How does Trump do it? Every decision he makes is equal parts shocking and unsurprising. The nomination of Rex Tillerson to be Secretary of State is just the latest example. Perhaps it’s that there’s still some cognitive dissonance for most between the words “President-Elect” and “Donald J. Trump.” Would it be shocking if the President-Elect of the United States picked an oil-and-gas magnate and Putin pleaser with no government or official diplomatic experience to be Secretary of State? Absolutely. Would it be surprising if Donald Trump did this? Absolutely not.
Tillerson fits Trump’s idea of an übermensch. He’s worked at Exxon, now the sixth largest U.S. company, since 1975, consistently climbing the ranks until becoming CEO in 2006. He’s the capitalist dream personified, the sort of person a meritocracy is supposed to reward: a guy whose hard work was rewarded every step of the way by his company until he reached the top. And he did it all without his father giving him a small loan of a million dollars. No wonder Trump is impressed.
Why would a President-Elect who wears his political inexperience like a badge of honor hire an experienced diplomat to be his Secretary of State? Doesn’t it make sense his main qualifier for this position would be, you know, how to make money abroad? He’s sure got the guy for it if that’s his only concern. Tillerson generates huge profits for his company through domestic and international negotiation, he provides its goods and services throughout the world. It would seem that in Trump’s mind, there is no quantifiable difference between a business deal to generate mutual financial gains and a sweat-on-brow negotiation wherein innocent lives hang in the balance.
Speaking of innocent lives, let’s talk about Tillerson, Putin and the dark irony that his appointment shared headline space with the final farewells from some of Aleppo’s citizens. He’s been working with Putin for nearly twenty years due to Exxon’s deals with the Russian state-owned oil company, Rosneft. In 2013, he was presented Russia’s Order of Friendship, an award for work done by foreigners to better international relations and the country itself, for Exxon’s work improving Russia’s energy sector.
At the University of Texas, Tillerson gave a speech wherein he said of Putin, “I don’t agree with everything he’s doing. I don’t agree with everything a lot of leaders are doing. But he understands that I am a businessman. And I have invested a lot of money, our company has invested a lot of money, in Russia, very successfully.” As of now, it doesn’t seem like Trump would implore Tillerson to take any sort of different tact with Putin. The death of Syrian innocents at the hands of Russian-backed forces shouldn’t be reason to question the art of the deal. It’s not just Putin either, Tillerson and Trump have long track records of dealing with various autocrats for monetary gain. Money stays green even when the streets run red with blood.
Damn near every appointment to Trump’s Cabinet thus far signals that, abroad and at home, ethics are secondary to economics. In Trumptopia, the State Department needn’t require much beyond the sort of diplomatic negotiations becoming of a CEO. Lurking beneath Trump’s “why-can’t-we-all-just-get-along” rhetoric on war isn’t an ideological commitment to nonintervention and pacifism. It’s a commitment to maximizing gains even when you’re dealing with psychopaths, to turning a blind eye to all the bad stuff as long as there’s a chance of some good stuff coming your way. This shouldn’t come as a surprise considering Tillerson’s favorite book is Atlas Shrugged. Add him to the list of devout Christians who somehow don’t see a discrepancy between the principles of Jesus and Ayn Rand.
Tillerson and Trump can both work with people like Putin because how they run their countries isn’t something they’d naturally consider their business. Their countries’ business is what they consider their business. The Syrian Civil War, the annexation of Crimea and a newly confident and aggressive Russia are footnotes to a larger bill of goods. You don’t need to think your business partner is a saint as long as you know you can both keep each other rich and getting richer.
This isn’t something that’s new to American foreign policy. As with so many things, it’s just more brazen with Trump and his cronies. What kept us out of Syria is what drove us into Iraq: it was monetarily and politically viable at the time. If you want to see why some bad people are our enemies and some worse people are our allies, just follow the money.
In the interest of fairness, it’s worth pointing out that Tillerson isn’t some sort of Snidely Whiplash cartoon villain. He’s a trustee for the Center for Strategic & International Studies, so he’s clearly interested in improving relations between countries beyond just personal monetary gain. He was President of the Boy Scouts of America alongside running Exxon from 2010 to 2012 and led the campaign to allow openly gay boys to join the organization. Exxon matched its employees’ donations to Planned Parenthood, even if they’re distancing themselves from this now. These led to him being blasted by Tony Perkins, a major figure on the religious right. That’s not something most people in Republican administrations can say happened to them.
He’s open to revising how his oil and gas company does business in light of scientific discoveries about climate change, even saying a carbon tax would be a decent idea. He’s with Trump on deregulation but against him when it comes to the TPP and free trade in general. He’s defended Common Core. He’s married with four kids, he’s going to take a massive salary cut to become Secretary of State and so on and so forth. In other words, he’s a nuanced person and I don’t think we’re going to see an Access Hollywood tape dropping with him in it soon.
Still, his appointment is cause for concern. Isn’t everything these days? In a speech about his dealings abroad, Tillerson once said, “I’m not here to represent the United States government’s interest. I’m not here to defend it nor am I here to criticize it. That’s not what I do—I’m a businessman.” Well, now he has to and there’s reason to believe it won’t be that different from how he represented Exxon. Or that he could repeat this exact quote and mean it as Secretary of State as much as he did as Exxon’s CEO.
The central question of Trump’s foreign policy is: what’s in it for us? It’s not a bad question unless it’s the only one. Based on how Trump talks about foreign policy, about everything, it very well might be. For what it’s worth, Tillerson is the perfect person to ask it over and over again.