By Michael E. Norris
We can thank New York City real estate developer and franchise licenser Donald J. Trump for putting to rest one of the longest-running debates in American political history, one that began even before we became a country: Can a candidate with a strictly business background make the federal government more efficient, less wasteful and more responsive to the people, in the way that businesses purportedly respond to customers?
In short, can he run government like a business?
“We need a leader that wrote ‘The Art of the Deal,’ ” Trump said, summarizing this point of view in announcing his presidential candidacy on June 16, 2016.
In “The Art of the Deal,” a 2015 book co-written by Tony Schwartz, Trump, once a strong supporter of Democrat positions, was quoted as saying, “I discovered, for the first time but not the last, that politicians don’t care too much what things cost. It’s not their money.”
This idea has been ingrained in American political thought since our first presidency: George Washington, in addition to being the Continental Army commander and first president, was also a successful businessman at his Mount Vernon estate. Other founders were also businessmen.
“A surveyor by training, (Washington) had a longstanding interest in real estate,” according to a report by the Tampa Bay Times, analyzing the first president’s business interests and whether they had any relationship to his political activity or benefited from it.
No one has determined that Washington’s business interests, including his Mount Vernon plantation to the southwest of the new capital city, received any specific benefit while he served as an Army officer or as president.
Many of the founders had business interests and sometimes blurred the division between them and their political activities. They were all, however, well aware of the emoluments clause of the Constitution (Article I, Section 9, Paragraph 8), which forbids federal office holders from receiving any gift, payment, or other things of value from a foreign states or their rulers, officers, or representatives.
As Brian Duignan points out, in his analysis for Encyclopedia Britannica, “the Constitution also contains a ‘domestic emoluments clause’ (Article II, Section I, Paragraph 7), which prohibits the president from receiving any ‘Emolument’ from the federal government or the states beyond ‘a Compensation’ for his ‘Services’ as chief executive.
The founders knew these clauses well because they wrote them in the summer of 1787 in Philadelphia when they penned the document that serves as the legal structure of the U.S. government.
Today, however, even though the ethical and legal requirements applicable to such arrangements are far more specifically stated elsewhere, Trump continued to cement the relationship between his public office and private interests.
Trump, indeed, “fused his business empire to the presidency,” according to an analysis by Politico.
Citing documents and interviews, Politico reported that “despite his pledge to put his business aside while in the White House, (Trump) has created a vast web of potential conflicts of interest, accusations about his policies being driven by his business interests and even possible violations of the law.”
The amoral and apolitical Trump appears to believe there is a seamless and exploitable relationship between one’s business background and public service, or at least that the latter should help the former.
If history is any judge, however, nothing could be farther from the truth.
The most significant problem is not that business experience is completely irrelevant to public service; it can be helpful sometimes. Some merchants and entrepreneurs, such as Benjamin Franklin, proved to be excellent politicians. Taxpayers are ever sensitive to allegations of government waste and corruption.
In a major area of presidential responsibility, foreign policy, for example, the transactional mode of business relationships will not necessarily work at all; in fact, it will usually fail. Trump’s regime is a perfect example of this failure: The United States now ranks low in public opinion around the world.
Trump discusses international relations as if they were business deals – transactions for monetary profit. He discussed North Korea – a nuclear threat to the United States and its allies — from a real estate perspective – beach development to attract tourists – showing how little he understands North Korea, its culture, and the dictatorial family that has run it as a police state for its own benefit since WWII.
In Trump’s case, the problem is compounded by the fact that Trump was not a particularly successful businessman – he frequently saved himself from bad deals by relying on cash infusions from his father and manipulating tax laws.
Trump, whose only success is in deceiving people, had, as a younger man, been a star of The New York Post’s infamous Page Six features. But he did not have much sound business experience. In essence, he ran a “mom-and-pop” real estate firm and turned it into a “licensing” agency, according to Fareed Zakaria, respected CNN commentator.
He is also famous for running businesses into the ground – even ones, like casinos, that are virtually guaranteed to be money makers – as well as not paying contractors and, saving himself by manipulating federal tax and bankruptcy laws.
“He hasn’t had much experience, and what experience he has had has been very bad,” said Zakaria.
One might suggest that sound business experience – like that of, say, Berkshire Hathaway chairman Warren E. Buffet – could provide useful perspective in administering government, particularly its fiscal functions.
But, in general, even conservative, pro-business publications reject the idea that business experience alone is a sound qualification for political office or that government should “be run like a business.”
Forbes magazine, the bible of business, for example, said that “the idea that government should be run like a business is a popular one with both Republicans and, albeit to a lesser extent, Democrats. But this betrays a basic misunderstanding of the roles of the private and public sector. We should not want the government to be run like a business any more than a business to be like the government.”
The National Review magazine, which tends toward the far-right end of the political spectrum, said, “One enduring thing of value that ought to come out of the Trump administration — ought, but apparently won’t — would be to finally drive a stake into the heart of these deathless twin superstitions: that the skills and talents that enable success in a particular kind of business are infinitely transferable to other profit-seeking and nonprofit enterprises alike, and that the formula for success in governing a democratic republic is to ‘run the country like a business.’ ”
What Forbes writer Kevin Williamson called “CEO-ocracy” is “mostly a stupid rhetorical tic. No one, including successful businessmen — politicians such as former Florida Governor Rick Scott … actually tries to run a government as though it were a business.”
One reason for that, Williamson said, is that the idea is “nuts.” Another reason is that government and business are different entities: the former is non-profit, for example, and is based on elected leadership. CEOs pretty much work like dictators.
Two presidents with business backgrounds, Lincoln, who once owned a general store, and men’s clothier Harry Truman, had mixed records in the private sector; both of their businesses ultimately went bankrupt.
Republican President Warren G. Harding, who lived most of his life in rural Ohio and conducted his presidential campaign in the most economical manner – from his front porch – had been a newspaper owner before he experienced some successes in state politics and won the presidency in 1920, as the nation was recovering from World War I and the 1918 flu pandemic, by a landslide over Democrat James M. Cox, Socialist Eugene Debs and four other candidates with 76 percent of the Electoral College vote and 60 percent of the popular vote.
Like Trump, Harding opposed U.S. involvement abroad; he, like Sen. Henry Cabot Lodge and other Republicans of the time opposed the League of Nations that had been proposed by his Democrat predecessor, Woodrow Wilson, following the “war to end all wars.”
Also like Trump, Harding also supported tax cuts and opposed immigration. Harding’s campaign was managed by a Chicago advertising executive, giving it the business flavor.
And, like Trump, Harding’s short presidency – he served two years before dying of a stroke – was marked by scandal and controversy. Most famous among the three major controversies was the Teapot Dome scandal, which resulted in Interior Secretary Albert Fall being charged with accepting bribes in exchange for exclusive rights to drill for oil on federal land in Wyoming and California.
Another conservative Republican, Herbert Hoover, a businessman and mining engineer for whom the dam and two government-reorganization commissions would later be named, ran successfully in 1928 on a platform that “promised continued prosperity with lower taxes, a protective tariff, opposition to farm subsidies, the creation of a new farm agency to assist cooperative marketing associations, and the vigorous enforcement of Prohibition,” according to University of Virginia historian David E. Hamilton.
Hoover appears not to have seen the economic warning signs coming in the first year of his presidency. The stock market crashed in 1929, followed by the Great Depression. Democrat Franklin Delano Roosevelt, running on a platform promising sharply expanded government-financed employment programs, crushed Hoover’s re-election bid in 1932.
George H.W. Bush, an oilman with inherited wealth, left the nation in a recession bad enough to ensure that a relatively obscure Southern governor, Democrat Bill Clinton of Arkansas, could deny his bid for re-election. Clinton’s campaign manager, James Carville, explained the reason for Clinton’s success this way: “It’s the economy, stupid.”
His son, George W. Bush, another oilman of inherited wealth and a former Texas Rangers baseball team investor, failed to see the gathering economic storm near the end of his second term and left the nation in the throes of the Great Recession, brought on by bad mortgage investments by major banks. His Democrat successor, Illinois Sen. Barack Obama, a former social worker and law professor, would be left to spend much of the next eight years slowly but successfully helping the nation dig itself out of that hole.
One of our nation’s most prolific business writers, Case Western Reserve University Professor Scott Shane, found that some of the worst presidents did well in business, according to a report by the Huffington Post: Jimmy Carter’s family peanut farm went international and Harding’s newspaper was very profitable.
“Six of the 10 ‘best’ presidents had business experience, albeit some notable failures,” Drew Guarini wrote, citing Shane. “Among those presidents with business experience, the successful ones don’t appear to be better at running the U.S. than unsuccessful ones.”
Ultimately, though, the majority verdict is negative.
Writing in The Hill, a respected political journal, retired U.S. Army Col. William W. Campbell, M.D., summed it up by saying, “History shows businessmen make bad presidents.”
“All the surveys produce remarkably similar results,” Campbell wrote. “The top tier is always Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln, Franklin and Teddy Roosevelt, Wilson, and Truman. The only post-19th century presidents to crack the bottom quartile are George W. Bush and Warren Harding … (who was) successful in business but is consistently rated as one of the worst presidents.”
Of 46 U.S. presidents, 21 have been lawyers or career politicians, including eight generals, some engineers and professors, an actor, and a “smattering from other professors,” said Campbell. “The unquestionably successful” businessmen were also some of the less-than-successful presidents: “Harding (newspaperman), Hoover (mining), Jimmy Carter (peanut farmer), and George H.W. Bush (oil man).
“Truman, who did so poorly in business he sought public-sector employment to make ends meet, became a great president,” Campbell said, adding: “So, the number of highly successful businessmen who became highly successful presidents: None.”
The problem is not confined to presidential politics. The idea of “running government as a business,” in fact, probably shows up more often in state and local politics – where it has some of the most devasting direct effects on citizens.
The Republican Party has morphed from its civil-rights foundation of the 19th century to advocacy of government as a marketplace, a source of individual favors, such as tax cuts to help the wealthy. It has also become a wellspring of conspiracy-based paranoia, rather than support for programs to improve the common good, or what political theorist Michael Oakeshott called “a single community.”
In its most recent manifestation of this problem, the party fell under the spell of Trump, whose thinking is the very opposite of the concept of a social contract, as implemented in our founding documents.
As widespread evidence shows, the marketplace basis of government perpetuates and worsens social and economic inequality. A quick example would contrast Trump’s tax cut, largely favoring the rich, and FDR’s New Deal or LBJ’s Great Society programs.
Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha, the pediatrician who revealed that Flint, Mich., had unacceptable levels of lead in its public water system, said this misguided philosophy was at the root of the problem, which continues to plague that community even today.
It was policy that poisoned the city, in her view. It was “the policy of austerity and emergency management, which usurped democracy. And it was also a belief that government wasn’t there to solve your problems.” TIME quoted her saying in July 2018. “In Michigan, they were trying to run government like a business.”
In “Remains of the Day,” the excellent Merchant-Ivory film version of British writer Kazuo Ishiguro’s splendid novel of the same title, Christopher Reeve plays an American congressman attending a late 1930s conference at the mansion of a naive English aristocrat and World War I veteran who is trying to bring Germans and other nations together in informal talks to avoid another war.
At a luxurious farewell banquet, Reeve rises to interrupt the back-slapping speeches to say that Europeans were being foolish – implicitly, of course, about Hitler’s intentions. “You’re all amateurs,” he says, adding: “Politics should be left to the professionals.”
Michigan voted for Trump in 2016, becoming one of three key states that had voted for President Obama’s reelection in 2012 but four years later accepted Trump’s insidious and unfounded rhetoric. The citizens of Flint were among the victims.
In 2020, Michigan rejected Trump’s bid for re-election in favor of a lawyer and career politician, Joseph R. Biden Jr.
Works quoted in this essay
Oakeshott, Michael. “Political Education,” in David Bromwich, Writing Politics: An Anthology. The New York Review of Books, 2020.
Buettner, Russ, Susanne Craig, and David Barstow. “11 Takeaways From The Times’s Investigation Into Trump’s Wealth.” The New York Times, Oct. 2, 2018.
Campbell, William W. “History shows businessmen make bad presidents.” The Hill, Oct. 18, 2012.
Cunningham, John M. “United States presidential election of 1920.” Encyclopedia Britannica.
Duignan, Brian. “What Is the Emoluments Clause?” Encyclopedia Britannica.
Guarini, Drew. “8 U.S. Presidents Who Ran Their Own Businesses.” The Huffington Post, July 19, 2012.
Hamilton, David E. “Herbert Hoover: Campaigns and Elections.” The Miller Center of the University of Virginia.
Kumar, Anita. “How Trump fused his business empire to the presidency,” Politico, Jan. 20, 2019
Leip, Dave. “Atlas of U.S. Presidential Elections.”
Williamson, Kevin D. “Don’t Run a Government Like a Business.” Forbes, Oct. 5, 2012.
Zakaria, Freed. CNN.
Michael E. Norris, PhD, is the founder and editor of Between the Coasts. Contact him at email@example.com.