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(Image via usnews.com)

The proposal that Trump should pardon any of his advisers who break the rules could be an omen for the new era of "anything goes" business ethics, writes Professor Carl Rhodes.

JUST WEEKS AWAY from Donald Trump’s inauguration, public debate is still raging about the ethical conflict between his presidency and his vast international business empire. 

Also at stake are the fortunes of the members of his cabinet coming from the U.S. business elite and conservative wealth.

Trump claims this is just a media beat up.

Questioned about his plans for his businesses at his press conference on 28 December, he responded dismissively:

“Oh, yeah, that’s very routine. Honestly, you people are making that a big deal ...”

This reiterated his comments in November when he tweeted:

“Prior to the election it was well known that I have interests in properties all over the world. Only the crooked media makes this a big deal!”

But it’s not just the media who thinks this is a big deal. The U.S. Office of Government Ethics has approached this matter in an unprecedented way, with its head, Walter Schaub Jnr taking to Twitter to encourage Trump to totally divest himself of his businesses. Others have questioned whether his business affairs could render Trump in violation of the U.S. Constitution on his first day as president.   

Apparently unperturbed, the debate over ethics isn’t one that Trump has felt the need to put to a quick end. In December, he postponed a press conference where he was set to outline how he would manage his business relationships as president. That now won’t happen until sometime later this month.

Time will tell how exactly Trump chooses to deal with his conflicts of interest as president, but what has happened so far, already forebodes how the game of business ethics is being rewritten in the wake of the U.S. election. This isn’t all down to Trump himself but reflects the forms of extreme neoliberalism that his election has begun to unearth and render increasingly legitimate.

Nowhere can this be seen more barely that in statements made late last year by Republican party stalwart and Trump acolyte Newt Gingrich. In relation to business interests, Gingrich proposed that president-elect Trump should offer a blanket pardon to any of his advisers who “behaved against the rules”.

Gingrich’s proposal is truly terrifying. He is basically suggesting that the rules and laws designed to govern conflicts of interest should not apply inside the Trump White House. If this was done it would be nothing less that instituting the equivalent of a "state of exception" as a modus operandi.

Governing by pardon is asking Trump not to act like a president of a democracy, but like a sovereign who can operate above and beyond the law, and grant that same privilege to those around him. The ethics this abides would effectively mean that the democratic force of the rule of law would not apply to Team Trump like it does to everyone else. Specifically, certain business interests would be immune from the law.

Back in 1970, Milton Friedman proclaimed that a business person’s ethical responsibility is

'... to make as much money as possible while conforming to the basic rules of the society.' 

For years, this ethical edict has served as a rationalisation for the ways that wealthy corporations ruthlessly pursue self-interest with scant concern for the effects of their actions on others.

The new proposal is much more severe. What is being suggested is that Friedman’s doctrine be taken one dangerous step further, so that when it comes to the United States’ wealthiest business elite cum politicians, not even basic rules and laws should apply. 

Gingrich has got to the heart of what business ethics might become in the era of Trump. For years, conservative politicians have promoted an agenda of deregulation and minimising state intrusion on corporate affairs on a global level. Gingrich appears to be taking this neoliberal logic to its dangerous extreme.

On the election trail, Trump may have been applauded by his followers for promising to "drain the swamp of corruption in Washington", but by Gingrich’s admission

“We have never seen this kind of wealth in the White House and so traditional rules don’t work.

There we have it in its most brutish simplicity: as far as ethics is concerned, the rich and powerful should be exempt from the rules that apply to everyone else. If that is the case then we might see the frayed ties that bind capitalism to democracy finally severed.

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