Conservatives often extol the tough, no-nonsense approach taken by leaders of corporate interests as a way to run government more efficiently. But do businessmen really have any business being president?
Theologian and philosopher Reinhold Niebuhr, in his essay "Perils of American Power," published in The Atlantic Magazine in 1932, wrote of the uneasy combination in the United States of economic strength and political incompetence. We may be a preeminent world power because of our economic strength, he argued, but we are "politically the most ignorant of modern nations."
Does anyone think that were he to see our politics today, Niebuhr's assessment of nearly a century ago would be materially different? No doubt he would note the stark divisiveness in today's politics, but is that not just another sign of our political ignorance?
The problem, according to Niebuhr, resided in our easy reliance on military might, which worked to keep us from actually having to deal with the necessities of political thinking, of comprehending the world in which we live and finding a way to give as well as take. Even domestically, one sees that reliance on military force — with police often indistinguishable from a military unit — also causing our political leaders not to learn any lessons. So the people march in the streets again. A tear gas canister or a rubber bullet may answer, but that answer is shallow, teaching nothing useful and engendering further resentment.
Another problem, Niebuhr notes, is that as a country we are uniquely made up, at least in modern times, of a couple of predominant types that we may elevate, at our own risk, to political leadership: businessmen and engineers: "Both our wealth and our political ignorance derive from the fact that we are a nation of businessmen and engineers…. We gave ourselves to business efficiency and technological achievement with greater abandon than any other people."
He expands further:
Our businessmen and engineers suffer from the same kind of exaggerated self-esteem that characterizes any class or group which has come into sudden and obvious success. The successful man always assumes that success in his field gives him a warrant to speak with an air of omniscience on every human and social problem.
Remind you of anyone? Who could better exemplify Niebuhr's point than the man currently utilizing the White House as a Twitter pad? The man who regularly says he knows the most — about business (his ghostwriter said he made that up); about science (he coulda, shoulda been a top scientist); about medicine (coronavirus will "go away"; "What do you have to lose? Take it!" — ad nauseam); about the military (knows more than "his" generals); and, well, just about everything on Earth.
Add to that the narcissist's need to take undue credit. Just this past week, Trump tried to take credit for letting people know about Juneteenth because he chose to kick off his campaign with a Great Dane whistle to his base, just as Ronald Reagan did in 1980, when he began his campaign with a "states' rights" speech seven miles from Philadelphia, Mississippi, where three civil rights workers were murdered in 1964. (In Trump selection of Tulsa, the racist intent was still there, even though the big dog whistle hilariously morphed into one more suited to call a mincing toy yapper — or, say, suited to white people without college degrees, who still support Trump by about 19 points, according to a recent poll.)
With Trump, one sees a cartoonish version of the businessman's necessary confidence and hyped-up self-regard without a jot of anything of note to back it up. And maybe that is a big part of the reason. Trump plays the part of a businessman much like he plays the part of president — there is very little, if any, substance. Just posturing, noise and tumult. And, you know, golf.
But even without taking on such an extreme example, asking a businessman to be a political leader is like asking a wolf to guard the proverbial henhouse. A wolf, that is, with a puffed-up sense of self who is also not much interested in the details. Wolves simply don't have time to read deeply. (Ever look for literature or novels or history or poetry at an estate sale in a gated community?)
Many years ago, when I was starting out in my job, I was asked to write a "high-level" memo to some executives. So I blocked out some hours on my schedule and got down to the work of ferreting out more details and providing historical context for the leadership, figuring that they would want the most complete view of the situation they could get.
If you have ever held a corporate job, you are likely smirking now.
"No," I was told, when my manager read a draft. "It needs to be high level."
So, there you go. Businesspeople — male leaders in particular, in my experience — generally posture that they want to know what is going on. But when it's provided? Not so much. If they must consume information, most seem to want as little as possible — the "executive summary." And most do not have a whit of desire to walk the floor to really understand the actual work at hand. In shunning the details, business executives seemingly want what Reagan perhaps desired more than anything on earth (other than his "mommy"): plausible deniability.
And why not? Corporations were created to limit liability among vast numbers of shareholders. (I've always been a bit surprised that there isn't a VLLC designation, for Very Limited Liability Corporation.) When our president says he takes no responsibility, or refuses to listen to his daily briefing, perhaps he's merely following the training he received at the Wharton Business School.
So, let's take a "high-level" look (i.e., a perfunctory, almost wincing side-glance) at the history of businessmen in the presidency.
In an article by Olivia B. Waxman published after the 2016 election in Time magazine, she writes of Trump joining 20th-century presidents Warren G. Harding, Herbert Hoover, Harry Truman, Jimmy Carter, and the two George Bushes as a Businessman Come to the Oval Office. But Harding was a newspaper publisher (albeit a conservative one) and Carter was a peanut farmer — not really corporate types. Truman, she notes, ran a failed haberdashery in Kansas City. So that leaves Hoover, the two Bushes, and Trump as, at least ostensibly, men with business experience.
- Herbert Hoover (Republican; president, 1929-33), mining magnate. An engineer and then businessman, he owned silver mines in Burma. Before the presidency, Hoover never held any elective office, though he had more than ably served as head of the Commission for Relief in Belgium and then as director of U.S. Food Administration during the First World War. Before the presidency, he also served with distinction in the Harding administration as secretary of commerce. Presidential historians generally rank him in the bottom half of presidents.
- George Herbert Walker Bush (Republican; president, 1989-93), oilman. Much experience in public service before the presidency — U.S. House of Representatives, U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, Director of Central Intelligence, Vice President. Had some trouble with "the vision thing." Presidential historians generally rank him in the lower regions of the top half of presidents. (H.W. also became even more popular late in life for fabulous socks, some awesome leaps from airplanes, and for working collegially with ex-president Bill Clinton.)
- George W. Bush (Republican; served as president, 2001-9): oilman and baseball team owner. Handed much of the day-to-day work of the presidency off to his VP (leading to this deftly written joke deftly delivered by President Obama at the 2015 White House Correspondents Dinner: "Dick Cheney says he thinks I'm the worst president of his lifetime. Which is interesting because I think Dick Cheney is the worst president in my lifetime.") Experience in public service before the presidency: Governor of Texas. Generally ranked in the 3rd or 4th quartile of presidents. (Accomplished painter in later life.)
- Donald John Trump (Republican; president 2017-god help us): ersatz businessman at best, he famously was handed a vast sum by his father to kickstart his career in real estate development. A bankrupt casino empire, endless lawsuits, reneging on payments for work done, and a perpetual fight to not reveal any financial information to the public are the hallmarks of his business career. Last year, three reporters for the New York Times won a Pulitzer for reporting on the origins of the Trump family's fortunes and on Donald Trump's shady business practices and lack of business acumen: "His core business losses in 1990 and 1991 — more than $250 million each year — were more than double those of the nearest taxpayers in the I.R.S. information for those years." Only president in U.S. history without either public service or military experience. In fact, not a bit of experience in public service, even as president. (Can I get a rimshot?)
It is notable that Harry S Truman, who failed at running a men's clothing store in Kansas City, ranks in the top quarter of presidents. A failed businessman found a way to succeed in politics.
I'm not saying there are no good men, men with empathy and intelligence and expertise. They are everywhere. My sister is married to a good man. Our older daughter is married to a good man. But neither of them is a businessman; neither chose to go that route in education and in life. Today's businessman likes to claim himself as a "job creator," which has a demigod ring to it. But no one starts a business to create jobs — they do it because they have a passion and/or want to make a fortune. The only job creator? It's the government, and, say, infrastructure projects.
Another quick story from my own work experience. On a visit to one of our locations, our then-director — a reasonably affable man who, however, infrequently interacted with people at our level — suddenly beckoned a few of us to come into a small conference room for an important talk. When we were seated, he regarded us for a moment and then said, authoritatively and somewhat conspiratorially:
"If you cannot abolish it, you outsource it; after you outsource it, you work to automate it. Abolish! Outsource! Automate!"
He gave each word its sufficient weight. (He seemed to be reciting something he had recently read and imparting it to us.) He then looked to each of us to gauge if we understood this to constitute our marching orders.
That's business. Nothing personal. It's meant to be lean and mean (and keen to dispense with your job). In fact, America's brand of ruthless capitalism never rests in its pursuit of making your current job go away, though you, serf-like, depend on that job for health care coverage. And leaders who oversee such operations must necessarily harden their hearts and minds. (Me? I left that meeting with a sinking feeling in my soul. What about my fantastic team? What about the great work we were doing? And, hey, as pledge class president I got 13 scared freshmen through Hell Week before dropping out of my fraternity in college, so I know the mindset — and the sheer idiocy of much of it.)
That is the kind of president we would most likely get with, say, a Mitt Romney, as brave and socially awakened as he has lately shown himself to be. As a partner in Bain Capital, he made his fortune tearing apart companies in distress, while loading them up with debt. A lot of jobs must be lost to create an enormous personal fortune. But by the businessman's rules of engagement in a predatory capitalist system, he was not only doing what he ought to have done; he was succeeding at it almost beyond measure.
As Niebuhr wrote:
The peculiar weakness of businessmen and engineers is that they tend to disregard the human factor. Engineers are under no necessity to consider it and businessmen have an ideal of business efficiency which reduces it to a minimum.
Abolish, outsource, automate.
Again, conservatives might advance their go-to argument that the cold-hearted businessman type is precisely what is needed to cut the bureaucracy and trim the fat of government. But there is little evidence in modern times of this being true of businessmen presidents; indeed, with their tax cuts and increases in defense spending, Republican presidents since Reagan have famously been spendthrifts. And there is so much more that is essential — to use a business phrase — to the job profile.
As journalist and presidential historian John Dickerson writes in a recent article in The Atlantic:
When asked why he had not installed and empowered people who could have predicted or managed the COVID‑19 outbreak, Trump said that, as a general rule, he likes to keep the head count low. People can always be hired back if the situation calls for it. This is a vision of organizational design befitting fruit picking or hotels that staff up for vacation season, not the kind required for the sort of catastrophes presidents inevitably face.
And when it comes to a public health emergency like presented by the pandemic, a businessman likely would very well emphasize economic over human costs, downplay the danger and reopen the country sooner than is prudent.
Businessmen belong in business. If some determine they want to be more engaged with their society, maybe they should try to attend a PTA meeting at the school once in a while, to see how that kind of thing works.
And we certainly do not need failed businessmen in the presidency — or anywhere in government. In his classic "Democracy in America," Alexis de Tocqueville noted, in a way that very much speaks to us today:
The pursuit of wealth generally diverts men of great talents and strong passions from the pursuit of power; and it frequently happens that a man does not undertake to direct the fortunes of the state until he has shown himself incompetent to conduct his own.
Should we elevate any businessman — successful or failed, legitimate or phony-baloney — to public service, to a role that requires endless studious reading and thinking and listening and analysis and judgment and give-and-take and compromise, compassion and empathy?
That may very well be a bankrupt idea.