Assessing the different ways people defend Donald Trump, you will sooner or later meet the argument that he is a “successful businessman.” This is rarely elaborated as it is regarded as self-explanatory. What it simply means is that he has made a lot of money from his commercial endeavors.
But this is not the standard of success in Catholic social teaching. For business to live up to its calling as a “noble vocation” (as Pope Francis calls it), the standard is quite a bit higher. As I’ve noted before, the principles in question are laid out in the Vatican’s Vocation of the Business Leader. The main idea is that business must always orient its activity toward the common good, rather than simply making money and outsourcing social responsibility to the public authorities.
From this perspective, the actions of business must be judged by three standards: do they produce good goods? Do they produce good work? And do they produce good wealth?
The emphasis on good goods means that business is called upon to produce goods and services that fulfill real human needs and facilitate real human flourishing. It must produce, as the Vatican document puts it, “goods that are truly good and services that truly serve.” It cannot be about frivolity and materialism, about feeding a consumerist mentality of constant novelty—as Pope Francis puts it, “a whirlwind of needless buying and spending.”
The good work dimension recognizes the primacy of employment given that work is also regarded as a vocation—as Pope Francis puts it, “part of the meaning of life on this earth, a path to growth, human development and personal fulfillment.” Catholic social teaching calls for the primacy of jobs over profits, labor over capital, but it makes a stronger claim—that the very ownership of the means of production is legitimate only to the extent that it serves “useful work” (this is from Pope John Paul II). And given this idea of a “joint vocation” between business and labor, Catholic social teaching endorses “joint ownership”—letting workers participate in running the business and sharing in the profits.
In terms of good wealth, Catholic social teaching calls upon business to create wealth sustainably and distribute it justly. While profit is legitimate, it cannot be the only—or indeed the primary—goal of business. Rather, business must be responsible to a wide array of stakeholders—not just shareholders, but workers, suppliers, consumers, the environment, and society at large. Catholic social teaching advocates a blurring of lines between for-profit and non-profit entities, so that businesses can simultaneously earn profits and serve a social function (this is from Pope Benedict XVI).
How does Donald Trump stack up against this yardstick? Pretty abysmally. Can anyone really claim that he produces goods and services that meet genuine needs or contribute to human flourishing? His main business ventures consist in flashy upmarket real estate for the super rich. His whole brand centers on excess and gaudy materialism. He makes money from casinos, beauty pageants, strip clubs, and quite probably pornography too (there’s been surprisingly little discussion of this, especially since the Republican plank opposes pornography). And in recent years, his main source of revenue seems to come from selling his brand name. It’s hard to think of a (legal) line of business with less social value.
Likewise, Trump does not behave virtuously in how he creates and distributes wealth. The most basic norm of justice in the economic arena is commutative justice—the justice between individuals, forming the basis of contracts and agreements. Yet while Trump brags about his skill in making deals, he does not seem overly bound by considerations of justice. He regularly fails to pay his workers and contractors what is due to them, daring them to sue him. He makes frequent use of bankruptcy to pass off his debts to others so he can walk off scot-free. Not surprisingly, American banks will not lend to him anymore.
Far from treating his workers with dignity, he takes great joy in belittling and firing people. This is a billionaire with a long record in cheating ordinary workers like dishwashers, bartenders, waiters, painters, plumbers, and carpenters. He has hired undocumented workers at substandard wages to work in substandard conditions. He has been sued by the government for racism—for refusing to rent his properties to minorities. He tried to force rent-controlled tenants out of his buildings so he could develop luxury condos, including by cutting off heat and hot water. He threatened to use eminent domain to evict a widow so he could build a limousine parking lot for his casino. And Trump University seems to have been a giant con job, seeking to extract money from desperate people.
Normally at this point, I would segue into one of the leading problems of American financial capitalism—the presumption that maximizing shareholder value is the sole aim of business. But this doesn’t really apply to Trump, as his investors also seem to get ripped off on a regular basis. The only real beneficiary of Donald Trump’s business activity is Donald Trump.
In sum, Trump’s business activities diverge from the principles of Catholic social teaching on a massive scale. In no way does he embody the virtues of a noble vocation. In no way can he be regarded as a successful business leader.
But how much of an aberration is Donald Trump really?
Compare him to Mitt Romney, another fabulously wealthy business leader. In some respects, Romney is everything Trump isn’t—earnest, honest, diligent, decent, loyal. And to his great credit, Romney opposes Trump’s candidacy. But in his business practices, is he really so different? Romney, remember, is one of the godfathers of the private equity movement that originated in the cut-throat world of finance in the 1980s. A main tactic of this industry is to buy up companies, saddle them with debt, squeeze out a profit and then be perfectly willing to let them collapse while walking away. Romney might not be a crude, brash, sociopath, but his business practices centered around maximizing short-term profits at the expense of workers and other stakeholders. His difference from Trump is one of degree rather than kind.
More generally, consider the many violations of justice by well-established businesses today—the refusal of wealthy corporations to pay living wages, appalling labor and environmental standards by multinationals in developing countries, a continuing culture of financial malfeasance on Wall Street, pharmaceutical companies pricing drugs beyond the means of the sick and dying, corporations dodging taxes with impunity, energy companies spreading lies about climate change to prevent a move away from fossil fuels. And yet these business practices are rarely scrutinized. They are considered normal.
So perhaps Trump is not so much an exception as an extreme manifestation of a morally compromised business model, a model that too few people are willing to question.
And this might help explain why, despite the litany of gravely unjust business practices, Trump is still regarded as a successful businessman. Perhaps the real problem is the low standard we employ to judge success.