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Is Trump an Ethical Businessman?

So, is Donald Trump a tough, visionary deal-maker? Or a lying, cheating scumbag? Neither? Or both?

Some politically engaged readers have challenged me to get off the fence and to give them an answer.

In honor of the upcoming Jewish New Year, I'll answer their question with a question: was Gordie Howe an ethical hockey player?

"Mr. Hockey" played professionally for 32 years. He was known for elbows, slashes, and fighting. A player's having one assist, one goal, and one fight in the same game became known as a "Gordie Howe Hat-Trick".

Trump himself boasts of being a bare-knuckled businessman. He gets involved in litigation more frequently than his peers, although many Trump cases involve casino guests who have failed to pay gambling debts. A recent review of his cases with a clear resolution gives him a 451-38 record. Over a highly visible 45-year career, he seems to have avoided criminal charges and large-scale verdicts for fraud or workplace harassment/discrimination. (The Trump University case is pending.) This does not look like the record of scoundrel. At the same time, you would not want to be alone in a lifeboat with Donald Trump without food and water for two. (The same would apply to many other successful people.)

Returning to Gordie Howe, sports fans know there are the formal rules of the game, and there is how the game is played. The latter represents a second set of rules, usually enforced tit-for-tat by the players themselves.

A big difference between Gordie Howe and Donald Trump, though, is that Howe's opponents could not refuse to play him. Financier JP Morgan once said, "[a] man I do not trust could not get money from me on all the bonds in Christendom." As a businessman, Trump has had to persuade people to contract with him. I doubt that JP Morgan would lend Donald Trump money. But, if Trump were as clearly unethical as some of his detractors allege, why have so many sophisticated investors, vendors, and tenants chosen to do business with him for so many years?

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