management of the coronavirus pandemic and attempts to sow doubt about the election, some executives are now speaking out.
The Republican party has long grappled with a division between its establishment wing and a more populist base, but that split is becoming ever harder to manage. The growing rift between US business elites and the anti-elite president could spell longer-term trouble for the GOP.
It might be too early to predict a lasting realignment of corporate America’s political allegiances, but Jeffrey Sonnenfeld, a Yale School of Management professor, doubts that the Republicans can continue to accommodate a “pro-expertise” corporate cadre alongside its “rural, anti-intellectual conspiracy group” for much longer.
“What is hard to imagine is that after next week the two-party system will be the same,” he says.
The brewing clash came to a head this week when Mr Trump claimed it would be “totally inappropriate” for election officials to keep tallying ballots after next Tuesday’s election day.
Within hours, Washington’s top business lobby groups joined forces with a statement contradicting him. In the midst of a pandemic that has prompted millions more voters to request mail-in ballots, the groups noted that counting all the votes could take weeks. They urged all Americans to support the process and remain confident in the country’s tradition of fair elections.
The neutrally worded statement followed sterner warnings from investors, academics and executives of the potential for electoral chaos and the importance of a previously unquestioned peaceful transfer of power. One chief executive, David Barrett of the software group Expensify, told his 10m customers that “anything less than a vote for Biden is a vote against democracy”.
Most chief executives have kept their voting intentions to themselves but concern about the impact a contested result could have on a polarised workforce and a pandemic-scarred economy has pushed companies into taking an unusually prominent role in this election.
More than 1,700 US companies have given staff paid time off to vote, and in a week when the International Crisis Group warned that the president “will more likely stoke than calm tensions” CEOs have felt the need to call for patience and civility as votes are counted.
“We have no historic parallel,” says Prof Sonnenfeld of the fissure between the business community and the Republican president. But he says the senior executives he convenes at regular conferences never saw Mr Trump as one of their own.
“I would bring Donald Trump to our CEO summit years ago and the top tier CEOs would say ‘Don’t bring him in here. We don’t consider him a top CEO’,” he recalls. When he told the president this after his 2016 election victory, Mr Trump replied: “Well, they’re all coming by to see me now.”
Once Mr Trump was in power and calling executives to sit on his business advisory councils, Prof Sonnenfeld notes, “they bit their lip and said, ‘well, maybe we’ll have some impact’.”
But few directors of America’s largest companies, two-thirds of whom he estimates are typically Republican, have warmed to Mr Trump: a Yale poll found that 77 per cent of them planned to vote for Mr Biden.
That is not the case among bosses of smaller companies, where confidence in the economy was approaching a 30-year high before the pandemic hit. According to a UBS survey of business owners with at least $1m in annual sales, 55 per cent favour Mr Trump.
Companies of all sizes have welcomed some — though not all — of Mr Trump’s moves to roll back regulation, Prof Sonnenfeld notes. And businesses strongly supported Republicans’ 2017 cut to top corporate tax rates from 35 per cent to 21 per cent.
But these victories for corporate interests were marred by actions few large companies supported, such as restrictions on skilled immigration or escalating disputes with trading partners from China to Europe. Some Republican policies which business backed, from an alternative to Barack Obama’s Affordable Care Act to promised investment in the country’s crumbling infrastructure, never materialised.
Mr Trump’s way of doing business has also jarred, Prof Sonnenfeld says. As he played companies from Boeing to GM off against their rivals, “I was in touch with all these CEOs and they were asking ‘where’s this coming from?’”
But it was not until the summer of 2017, when Mr Trump blamed both sides for deadly clashes at a far-right protest in Charlottesville, Virginia, that executives abandoned his business panels. Since then, many have seen him as a source of unwelcome instability.
“There’s a lot more to having a favourable business climate than just having a lower tax rate. Predictability is one of those things,” says Sarah Bonk, founder of Business for America, an alliance of companies working to improve government.
Many CEOs have also resented the extent to which controversies stirred up by Mr Trump have forced them to speak out about political issues, at the risk of alienating one side or another of a polarised electorate.
But corporate America’s frustrations with Washington predate Mr Trump, Ms Bonk adds: “If they didn’t have to think about the political climate because it was stable, because problems were being solved, because we have predictability in our markets, they would be thrilled. But we’ve seen a failure of government to solve big problems for decades.”
“Business leaders are not ideologues,” echoes Neil Bradley, chief policy officer for the US Chamber of Commerce: “Like most Americans they’re frustrated by the gridlock and the polarisation that they see in government and it’s now having tangible negative consequences.”
The failure to produce further coronavirus stimulus packages for a fragile economy has encapsulated that exasperation. “Five months and we still don’t have anything. That should not happen,” Mr Bradley says.
Last year, the Chamber pledged to start supporting candidates from either party who work constructively across the aisle. That has led the traditionally conservative group to inch towards Mr Biden’s party: this year it endorsed 30 Democrats in the House of Representatives, up from its usual handful, alongside 192 Republicans.
Corporate donations show a similar shift. Listed companies have given 13 per cent more to Democratic groups this year than in 2016, and 15 per cent less to Republicans, according to the Center for Political Accountability, although Republicans still raised double the Democrats’ $5m from this group.
Individual executives’ donations show the divides in the business community. “You have more of the buccaneer type of CEOs giving to Trump and more of the traditional CEOs giving to Biden,” says Bruce Freed, CPA’s president.
Mr Trump has been backed by 15 CEOs of companies in the S&P 500 index, including Jeffrey Sprecher of Intercontinental Exchange, Steven Roth of the property group Vornado and Sheldon Adelson, the Las Vegas Sands casino magnate who has poured $180m into the Republicans’ 2020 war chest.
But twice as many big company CEOs have given to Mr Biden’s campaign, MarketWatch calculated, led by Disney’s Bob Iger, Edward Breen of DuPont and Merck’s Ken Frazier. James Murdoch, whose father Rupert controls Fox News, has become one of the top Democratic donors.
Some of the biggest Republican corporate supporters in 2016, such as Paul Singer, Robert Mercer, Steven Cohen and Larry Ellison, have also cut back or disappeared this year. And while Citadel’s Kenneth Griffin and Blackstone’s Stephen Schwarzman have vaulted into the top ranks of Republican donors, Mr Biden has also outraised Mr Trump by a wider margin than Hillary Clinton did on Wall Street. In 2012, Wall Street election funding favoured Mr Romney.
Some of these donations, Mr Freed notes, are about executives “buying access” to a Democratic party most expect to take the White House and perhaps the Senate.
Looking for a political home
Among corporate leaders, there are plenty of anxieties that a Biden victory could provide a platform for the policies prioritised by the Democratic party’s leftwing. Surveys from PwC and UBS show that executives see significantly greater risks on tax policy, healthcare reform and technology regulation should Democrats win. But they also see risks in a second Trump term, from a mismanaged pandemic, unfavourable trade policies and continued inaction on climate change.
Forecasts from Goldman Sachs and Moody’s that a Biden presidency offers better prospects for growth have provided “cover” to those executives who were looking for an economic excuse to break with Mr Trump.
Where CEOs find their next political home may depend heavily on events next week. The Chamber’s Mr Bradley still hopes that executives’ worst fears about election unrest are not realised, just as predictions of chaos at the turn of the millennium proved unfounded.
“I hope this is all like Y2K,” he says. But if the worst-case scenarios play out, he adds, “you will hear more from the business community”.
A pivotal moment for Scotland’s independence champion
Nicola Sturgeon, Scotland’s first minister, has credited her former mentor and predecessor Alex Salmond with making her career.
Sturgeon’s appearance on Wednesday morning before a parliamentary inquiry into her Scottish National party government’s handling of harassment complaints against Salmond will be a potentially pivotal moment for her, and her dream of leading Scotland to independence from the UK.
At an extraordinary appearance before the parliament committee on Friday lasting almost six hours, Salmond accused Sturgeon’s closest associates of maliciously colluding to drive him from public life and his former protégée of breaching the ministerial code by intentionally misleading parliament — potentially a resignation matter.
Sturgeon denies the allegations. But the televised session must have made difficult viewing for the formerly shy working-class girl from Ayrshire in south-west Scotland who has, in recent years, helped bring her nation closer to independence than at any time since the 1707 union with England that created Great Britain.
When Sturgeon succeeded Salmond as first minister in 2014 — in the aftermath of a referendum in which Scottish voters backed staying in the union by 55-45 per cent — she was fulsome in praise of her predecessor. “Without the guidance and support that Alex has given me over more than 20 years, it is unlikely that I would be standing here,” she told the Scottish parliament.
But Salmond was hardly the first figure in the SNP to spot Sturgeon’s talent. Aged just 16, Sturgeon in 1987 timidly rang the bell of then SNP general election candidate Kay Ullrich to offer her support. Four years later Sturgeon was a veteran student campaigner and, according to biographer David Torrance, Ullrich was presciently describing her to party comrades as the future “first female leader of the SNP”.
Sturgeon, who describes her nationalism as more “utilitarian” than “existentialist”, has said her early interest in politics was driven by anger at the social cost and deindustrialising impact of the policies of late UK prime minister Margaret Thatcher and the powerlessness of Scottish voters to resist them.
After studying law at Glasgow university, she became a community lawyer and a rising SNP star. In 1999, she was elected to the new devolved Scottish parliament and by 2004 she was a contender for the party leadership. But she accepted the junior place on a joint ticket after Salmond, who had already led the SNP from 1990 to 2000, entered the race.
Robert Johns, politics professor at Essex university and author of a book on the SNP’s rise, said Sturgeon was a big factor in the party’s fortunes as deputy leader from 2004 and as deputy first minister of Scotland after it won power in Edinburgh in 2007.
“She’s got better and better at being seen as a normal human being and becoming likeable, while at the same time not losing that reputation for competence,” Johns said.
After playing a central role in the 2014 referendum, which the pro-independence Yes campaign lost by a much smaller margin than expected, Sturgeon took over an SNP energised rather than dispirited by defeat.
Today, the first minister enjoys approval ratings unmatched by any other UK party leader despite 14 years in government and a patchy record on key policies.
An international education survey in 2019 found Scotland’s progress in narrowing the attainment gap between advantaged and disadvantaged pupils had actually slowed since Sturgeon made the issue her top priority four years earlier. And the SNP’s reputation for governing competence has been dented by serious problems with construction and equipment at flagship hospitals in Edinburgh and Glasgow.
Sturgeon’s instinctive caution and mastery of detail — on display at near-daily televised briefings — appears to have served her well during the coronavirus pandemic. Most voters think she has handled the crisis better than UK prime minister Boris Johnson. While Covid-19 deaths in Scotland are high by international standards, they have been somewhat lower than in England.
But Sturgeon’s determination to keep a tight rein on the SNP and her reliance on a small inner circle of confidants, which includes her husband and SNP chief executive Peter Murrell, has fuelled discontent among some party colleagues. Formidable self-discipline was an ingredient in the once anarchic SNP’s rise, Johns said, but now the party felt “over-professionalised”. “It’s more top-down than it ever used to be,” he added.
Some in the SNP also believe that Sturgeon has been too cautious to take full advantage of a rise in support for independence since the UK in 2016 voted for Brexit despite 62 per cent of Scottish voters backing staying in the EU. Tensions in the party have also grown over her plans to make it easier for trans people to receive official recognition for the gender they identify as.
But it is the rift with Salmond that now threatens Sturgeon’s hopes for a renewed push for a second independence poll.
Relations between the two had already been tested by Salmond’s decision to host a chat show on Kremlin-backed Russian broadcaster RT when in 2018 two civil servants made formal complaints against the former first minister dating to his time of office.
In 2019, the Scottish government accepted that its investigation into the complaints had been “tainted by apparent bias”. At a criminal trial last year, Salmond was acquitted of all of the 13 sexual offences charges against him.
Salmond has accused Murrell and Sturgeon’s chief of staff Liz Lloyd of involvement in a “concerted” effort to damage his reputation “to the extent of having me imprisoned”. They deny the allegations.
Salmond has also accused Sturgeon of breaching the ministerial code by misleading parliament about when she learned of the complaints against him and by failing to report meetings between the two. And he says she has presided over a broad failure of “national leadership”.
They are charges that, if proven, could prove politically fatal, but Sturgeon — a formidable debater — says she is “relishing” the opportunity to set the record straight on Wednesday.
With crucial elections for the Scottish parliament just nine weeks away, her committee appearance could have a major impact on the UK’s constitutional debate, said Mark Diffley, a consultant on Scottish public opinion.
Polls suggest the SNP has been on course to go from minority to majority government, removing its need to rely on the pro-independence Scottish Greens for support on constitutional matters and providing a strong mandate to demand UK approval for a second referendum.
But securing a majority in the proportionally representative Scottish parliament is a difficult feat that would be made harder if Sturgeon was not seen to effectively rebut Salmond’s allegations, Diffley said. “She can, with a good performance, recover some of the damage,” he added. “It’s a huge deal for her — and she knows it.”
Can the lumbering US housing department become a force for change?
One of Marcia Fudge’s first big battles as an elected official was over a shopping centre in Warrensville Heights, Ohio.
A developer wanted to build a hub for major retailers in the largely black Cleveland suburb, which has a population of 13,000. But Fudge would not have it. Warrensville Heights did not want “giant retail stores,” but office space and hotels, she said.
“We also control our own destiny and our own vision for the future,” Fudge, who was mayor of Warrensville Heights between 2000 and 2008, said at the time. “The days of plantation rule are over.”
Fudge won that battle and many others like it, and is widely credited for revitalising the area during her eight years as mayor.
Now she is being counted on by progressives to do the same in urban areas across the US as President Biden’s nominee to lead the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). The $50bn agency manages 1m units of public housing and oversees a vast array of federally-funded housing programs — from insuring mortgage loans to voucher programs for low-income families.
Housing reform is expected to be a key part of Biden’s efforts to support the black voters who propelled him into office, many of whom still deal with the consequences of decades of segregation and discrimination in America’s housing market.
Malcolm Glenn, a fellow at the New America think-tank, called Fudge’s appointment to HUD “a real opportunity” to make tangible progress on an issue where race and economics are tightly bound.
“If this administration and Secretary Fudge make racial equity, not just a core, but sort of the singular core guiding force around everything that they do, I think we’ll be in a much much much better place than we’ve ever been,” Glenn says. “I don’t think any HUD secretary has ever done that.”
Ro Khanna, a Democratic Representative from California, believes Fudge is uniquely qualified for the job. “She understands deeply housing inequity, she understands racial exclusion,” Khanna said. “[She will] really focus on equity in housing and anti-racist zoning laws and anti-racist policies.”
But to deliver on those hopes, Fudge will have to grapple with a demoralised agency facing dual crises. An unprecedented number of Americans face the threat of eviction because of the Covid crisis. And inside HUD, a mass exodus of career staffers under previous Secretary Ben Carson has decimated the ranks.
Congress slashed the department’s operating budget by 15 per cent last year.
Carson, a black surgeon who grew up in public housing, did not believe that it was the government’s responsibility to rectify the effects of systemic racism on the American housing market.
HUD also has a long record of underdelivering, and has sometimes been regarded as a backwater of government. Rates of home ownership among blacks have been largely stagnant since the 1968 Fair Housing Act outlawed discriminatory policies that, among other ills, made it exceedingly difficult for blacks to take out mortgages.
Even Fudge acknowledged its shortcomings soon after her nomination. “I don’t know that anybody can even tell you what HUD has done,” she said. “So I really do think that HUD has not fulfilled its mission.”
Fudge, 68, has lived in the same tightly-knit neighbourhood for decades. Her personal phone number is listed in the local phone book, and she drives her 89-year-old mother to church every Sunday morning, stopping first at McDonald’s for a cup of coffee.
Her success in Warrensville Heights elevated her to Congress before the end of her second mayoral term. But her ascent was also tinged with tragedy: she was elected to fill the seat of her close friend and former boss, Congresswoman Stephanie Tubbs Jones when she died suddenly in August 2008.
“She’s tough as nails and I have to caution her sometimes about being too tough,” said Jim Clyburn, the House majority whip, adding that Fudge is the first person that fellow members of the Congressional Black Caucus members confide in during a crisis.
During her time in Congress, she worked closely with the Department of Agriculture, an agency not often thought to be at the forefront of the fight for racial justice. But Fudge prodded it to expand food voucher programs, development schemes in rural areas, and for clearer labelling on food products.
She was actually angling for the top agriculture job when Biden tapped her for HUD instead. Last year, she told Politico in November: “You know, it’s always ‘we want to put the black person in [the Department of] Labor or HUD.’”
At HUD, Fudge has proposed boosting spending on housing, establishing programs to help Americans save up for mortgage down payments, and transforming a voucher program for low-income renters from a lottery to a guarantee for everyone that meets the requirements.
“Her style is not combative. She prefers to get along, but she’s not a pushover,” said Cleveland mayor Frank Jackson, who worked closely with Fudge during her mayoral tenure. “That means just don’t piss her off.”
In response to a question at her confirmation hearing from Republican Arkansas Senator Tom Cotton on what he called a “long history of intemperate comments”, Fudge replied: “Sometimes I am a little passionate about things.”
She is almost certain to meet further opposition. During the confirmation hearing, Pennsylvania’s Republican Senator Patrick Toomey complained that Obama-era fair housing policies were too costly and time consuming for home builders — and Fudge wants to go much farther than the Obama administration did.
People who know Fudge do not expect her to back down. “I think President Biden and his team want to have a slugger in that position,” said Tami Jackson Buckner, a partner Michael Best Strategies and sorority sister of Fudge’s. “She is someone who knows that without a home, it’s hard to fulfil your American dream.”
Britons brace for price of UK going to net zero
When the UK became the world’s first major economy to commit to a binding target of “net zero” carbon emissions by 2050, it had already made good progress with its electricity grid.
The rapid growth of renewable energy in the UK and the closure of many coal-fired power stations has cut the sector’s emissions by more than 70 per cent since 1990, and sent cleaner electricity to homes with minimum impact on consumers’ lives.
But as chancellor Rishi Sunak prepares to deliver a green-tinged Budget on Wednesday, and the UK gets ready to host the UN COP26 climate conference in Glasgow in November, experts are warning that decarbonising the electricity grid was in many ways the easy part of the journey to net zero.
“This year half the electrons supplied to British homes were green, but that doesn’t matter much to the consumer — the next stage of reforms and changes will be very different,” said Chris Stark, chief executive of the Committee on Climate Change, an independent body that advises the government on how to reach net zero.
The next leg of the journey will require consumers to adapt the way they live and, for those able to pay, also get their wallets out.
Hitting the net zero target will require sweeping changes in two key areas: transport, as the shift to electric cars accelerates, and buildings, where an overhaul is required to the way 30m homes are heated and insulated.
And the shift to low-carbon vehicles and swapping out of gas boilers for electric heat pumps presents the government with a series of delicate political and fiscal choices.
The projected cost is immense: the CCC estimates that annual capital spending largely by the private sector in greening the economy will peak at £50bn a year by 2030. That represents about one-eighth of current investment by the public and private sectors.
However, the CCC calculates that from the mid-2040s savings in operating spending — stemming in significant part from how it will be cheaper to run an electric car than a petrol-engine vehicle — will start to exceed the annual investment.
The greening of transport and homes will create winners and losers, and the government has yet to clarify where the cost burden will fall. The Treasury has said it will later this year publish a net zero review, setting out in more detail “how the costs of achieving net zero emissions are distributed”.
For transport, which the CCC estimates will require £11.4bn of average annual investment over the next 30 years, the political pathway is easier than for buildings, according to Josh Buckland, who was an adviser to former business secretary Greg Clark and is now at consultancy firm Flint Global.
“Transport is to some degree a solvable problem,” he said. “Consumers can buy cars through financing deals, and so don’t have to pay up front costs.”
Still, there are political potholes ahead. As the UK car fleet goes electric, the Treasury will need to find a way to recoup the £37bn a year it currently secures from carbon taxes, mostly fuel duty and vehicle excise duty.
The main contenders for replacing that revenue, said Buckland, are some combination of per-mile road-pricing and congestion charging — both ideas the Treasury has been toying with for years but shied away from for fear of a political backlash.
But far more problematic than transport, according to experts, will be the greening of the UK’s housing stock, which the CCC estimates will require £11.7bn of average annual investment over the next 30 years — and a massive shift in consumer attitudes.
A 2020 poll by Energy Systems Catapult, a non-profit organisation, found that 49 per cent of people did not even consider their gas boilers as contributing to global warming — even though they account for almost one-fifth of carbon emissions.
The gap in public understanding is a huge challenge, according to Joss Garman of the European Climate Foundation, another non profit organisation. “Right now there is a big gulf about where the policy conversation is on decarbonising heat and where the public conversation is,” he said.
The scale of the necessary transition is also immense. The UK currently installs an estimated 30,000 electric heat pumps a year, while the government’s own goal is 600,000 a year by 2028, but to hit the net zero target installations will need to run at well over 1m a year into the 2030s and 2040s.
The CCC estimates that it will cost an average of £10,000 per household to achieve the target, with heat pumps priced at about £6,500 compared to £2,000 for a conventional gas boiler.
In its interim net zero review published in December, the Treasury was vague about how these costs will be borne, noting that they will be absorbed by households, property owners or the taxpayer, “depending on policy choices”.
Compared to transport, where an electric car is obviously attractive to the consumer, the political challenge of greening the nation’s homes are legion, said Buckland.
“Firstly there is the upfront cost issue for homeowners, but also the consumer experience is different,” he added. “Gas boilers heat your home at the flick of a switch, whereas a heat pump takes 24 hours and heats the home to 17 to 19 degrees. It will require an attitudinal shift.”
Persuading consumers to spend money on heat pumps and loft insulation rather than kitchens and bathrooms will require a cocktail of grants and incentives, said Stark, which the government has so far failed to devise.
“There isn’t a technical barrier here, so much as the lack of a plan,” he added.
To drive change, the government could consider flipping the balance of energy taxes on to gas from electricity, which currently attracts far higher greenhouse gas levies.
Whatever the policy decisions, said Stark, the government will soon have to put some cards on the table when the Treasury publishes its net zero review before the UN COP26 summit. “To be credible it will have to spell out a clear plan . . . and that includes the fiscal choices ahead.”
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