It’s not surprising that Merriam Webster named “surreal” its word of 2016, the most maddening time in recent memory. According to the official dictionary of record, searches for the definition of “surreal” spiked several times throughout last year, with the strongest surge coming after Donald Trump’s electoral victory in early November.
As defined by its founder Andre Breton in his 1924, Surrealist Manifesto, “surrealism” describes thought processes that happen “in the absence of any control exercised by reason, exempt from any aesthetic or moral concern.” As curious Googlers came to realize, that feels like an accurate summation of how it felt to watch Donald Trump be elected president–and in Wilbur Ross, the president-elect’s pick for Secretary of Commerce, Trump may have found his foremost practitioner, and purchaser, of surrealism.
Ross—a collector of surrealist art, especially the Belgian painter René Magritte—is a depressingly telling choice for Commerce Secretary. He has primarily made his billions through swooping in to leverage distressed companies, a practice made most famous by Mitt Romney’s Bain Capital. But where Bain invested in companies like Domino’s and Duane Reade, Ross has a history of raiding businesses in industries that Trump has promised to bring back, or keep, in the U.S.—textiles, steel and coal, most prominently.
“If you deal a lot with distressed companies, surrealism is a natural thing for you to collect, because distressed companies are in their own surrealistic world,” Ross, who looks a bit like popcorn magnate Orville Redenbacher, told the Globe and Mail last year. “There is usually something a little bit strange, a little bit skewed or out of order.”
Like Magritte’s famous bowler hat paintings, Ross is only superficially staid. In reality, he is a radical who is deeply attracted to the “skewed,” and skilled at manipulation. One of the first distressed businesses Ross dealt with was owned by Trump, when the president-elect’s Atlantic City properties were failing in the early ‘90s. Ross stepped in, as part of
Rothschild Inc., one of the world’s largest financial advisory groups in the world (and the subject of largely anti-Semitic conspiracy theories dating back to the 18th century, which is notable in retrospect given the tenor of Trump’s campaign). Ross helped broker a deal to keep the Donald afloat, saying, quite correctly though not for reasons he knew at the time, that there was still a lot of value in the “Trump name.”
After Ross left Rothschild, he began investing in the deindustrialization of America. In 2002, he bought shuttered mills from a bankrupt steel company in Cleveland, as well as the steel mill at Sparrows Point near Baltimore, where the previous owner had already declared bankruptcy. This allowed Ross to cut costs by ignoring any of the previous owners’ economic obligations.
“That eliminates, on the part of the company, any responsibility to fund pensions,” said Bill Barry, a labor historian. Barry calls Ross a “bottom feeder.” Others would call him a “vulture capitalist.” Former steelworkers had mixed feelings. Younger workers “made more money with bonuses and stuff like that through the new employers,” Barry said. “But it was blood money.” The older workers were furious. “It was money that was taken, billion dollars a year, from the healthcare and the retirement and the pensioners,” Barry said. “They were the ones who built the union, and built the company, and they were just cast aside” for short-term gains.