Donald Trump finished off the 2020 campaign in a frenzy of hastily organized rallies. From southern Florida to northern Michigan, he and a small troupe of guests and aides barnstormed 17 campaign events in four days in an act of defiant freneticism and slapdash theater that has characterized the whole of the Trump presidential experience. “If I don’t sound like a typical Washington politician,” he declared at one regional airport tarmac after another, “it’s because I’m not a politician.” It was an encore performance of the most successful sales pitch of his life. Trump claimed the business acumen and entrepreneurial independence to reform Washington from the inside—to drain the swamp and make the deals that no one else could. Sure, it strained credulity for a sitting president to insist that he was not, in fact, a politician. But it almost worked.
The problem, of course, was the coronavirus pandemic. This combined economic and public health crisis exposed more clearly than ever before the reality of the Trump administration’s basic inability to govern. It was no small irony that the first businessman president since Herbert Hoover—and by this I mean a president who touted his business capabilities as his primary qualifications for the office—led the United States into a tidal wave of unemployment and despair not seen since the Great Depression. Combining this tragedy with an admixture of farce, a series of New York Times reports this fall showed that Trump’s tax returns revealed what many had already suspected—that beneath the veneer of confidence-man boosterism, his business empire was held together by massive debt and shady tax avoidance strategies.
A political consultant somewhere is probably already cooking up the campaign pitch that Trump was a counterfeit and that what the country needs is a real businessman-reformer. But where among the managerial ranks of Silicon Valley or Wall Street is there someone who fits that description? The truth is that it’s the last thing that America needs. There’s no managerial method—no special business sense—that can clear away the obstacles that are eroding our democratic system. No army of brainstorming Andrew Yangs is going to problem-solve our way out of global climate change, economic inequality, and the health care crisis. Trump may have ruined the myth of the business reformer for a generation, and that’s a good thing. If there’s a silver lining to the disaster that was the Trump presidency, it’s that Americans will be more suspicious the next time someone comes around promising to run the government like a business.
Nevertheless, it’s worth pondering just how close we came to a hostile private sector takeover of the American political tradition. Modern America has long been infatuated with the transcendental wisdom ascribed to business sense, so it’s something of an oddity that the U.S. has not elected more businesspeople to the high office, even if many have tried. Indeed, it’s never really been the case that America has exhibited total deference to business leadership. Hoover was an engineer and business administrator, but he came to the presidency by way of a long tenure as secretary of commerce. Nelson Rockefeller tried and made it as far as the vice presidency after nearly four complete terms as governor of New York. But even Rockefeller’s background in business came more via family tradition than an actual career choice. (“Wasn’t it wonderful of Grandfather to make all this lovely money?” he once remarked.) George Romney, the Michigan automotive executive and governor, was another. He withdrew early from the 1968 presidential cycle as Rockefeller fought the Republican nomination out with Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan.
In recent years, presidential candidates have made their business experience an important part of their pitch to the American voter. George W. Bush had a less-than-stellar career as an oil and gas executive, and his first major business success came from a lucrative deal with a group of wealthy family friends that made him managing general partner of the Texas Rangers, but he was still the first president to have an MBA—and his came from Harvard Business School. Time called Bush the “CEO president,” though one suspects that he might have been happier (and almost certainly more effective) as the commissioner of Major League Baseball.