Donald Trump was elected president for a lot of reasons. His stands on issues like trade and immigration were popular in the hinterlands. His tough, often insulting, language was seen by many voters as straight talk, not boorish ignorance. He positioned himself as the anti-elite in an era when elites are in disrepute.
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But he also vaulted himself into the White House because he was perceived as a successful businessman who could solve the problems that all those weak-kneed, self-important politicians and policy wonks in Washington just can't cope with.
The idea of businessman as leader par excellence is not just prevalent among establishment Republicans, where you would expect to find it, but among ordinary voters as well. As Calvin Coolidge, one of those businessmen presidents said, “The business of America is business.”
Hardnose, soft mind?
But what is a businessman is supposed to offer that ordinary mortals like career politicians, lawyers, academics and generals cannot? (I use the term “businessman” intentionally: Among the devotees of the “businessman as leader,” a woman can’t cut it.)
One is a hardnosed approach to issues. A businessman doesn’t waste time on windy debates or kowtow to special interests. He makes tough decisions based on pragmatic considerations shorn of ideology.
Another is organizational ability – unlike a lawyer or a senator, a successful businessman has actually run something, and run it better than his competitors, or he wouldn’t be successful.
Businessmen have insights into how the world operates because they are in the middle of it. They don’t waste their time writing newspaper columns or making speeches or conducting studies. They do, they don’t think.
That all makes sense in theory. But history and historians agree that the record of businessmen as president has been pretty awful.
Employees don't vote
Of the seven presidents who have occupied the White House since 1920, three were booted out by voters after one term, and many of them ranked among the lousiest. Only Harry Truman made it into the top 10 in presidential rankings by two polls of historians.
Using the American Political Science Association rankings, Warren Harding (a newspaper publisher) was the worst of 43 presidents up to and including Obama; George W. Bush (an oilman) was 10th worst; and businessman Coolidge was only three places ahead of him. Six of the seven were in the bottom half for presidential performance since the founding of the republic.
Businessmen have different skills sets than elected officials need. A person heading a company doesn’t have to win the votes of his employees every four years. He doesn’t have to negotiate compromises and build coalitions, because companies are hierarchies.
He may answerable to a board of directors and to shareholders, but they have a very short list of requirements, namely that he or she make money. They won’t vote him out of office because they don’t like his views on abortion or the Middle East.
In any case, Trump isn’t much of a businessman. He talks tough but it’s mostly nonsense most of the time, pandering to voters with what they want to hear rather telling the truth.
Look at the insane debate over the size of the crowds at Friday’s inauguration. His attacks on the media for its estimates were both factually incorrect and petty. He spent his first hours in office engaged in name-calling about how popular he is, as if he had just been elected president of a junior high school student council instead of leader of the world’s most powerful country.
The Trump business is portrayed by Trump himself as a giant multinational, when in fact it employs no more than 4,000 people. At headquarters, a New York Times report says the staff is a small cadre of mostly long-time loyalists and management is personal and folksy, based on the boss’ whims.
By American standards, it’s a medium-sized business, albeit one with an extraordinarily high profile.
And, far from any visionary business ideas, the Trump’s business trajectory could be described as a descent from humdrum origins to pure fluff. He started out offering affordable housing to the middle class. In between pit stops in bankruptcy court and hosting a reality TV show, he moved steadily down the social-utility chain to developing luxury housing, casinos, golf courses and finally to licensing his name to be affixed to other people’s buildings and products.
That should make Donald Trump is the epitome of the kind of business that his voters should despise – few jobs and lots of branding. I suspect Trump voters don’t care. What they voted for was an actor playing the role of businessman to the hilt, and in an age of fact-bending, that was enough for them.