The GOP's autocratic "businessman" obsession: Why running a company is horrible training for running the country

It had been Mitt Romney. Now it's Donald Trump. Republicans are in love with the idea of the president as CEO

Conor Lynch
September 11, 2015 1:59PM (UTC)

Back in 2012, as Mitt Romney was doing his best to capture the presidency from Barack Obama, he made some silly comments on why, as such an accomplished businessman (i.e., corporate raider) he would make a tremendous leader of the free world. After speaking to a restaurant owner, Romney buoyantly recalled the conversation:

“He said, ‘You know, I’d like to change the Constitution, I’d like to have a provision in the Constitution that in addition to the age of the president and the citizenship of the president and the birthplace of the president ... I’d like it also to say that the president has to spend at least three years working in business before he could become president of the United States.’”

While Romney did not actually endorse this bizarre constitutional provision, he did say that business experience would help a president “understand that the policies they’re putting in place have to encourage small business, make it easier for business to grow."


Throughout his campaign, Romney’s business credentials were his major selling points, and throughout his campaign, columnists pointed out that, historically, businessmen actually make pretty bad presidents. And it’s true. Though not many businessmen have been president of the United States, those that have were pretty terrible leaders. In fact, some of the lowest ranked presidents -- George W. Bush, Herbert Hoover, Warren Harding, Andrew Johnson -- were very successful businessmen. (Although, let's be honest, W. wouldn’t have been a successful businessman without his family.) On the other hand, Harry Truman, who is usually thought of as one of the better presidents (which is debatable), was a complete failure in business.

So is there any legitimate reason to believe that running a business prepares one to run a country? The GOP base seems to think so, and it’s looking more and more like the Republican candidate may once again be a businessman -- this time one of the most famous and arrogant businessmen of our time.

Donald Trump hasn’t simply been stating his business credentials, which he does just about every time he speaks. He has been quite literally campaigning like it’s a CEO position that he is running for. When discussing international affairs, it is as if he believes foreign countries -- China, Iran, Mexico -- are other companies, and his goal is to drive them into bankruptcy. To accomplish this, he will apparently use whatever tools are available, even if it goes against GOP free market orthodoxy. Case in point, he has advocated enacting high tariffs to force Mexico to build a wall at the border and to make China stop depreciating it’s currency, which he believes it has been doing for a long time -- which, by the way, it hasn’t.


The Trump campaign seems to be all about beating competition. For Trump, it is "us versus them," whether them is his competing GOP and Democratic candidates, foreign nations, undocumented immigrants -- it is a kind of zero sum game, and Trump is a winner. He will make America great again, like his hotels, casinos, golf courses, and resorts.

Of course, running a country and running a corporation are very different things. Sure, all countries want to advance their own interests and get the best trade and foreign policy deals -- but competing with other private companies and competing with other countries that have militaries and in some cases nuclear weapons are not exactly analogous. A private company runs for a profit, and is not concerned about society at large. It will nonchalantly damage the environment, ship jobs overseas, treat workers terribly, and so on -- unless, of course, consumers or the government demand it mend its ways. A democratic government, on the other hand, is expected to be run for the people and society at large. The government does all of the necessary but unprofitable jobs, like building and maintaining infrastructure, providing education to every child, defending the people from belligerent nations, supporting young but critical industries, etc.

Paul Krugman summed up nicely the difference between economic policy and running a corporation back in a 2012 column:


“Making good economic policy isn’t at all like maximizing corporate profits...Why isn’t a national economy like a corporation? For one thing, there’s no simple bottom line. For another, the economy is vastly more complex than even the largest private company. Most relevant for our current situation, however, is the point that even giant corporations sell the great bulk of what they produce to other people, not to their own employees — whereas even small countries sell most of what they produce to themselves, and big countries like America are overwhelmingly their own main customers.”

Unlike a business executive such as Mitt Romney, who thrived at cutting jobs and worker benefits, as well as driving companies into the ground, the leader of a democratic country is expected to create jobs and boost the economy. When one is running a company, the goals are fairly straightforward, and he or she only answers to shareholders. When one is running a country, in the case of America, he or she must answer to hundreds of millions of people. Running a business is ultimately a uncomplicated endeavor when compared to running a country as diverse and populated as the United States.

So yes, Donald Trump is generally considered a successful businessman -- especially when forgetting about the multiple bankruptcies and the $200 million start-- but what advantage does this give him over other candidates? If we consider history, it’s actually a disadvantage.


Trump is used to getting what he wants, and is more or less the autocratic leader of his company. If elected president, he would no doubt act like the autocratic leader that he is. Indeed, his strongman schtick and demagoguery has been alarmingly reminiscent of early 20th century fascist leaders. The painstaking process of legislating and governing and dealing with a diversity of opinion would not sit well with Trump. In his company, he gets what he wants -- but that is not how democratic governing works. Leading your own company and leading a country are very different endeavors that require different skills, and Trumps skills are clearly with the former.

Conor Lynch

Conor Lynch is a writer and journalist living in New York City. His work has appeared on Salon, AlterNet, Counterpunch and openDemocracy. Follow him on Twitter: @dilgentbureauct.

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2016 Elections Donald Trump Elections 2016 Gop Primary Mitt Romney The Republican Party

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