Credibility in Business and Government

[This post was inspired by an email discussion after my last CLE webinar, “Lawyers & Lies.”]

Prior to the 2016 Presidential election, it wasn’t exactly a secret that Donald Trump is a less-than-effective businessman. Those familiar with how businesses operate and grow know that building a business empire through real estate and one’s gilded name, on the back of inherited wealth, is no marker of an excellent business operator.

The signs were all there: the bankruptcies, the reliance on a small coterie of loyalists and family, the rumors of shady dealings, the repeated stories about screwing over counterparties (often tradespeople and small-scale vendors), and the lack of any business vision other than the simple logic of commercial real estate: leveraging other people’s money and hoping that rents rise and assets inflate fast enough to outpace debt service.

So I doubt that any serious business person voted for Trump on the commonly-held assumption that he would wield his “business acumen” to bring the problems of unruly government to heel. 1 But plenty of people less familiar with business surely bought in to this pipe dream, assuming that Trump’s gold-festooned lifestyle was a proxy for serious mastery of all things business.

It should now be obvious – to ¬†all but the willfully blind – that the assumption of Trump’s business skills has been put soundly and firmly to bed. The failures of operational discipline were apparent from the start, from the disorganized transition to the complete goat rodeo that represented Trump’s first travel ban rollout – an egregious bit of policy that nonetheless could have easily been landed successfully had a defter hand been at the helm. But beyond this lack of operating chops, we are now seeing the impact of another, even more critical form of business currency that Trump seems devoid of: credibility.

Presidents and politicians, even more than business leaders, are notorious for spin, overstatement, and failed predictions. But this doesn’t mean they don’t retain – and rely on – some reservoir of core credibility. That much of what they say, particularly when making statements of fact and important or personal commitments, can be fundamentally trusted.

Trump is something else entirely. In the New York Times yesterday, David Leonhardt offered a good overview of the President’s many, many confabulations. Yet while the man is clearly a liar (in the sense that so many of his untruthful utterances, unlike the spin or failed predictions of other politicians, are clearly intentional), he is also something more: a bullshitter. The bullshitter will lie, certainly. But more fundamentally, the bullshitter doesn’t care about the truth. Whatever he says is whatever he says – it’s just a means to end. He says whatever he needs to say to get to where he wants to be.

And the thing is, being a bullshitter probably worked pretty well in Trump’s sad, shoddy, little business empire. You can shine on lenders, as long as they get paid or you’ve got an escape hatch via bankruptcy. You can stiff your “little guy” vendors, because what are they going to do, sue? And you can take advantage of the star-struck and gullible, because suckers abound when celebrity (even of the tarnished, C-list variety) is around.

But lacking credibility doesn’t work in real business, or – as Trump is learning – in government. First of all is the transparency: people start checking things out. They follow up to see if you did what you said you were going to do. And they call you on your bullshit when you lie or fail to follow through.

Even worse for the bullshitter who finds himself out of his depth is the fact that the loss of credibility makes it really hard to get things done. While our society has lots of contracts, laws, and verification procedures, there are myriad points where we invest – time, money, effort – based on our trust of another person. Imagine if you didn’t trust a counterparty to not retrade or willfully breach an agreement. Would you invest the time to negotiate a deal with them anyway? Of course not. The same goes for government – the bullshitter’s got no ability to cajole, persuade, or incentive. His bullshit has cost him any room to negotiate, because his counterparties don’t believe what he’s saying, and don’t trust that he will meet any commitments he makes. He’s stuck with nothing but punitive measures.

The punitive-and-petulant approach may have worked passably well in the gaudy corridors of Trump Tower. But as our 45th President is discovering, it’s not remotely enough to meet the challenge of running the country. Credibility must come first.

Notes:

  1. Although surely plenty voted for him on the assumption that he would adopt business-friendly policies, either hoping that collateral damage (to democratic institutions, national security, minority rights, etc.) would be minimized or out of a willingness to ignore such concerns. The first part of that seems to be working out so far.

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