The shadow of Charles Erwin Wilson hovers over Donald Trump.
“Are you the spirit, sir, whose coming was foretold to me?” Trump asks, annoyed at the interrupted in his normal four hours of sleep.
“I am!” the apparition answers.
“Who, and what are you?” the grumpy president-elect demands, adjusting his nightcap to cover his bed head.
The ethereal voice echoes. “I am the Ghost of Business Past.”
In the modern version of the story, the ghost misleads rather than enlightens.
Wilson, who served as president of GM before becoming Defense secretary under President Dwight Eisenhower, is best known for having said, “What’s good for General Motors is good for the country.”
Except that’s not what he said. When asked during contentious confirmation hearings whether he could make a decision as secretary that might harm the profit margin of his old company, he answered yes. However, he added, “I cannot conceive of (a conflict of interest) because for years I thought that what was good for our country was good for General Motors, and vice versa.”
The subtle difference between the two statements may become clear in a 21st-century America run by rich business executives.
Like Wilson, Trump secretary of State nominee Rex Tillerson has vast holdings in his company, Exxon Mobil, which he has headed for the last decade. Also like Wilson, Tillerson has no government background, although he has years of experience in dealing with foreign leaders and international competitors.
Yet Tillerson would be serving in a dramatically different time, under a president who has never been in combat, who wants to expand defense spending. While Eisenhower warned against the military-industrial complex, Trump would fortify it. Eisenhower and Wilson fought the Cold War. Trump and Tillerson seek to warm up relations with Russia.
Another crucial difference: When Wilson answered the question at his hearing in January 1953, when Donald Trump was a budding young businessman at the impressionable age of 6, GM was still identified as an American company. Last year, it sold more cars in China than it did in the U.S. The company, like Exxon, is now multinational, even extranational.
Globalization doesn’t simply mean the export of American jobs, as Trump often framed it on the campaign trail. It also means foreign revenues, acquisition of international assets and operations, and tax dodges such as moving headquarters to countries with lower tax rates.
The potential for corporate interests conflicting with those of the United States has grown immeasurably since Wilson’s era. The New York Times recently reported on these possibilites, noting an instance when Tillerson sidestepped American diplomats to cut a deal in Iraq. As the Times wrote, “The move undermined Iraq’s central government, strengthened Kurdish independence ambitions and contravened the stated goals of the United States.”
A more glaring instance is the U.S. sanctions on Russia, imposed by the Obama administration in 2014 in response to Vladimir Putin’s aggression in Ukraine. Lifting those sanctions would benefit Russia and Exxon. Whether the U.S. and Europe would be better off is a debate that will rage for years, and will no doubt be central to investigations of Russia’s role in Trump’s election.
One can almost hear the 45th president exclaiming: “No more! I don’t wish to see it. Show me no more!”