At the heart of Donald Trump’s appeal is his fame as a successful businessman. It’s why most of his supporters don’t worry about his political views or his crude rhetoric and behavior. He’s a great chief executive and will get things done. No one believes this more than Trump himself, who argues that his prowess in the commercial world amply prepares him for the presidency. “In fact I think in many ways building a great business is actually harder,” he told GQ last year.
There is some debate about Trump’s record as a businessman. He inherited a considerable fortune from his father and, by some accounts, would be wealthier today if he had simply invested in a stock index fund. His greatest skill has been to play a successful businessman on his television show “The Apprentice.”
Regardless, it is fair to say that Trump has formidable skills in marketing. He has been able to create a brand around his name like few others. The real problem is that these talents might prove largely irrelevant because commerce is quite different from government. The modern presidents who achieved the most — Franklin Roosevelt, Lyndon Johnson and Ronald Reagan — had virtually no commercial background. Some who did, George W. Bush and Herbert Hoover, fared worse in the White House. There is no clear pattern. One of the few successful CEOs who did well in Washington is Robert Rubin. A former head of Goldman Sachs, he served as the chief White House aide on economics and then treasury secretary in Bill Clinton’s administration. When he left Washington, he reflected in his memoirs that he had developed “a deep respect for the differences between the public and private sectors.”
“In business, the single, overriding purpose is to make a profit,” he wrote. “Government, on the other hand, deals with a vast number of legitimate and often potentially competing objectives — for example, energy production versus environmental protection, or safety regulations versus productivity. This complexity of goals brings a corresponding complexity of process.”
He then noted that a big difference between the two realms is that no political leader, not even the president, has the kind of authority every corporate chief does. CEOs can hire and fire based on performance, pay bonuses to incentivize their subordinates, and promote capable people aggressively. By contrast, Rubin pointed out that he had the authority to hire and fire fewer than 100 of the 160,000 people who worked under him at the Treasury Department. Even the president has limited authority and mostly has to persuade rather than command.
This is a feature, not a flaw, of American democracy. Power is checked, balanced and counterbalanced to ensure that no one branch is too powerful and that individual liberty can flourish. It is no accident that Trump admires Vladimir Putin, who doesn’t have to deal with the complications of modern democratic government and can simply get things done.
In interviews with the New York Times, Trump imagined his first 100 days in office: He would summon congressional leaders to lobster dinners at Mar-a-Lago, threaten CEOs in negotiations at the White House (“The Oval Office would be an amazing place [from which] to negotiate”) and make great deals. When talking about the positions he would fill, Trump explained, “I want people in those jobs who care about winning. The U.N. isn’t doing anything to end the big conflicts in the world, so you need an ambassador who would win by really shaking up the U.N.”
This displays an astonishing lack of understanding about the world. The United Nations can’t end conflicts because it has no power. That rests with sovereign governments (unless Trump wants to cede U.S. authority to U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon). The notion that all it would take is a strong U.S. ambassador to shake up the U.N., end conflicts and “win” is utterly removed from reality. Yet it is a perfect example of business thinking applied in a completely alien context.
Success in business is important, honorable and deeply admirable. But it requires a particular set of skills that are often very different from those that produce success in government. As Walter Lippmann wrote in 1930 about Herbert Hoover, possibly the most admired business leader of his age, “It is true, of course, that a politician who is ignorant of business, law, and engineering will move in a closed circle of jobs and unrealities. . . . [But the] popular notion that administering a government is like administering a private corporation, that it is just business, or housekeeping, or engineering, is a misunderstanding. The political art deals with matters peculiar to politics, with a complex of material circumstances, of historic deposit, of human passion, for which the problems of business or engineering as such do not provide an analogy.”
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