Has Donald Trump finally learned that running government "like a business" simply doesn't work?

Even if Trump were a business genius — which he's not! — being president is nothing like being a corporate CEO

By Conor Lynch

Published May 3, 2017 8:59AM (EDT)

 (AP/Pablo Martinez Monsivais/Getty/Scott Olson/Photo montage by Salon)
(AP/Pablo Martinez Monsivais/Getty/Scott Olson/Photo montage by Salon)

Governing is a lot harder than running a business, according to the businessman who promised to revamp the United States government by running it like a business.

This surprising admission was made by President Donald Trump last Friday, during an interview with Reuters in which he confessed that being president is “more work than in my previous life” and that he “thought it would be easier.” No doubt this will shock many of Trump’s biggest fans, who admired (read worshipped) the billionaire as a candidate and thought he would make a great president explicitly because he was a successful and wealthy businessman. (Whether Trump was truly successful in business is debatable, of course, and he has always greatly exaggerated his wealth.)

It has long been assumed by many Americans that if you can succeed in business and make a great deal of money, then you can succeed in just about anything. Becoming rich is, after all, the American dream.

Over the years this rationale has led many conservatives to conclude not only that businessmen — and they do seem to prefer businessmen — are best suited to run the government but also that government should be run as if it were a giant, for-profit business. Though Donald Trump’s understanding of government has always been wanting, he was perceived by many as a kind of street-smart business genius and therefore the ideal candidate from the conservative perspective. Not knowing anything about government was actually a good thing, as he would come into office and do what right-wingers have long proposed: run the government like a business.

Of course, there are many problems with this line of reasoning — not least the fact that business and government have completely different functions and thus require very different skills and temperaments. It's not a coincidence that many of the worst presidents in American history have been businessmen, which certainly doesn’t help the argument. Even Trump appears to be grasping this reality after three months in office. Just a few days before his interview with Reuters, he told the Associated Press that “in business, you don't necessarily need heart, whereas [in government] almost everything affects people.”

Trump continued, “Everything, pretty much everything you do in government, involves heart, whereas, in business, most things don't involve heart. In fact, in business, you're actually better off without it.”

In other words, being heartless and borderline psychopathic often breeds success in the business world, while blatantly screwing over your constituents often leads to angry voters and tough election years — at least in any remotely democratic country.

Which brings us to another obvious contrast between managing a private business empire and managing a government with checks and balances built into the system. Business owners like Donald Trump tend to run their companies like private autocrats and become accustomed to ruling with an iron fist. This kind of background is not particularly useful, however, for someone who wants to run a constitutional government. And while Trump has attempted to transfer this authoritarian style into the presidency — signing more executive orders in his first 100 days than any president since Harry Truman's term — it has resulted in some embarrassing failures.

Though Trump has offered his executive orders as proof that he has accomplished more than any of his predecessors in his first 100 days, some of his most notable orders have been struck down as unconstitutional by the judiciary. In addition, the president has been unable to effectively legislate — even with his party's controlling both the House and Senate. It's not a surprise then that in a recent interview with Fox News, Trump complained that the constitutional system that limits his unilateral powers is “a very rough” and “archaic system” and is “really a bad thing for the country.” This indicates that Trump will continue trying to bypass the Constitution while governing like a heavy-handed autocratic businessman.

When conservatives insist that businessmen should run the government as if it were their own business, the one area where their experience is thought to be invaluable is the economy. If a person can flourish in the private sector and make millions or even billions of dollars running a business, the thinking goes, then surely he or she can balance the budget and have the economy running smoothly again. Trump accordingly touted his business experience as if it were some kind of superpower, repeatedly promising that he would bring back jobs and restore the American economy, without offering any specific blueprint for how he would accomplish this, beyond “making deals.” Americans were expected to take Trump’s word for it, and because he was a billionaire businessman, millions did just that.

One hundred days into his presidency, however, Trump’s economy is hardly booming. On Friday the Commerce Department revealed that America’s gross domestic product had grown a paltry 0.7 percent in the first quarter of 2017 — representing the weakest quarterly growth in three years. While it wouldn’t be fair or accurate to blame this on a president who has been in office for just more than 100 days, one suspects that Trump would be gloating on Twitter had the GDP grown substantially instead of stagnating.

The truth is that Trump is as ignorant about economics as he is about government, and he will be unable to accomplish what he promised because it is, quite simply, impossible. For example, Trump vowed that he would bring back American manufacturing jobs that have been lost over the past several decades. But the vast majority of these jobs vanished as result of automation technologies, not outsourcing. (It is much easier, however, to scapegoat Mexicans and Chinese people than robots and computers.)

Millions of Americans voted for Trump because they saw him as a rich, street-smart businessman who could use his business expertise to “make America great again.” But here’s the thing: You don’t have to be particularly intelligent or knowledgeable to make a lot of money — especially if you inherited a fortune from your father, as the president did. In the end, Donald Trump is and always will be a glorified showman who was fortunate enough to be a member of the lucky-sperm club. If anything, perhaps his presidency will finally dispel the ridiculous notion that having a lot of money qualifies someone for anything other than spending a lot of money — or that running the government like a business is a good idea.

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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