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The End of the Businessman President

With any luck, Donald Trump’s catastrophic tenure will be the nail in the coffin of the worst idea in politics: that the government can be run like a corporation.

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.

Mitt Romney was a more realistic representative of today’s business world. As founding partner of the private equity firm Bain Capital, he made a killing doing leveraged buyouts of companies like Sports Authority and Domino’s, reorganizing them and often laying off massive numbers of employees before selling them again. It was a financial musical chairs routine that Romney touted as evidence that he was more equipped than Barack Obama to solve America’s economic problems back in 2012. Perhaps it was unsurprising that Americans didn’t trust an icon of outsourcing to turn the tide of unemployment. As his 2008 primary opponent Mike Huckabee famously remarked, Romney “looks like the guy who fires you,” as opposed to the guy you worked alongside—and Romney himself confirmed as much with his robber-baron pitch to a clatch of wealthy fundraisers that 47 percent of Americans were wannabe victims who lived on the government dole, which meant that the true makers of wealth had to seize and renew America’s flagging initiative. Other candidates or would-be candidates have marshaled their special business abilities and resources over the last 20 years: Steve Forbes, the late Herman Cain, Howard Schultz, Ted Turner, Michael Bloomberg, Carly Fiorina, Tom Steyer, and Andrew Yang.

Thanks to his role as managing general partner of the Texas Rangers, George W. Bush was heralded as a “CEO president.”
A. Kaye/Getty Images

The myth of the business reformer rests on two foundations: the business statesman and the disruptive entrepreneur. The first has its origins in the rise of the professional managerial class in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. As vertically integrated and publicly traded corporations transformed American business, the small manufacturer and independent proprietorship gave place to large bureaucratic organizations: American Tobacco Company, General Motors, Du Pont, and the like. These firms were staffed by executives and middle managers who increasingly took on for themselves the trappings of professionalization. At Harvard Business School, the new faculty sought to distinguish its students’ careers from those of the clerical trades. “The profession of business cannot be taught from text-books,” wrote one professor. Harvard, Wharton, and other early business schools produced new methods of organizational control (epitomized by Frederick Winslow Taylor’s Principles of Scientific Management) and credentials of prestigious accreditation that helped to form professional management as a distinct social class and subvert claims to corporate power made by workers, shareholders, and social movements.

In keeping with this push for greater organizational power, managers eschewed titles that might designate them as mere technicians or engineers. Like a doctor, lawyer, or clergyman, the businessman was a distinguished professional whose skill in management entailed certain ethical commitments and leadership responsibilities. Wallace B. Donham, an early and influential Harvard Business School dean, consistently spoke of the importance of impressing upon business leaders a “sense of social obligation.” Because of the unprecedented technological and economic resources at his disposal, the corporate manager was in a “strategic position” to solve the problems of modern society, Donham wrote in a 1927 article called “The Social Significance of Business.” It was a dream of business heroism that cast the executive in the role of philosopher-king.

Perhaps no one was better suited to play that role than General Electric president Gerard Swope. Born into an immigrant family, Swope was formed by his engineering training at Massachusetts Institute of Technology and by the social reform movement that he encountered at Jane Addams’s Hull House in Chicago, where he lived and taught classes briefly as a young man in the 1890s. After taking over GE in 1922, Swope initiated a revolution in the company’s labor relations and used the tools of welfare capitalism, including profit-sharing, unemployment insurance, and higher wages, to generate goodwill among workers and increase efficiencies. Swope’s colleague, GE chairman Owen Young, announced in the midst of the Great Depression that the new leaders of business would no longer chase after profits at any cost. “The old notion,” he told a group of social scientists in 1932, “that the president of a company was the paid attorney of the stockholders for the purpose of taking as much as possible both from the workers and the public for the benefit of the stockholders is gone.” It was a far cry from today’s GE, which rode the Wall Street bull market of the 1980s into the open arms of private equity funds.

In the postwar era, the professional identity of the business manager accrued an outsize level of prestige commensurate with the growth of industry more broadly. Peter Drucker, a forerunner to today’s managerial thought leaders who had his moments of penetrating social criticism, declared in Concept of the Corporation (1946), his classic study of General Motors, that the big business corporation had become “America’s representative social institution.” As he put it elsewhere, “The modern corporation is thus a political institution; its purpose is the creation of legitimate power in the industrial sphere.”

As multidivisional firms grew in size and Wall Street lay mostly dormant, business leaders enjoyed wide latitude to fashion for themselves a public image of business statesmanship. “Bigness itself is a relatively new phenomenon in our society,” wrote Thomas Watson Jr., who was at various points president, CEO, and chairman of IBM. “Even if nothing else had changed the vast concentrations of our society would demand that businessmen reconsider their responsibilities for the broader public welfare.” The business press largely agreed. “The manager is becoming a professional,” Fortune editors enthused in 1951, “in the sense that like all professional men he has a responsibility to society as a whole.” Some, like Drucker, were skeptical. “You might wonder, if you were a conscientious newspaper reader,” he wrote in Harper’s, “when the managers of American business had any time for business.”

Business leaders engaged in so much ad hoc problem-solving that any sampling evokes a chaotic scene of corporate do-goodery. A steel company picked up the tab for a rebuilt water system in east Chicago. Ford, General Electric, and Chase Manhattan developed programs to encourage employee contributions to political parties. Sears sponsored rural school programs like 4-H and Future Farmers of America. Eastman Kodak donated $30,000 to a local hospital. Anheuser-Busch bought the St. Louis Cardinals, outbidding an out-of-town group and preventing the team from moving. Corporate philanthropic and charitable giving more than doubled in the 1950s. Seventy-eight percent of Americans said they had confidence in business leaders, according to one Roper Poll in 1961, and surveys during the post–World War II era showed generally high levels of public trust in business and finance.

The new businessman, now unsurpassed by all the professions, alone possessed the requisite prudence and skill to steer corporate institutions for the benefit of all society. Left-leaning economist Robert Heilbroner wasn’t buying it, and he argued at the time that these claims to business statesmanship amounted to a “more or less transparent defense of privilege masquerading as philosophy.” But Theodore Levitt, a Harvard Business School professor who would later popularize the concept of globalization, spoke for the mainstream when he celebrated this new capitalism. “The profit motive is, for most practical purposes, on its last leg as the hallmark of American capitalist motivation,” he predicted in 1955.

Although the myth reached an apex in the decades after World War II, business statesmanship still exists in various forms today. Its main institutional home is the Business Roundtable, a D.C.-based organization that lobbies for its more than 200 CEO members on everything from coronavirus relief legislation to protecting management’s leverage at annual shareholders’ meetings. The group promotes a public image of the business executive as the consummate professional, capable of balancing profits and corporate social responsibility.

Arguably the most potent legacy of the business-statesman age is the notion that the government can and should be run like a business. This idea has hovered over American political life for a long time. As historian Lawrence Glickman has pointed out in his book Free Enterprise, it’s become a cliché of the right wing, but it was not always that way. Agrarian Populists of the 1890s like the genius organizer from Texas, Charles W. Macune, spoke of wanting to see the government act “like a business organization for carrying on the public business in a common sense, businesslike manner.” Progressives campaigned against entrenched political machines with anti-corruption promises to run municipal government “like a business office.” The Wall Street Journal hoped that William Howard Taft’s administration would govern “upon something more nearly like a business basis.”

Mitt Romney’s bid for president was undermined by his image as the “guy who fires you,” as Mike Huckabee put it.
Drew Angerer/Getty Images

But the postwar cult of the business-statesman proposed something more radical: to hand over the principal functions of government to private sector standards of performance and to measure the success of government on something close to a rigid cost-benefit calculus. As Cold War–era business leaders styled themselves the true custodians of liberal democracy in the face of Soviet threats, they transformed concepts native to a democratic political tradition such as justice, equality, and citizenship into objects of professional problem-solving and efficient administration. Basic public goods like a well-rounded education or public transportation, recognizable to previous generations as critical components of functional democratic citizenship, were exhausted and transformed by the instrumentalizing ideology that astroturfed the “free market” ideal into a rolling managerial takeover of almost every major institution in American life. Now we’re left with a facsimile of a facsimile: STEM curricula and the New Jersey Transit Corporation. It’s this corporate enclosure of the public sphere that’s permitted a grifter with the flimsiest of business credentials like Trump to overpower the public imagination.

This tangled history aside, the image of heightened managerial efficiency in the private sector fit far better in the midcentury world than in our own. For the past four decades, American business has become more financial and less industrial. Corporations have become leaner and more responsive to Wall Street earnings calls than long-term growth. Nike has for decades pushed production and distribution out into far-flung networks of subcontractors—and so have hundreds of other apparel and tech companies. Uber, Lyft, and their counterparts spent more than $200 million on Proposition 22 in California, which passed in November, in order to ensure that they can continue to avoid treating their workers as employees. Business leaders don’t command the reins of integrated industrial giants anymore, nor do they want to.

Today the heroic cult of the entrepreneur largely defines the meaning of business leadership. Nowhere has this household god commanded greater devotion than in Silicon Valley, the place that incubated the 1980s and ’90s tech culture that is now metastasized globally. It’s a culture driven by an obsession with innovation. “Move fast and break things,” was Facebook’s founding (if by now officially abandoned) internal motto. In the venture capitalist mind, all that is solid is only waiting to melt into air (provided, of course, that the right entrepreneur steps up to do the job). Taking the imperative of disruption as its raison d’être, this ideology of business leadership would seem a lot more like anti-leadership if it weren’t for the fact that it is usually paired with earnest expressions of a deep and pure motivation to make the world a better place.

Nearly everyone in the tech industry will tell you that they are driven by a desire to change the world. Facebook, for example, announced in 2017 that its new mission was not profits or shareholder value but to “bring the world closer together.” This language is now ubiquitous across corporate America. More organically, Whole Foods has declared for years its belief in a “virtuous circle entwining the food chain, human beings and Mother Earth.” Top business schools have made socially responsible imperatives a key part of their undergraduate and postgraduate recruitment efforts. Most B-schools offer courses on business and society, social entrepreneurship, and ecosystems of shared value. It is a neoliberal model of business leadership that conceives of social responsibility as the brisk delivery of market solutions to social problems. In many ways, it is unlike its midcentury counterpart, which measured social responsibility in terms of how the institutional resources of the corporation could be balanced in a generally liberal way.

This rhetoric of changing the world, by the way, is often matched by a celebration of business as a form of self-expression. The late Steve Jobs will probably continue to serve as the chief inspiration for this romantic entrepreneurialism. “Don’t be trapped by dogma,” he told Stanford University students in 2005. “Don’t let the noise of others’ opinions drown out your own inner voice.” These are also sentiments that Donald Trump has long lived by.

This “be true to yourself” rhetoric has a markedly contemporary ring to it, but it’s consistent with long-standing strains of self-improvement within American culture. The ideal of the self-starter is a close relative to the frontiersman, that genuinely American character type whom the historian Frederick Jackson Turner credited as the true father of this democracy: “born of free land,” he wrote, “strong in selfishness, intolerant of administrative experience and education.” The myth of the entrepreneur is a variation on this older ideal of the self-made man—and it’s classically always a man—who, like Benjamin Franklin rising up early in his printer’s shop, has the discipline and experience to generate his own success. He is emphatically not an organization man. He’s not even a professional, insofar as a profession bears the imprint of an institution or a guild. Even Joseph Schumpeter, the twentieth century’s great champion of creative destruction, admitted that the purest type of entrepreneur is “the promotor who does nothing but ‘setting up’ new business concerns.”

The entrepreneurial spirit, as Schumpeter called it, eclipsed the organization man in the 1980s and 1990s. A regime of economic productivity centered on financial metrics like return on investment, shareholder value, and quarterly earnings made the corporate executive into an errand boy for Wall Street—or sometimes, with the growth of executive stock options and performance bonuses, a market guru himself. A potent brew of financialization and anti-institutionalism (along with massive layoffs, outsourcing, hostile takeovers, and the shift to the so-called knowledge economy) called into question both the social function of the executive and the business model of twentieth-century industrial capitalism. The new icons were no longer business statesmen like General Electric’s Gerard Swope. Now they were more like GE’s Jack Welch, who famously laid off 100,000 workers to increase the company’s share price when he took over as chairman and CEO in 1981.

Significantly for understanding the rise of Donald Trump, it was during this era that America saw the emergence of the celebrity CEO. Jack Welch, whom Fortune dubbed “manager of the century,” was one of the biggest. (He was also an on-again, off-again Trump supporter in 2016, but died this year disenchanted with the Trump administration’s track record.) Welch was known as the controversial face of GE who closed plants and cut the workforce down to the quick. But within a few years, the epithet “Neutron Jack”—coined to describe Welch’s cavalier demolition of human workforces—became a badge of managerial honor because his risky transformation of the firm’s corporate control led to soaring profits and a new future. Popular books promised to divulge Welch’s managerial secrets. One was called The New GE: How Jack Welch Revived an American Institution. Another was Control Your Destiny or Someone Else Will: How Jack Welch Is Making General Electric the World’s Most Competitive Company. Both flew off the shelves in the early 1990s. A 1991 book called Sam Walton: The Inside Story of America’s Richest Man told the rags-to-riches story of the discount-store owner from the Ozarks who became a chain store titan. Walton turned around the next year with his own book, Sam Walton, Made in America. Other CEOs followed suit. HP’s David Packard, Walt Disney’s Michael Eisner, George Soros, Michael Bloomberg, even Dave Thomas of Wendy’s and Tom Monaghan of Domino’s all published biography-cum-leadership books in the final decades of the twentieth century. These celebrity CEOs traded on the old myth of the competent professional manager but explained their success in terms of entrepreneurial innovation and anti-institutional disruption.

But none prefigured Trump better than Lee Iacocca, chairman and CEO of the rebranded New Chrysler Corporation during the ’80s. A former president at Ford Motor Company whose background in design and sales included the wildly successful branding of the Mustang muscle car, Iacocca staked his professional reputation on resuscitating Chrysler, a company that had lagged behind competitors and taken on massive debt. His first move was to do what anyone in his position would do: He cut wages and reorganized the firm. But Iacocca would have been weighed in the scales and found wanting if not for his next move. He secured a loan of $1.5 billion from the U.S. Congress. And the company did not skip a beat, producing popular convertibles, minivans, and Jeeps that Iacocca personally advertised on national television. Using folksy turns of phrase (“If you can find a better car, buy it!”) and walking with the camera through factories and showrooms, he talked up the latest models and spun a story about Chrysler as the underdog.

He looked good on camera. He sounded trustworthy and confident. But more consequential than Iacocca’s acting skills was his genius for branding. As head of Chrysler, he transformed the ugly reality of a business limping along on a government bailout into a Rocky Balboa story of a company come back to win one last fight for American industry against Japanese automakers. And Americans rewarded the company, which paid back its government bailout seven years ahead of schedule. It was enough to make Iacocca consider running for president in 1988. (One of the chapters of his 1986 autobiography was titled, “Making America Great Again.”) Committees were formed. Money was raised. Bumper stickers were produced with the slogan “I Like I.” But Speaker of the House Tip O’Neill convinced him it was a bad idea. “You’re used to running a big corporation,” O’Neill told him. “You can’t run a government that way.”

That’s what he thought. Starting near the end of the last century, the rhetoric of business-minded reform increasingly cloaked the politics of deregulation, anti-welfare cutbacks, and austerity. It was Ross Perot, the Texarkana billionaire who made a fortune in I.T. taking on IBM between the 1960s and 1980s, who brought this language into the mainstream of presidential politics with his 1992 independent run against George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton. Unlike previous politicians who spoke of running the government like a business as a shorthand for implementing new structures of accountability or commonsense reform, Perot talked as though the government itself were a business—period—and voters were not citizens but actually shareholders in the American state.

Perot’s campaign pitch to the nation of shareholder-voters was to cast a ballot for his hostile takeover that would install a C-suite of executives in Washington to replace the politicians. “The United States is the largest and most complex enterprise in the history of mankind,” he wrote in his campaign book United We Stand. “Elected officials like to say that government can’t be run like a business. I can see why. In business, people are held accountable. In Washington, nobody is held accountable.” He called for massive cuts to the executive branch, slashing the congressional budget, and shutting down legislative committees. It’s not that Perot never had any good ideas—he called for campaign finance reform and closing the revolving door between industry and regulatory bodies—but his ideas were usually explained in terms of a transactional relationship between the state and the people. Or, as he put it in one of his plans, “Encourage federal employees to treat citizens as owners.”

Donald Trump’s public life over the last 20 years was a performance of two basic characters: the celebrity CEO and the business reformer. Trump first campaigned for president in 2000 when he ran for Ross Perot’s Reform Party nomination. “I seriously thought that America might be ready for a businessman president,” he complained after dropping out. Trump had already achieved a remarkable notoriety in New York’s celebrity culture, but this was just the beginning of a new stage in his career that would kick into high gear in 2004 with the NBC show The Apprentice. It didn’t exactly help that Trump had few real business accomplishments to his name, certainly nothing like what you’d find on Perot’s or Iacocca’s résumé. What success he could point to, such as the construction of Trump Tower, a building that was already 20 years old by the time The Apprentice first aired, was glued together by a hodgepodge of debt, tax abatements, family money, and carefully cultivated branding. By the end of the 1990s, he was already resorting to licensing deals that would put his name on an absurd array of products that he had little to do with, from hotels and condos to steaks, clothes, and mattresses, to a private university shuttered after a massive settlement in a fraud suit.

But when it came to the character that he performed on The Apprentice, the underlying reality was insignificant compared to the impressive spectacle of limousines, helicopters, resorts—and, of course, the serious and frowning face of Trump in the boardroom. Over the last four years, Resistance liberals have pointed with glee at the drip of investigative reports showing that underneath the gilding of the Trump Organization, there was a hidden financial mess. The fact that Trump only paid $750 in federal income taxes in 2016 and 2017 served as the definitive judgment that he was a phony businessman.

For many expecting a blue wave, however, the fact that more than 74 million voters didn’t care that he was a fake—or didn’t care enough not to vote for him—has come as something of a surprise. It is more than a little unnerving for those on the liberal left to realize that without the coronavirus pandemic, Trump might have sailed into a second term. Yes, Americans responded negatively to the fears and deprivations caused by Trump’s administrative failure to handle this crisis—that much is true. But they didn’t turn against Trump because he was a fake businessman, even if they knew it.

This observation might seem like splitting hairs, but its significance should not be overlooked. Trump is by almost every conceivable category a failure as a professional business leader. He does not measure up to the standards of social responsibility laid out by advocates of business statesmanship nearly one hundred years ago. Neither is he an entrepreneur by any measure. But Trump’s failures as a businessman are rivaled by the failure of American business writ large to live up to its own stated ideals of professionalism, whether of the older business statesmanship variety or the new social entrepreneurial one. The American public perceives this better than many who are paid handsome sums for think-tank duty or op-ed composition. According to a recent survey released by the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture, nearly 70 percent of the public believes that leaders in American corporations, media, universities, and technology care little about the lives of most Americans. In ways that Trump’s critics have been unable to appreciate, his many failures in business and government make him uniquely qualified to serve as a representative of corporate America. After all, his tenure as head of the Trump Organization and the executive branch came at a moment when business, like government, has been downgraded to a simple series of transactional opportunities. Trump knew that his culture war theater and his racist fever dreams could be leveraged into a species of higher-minded personal branding—something parallel to what Lee Iacocca achieved in his own liberal-leaning moment of business celebrity. In a public sphere where democratic virtues have been overrun by wanton, impersonal notions of sacrifice to the market, Trump rightly intuited that a rhetorically powerful branding strategy can elevate even the most cynical displays of self-promotion into redemptive meaning. Hence his own always dubious business celebrity became cognate with the mantra of Making America Great Again.

The contest between Joe Biden and Donald Trump was a choice between two professions—the public servant and the business reformer. Biden, who spent half his life as a member of the U.S. Senate, was an unlikely candidate to unseat a first-term president and win the highest popular vote tally in history. “I’ve done more in 47 months than you’ve done in 47 years, Joe,” was Trump’s reliable attack line. And for decades, Americans have been attracted to presidential candidates who have promised to be true outsiders and fix Washington—to do what Trump more colorfully called draining the swamp.

But this election may prove to be a turning point in our political discourse. Not just because of Biden’s victory but also because of Trump’s unrelenting attacks on scientific experts, civil servants, and public institutions of almost all kinds, Americans have rallied around the ideal of public service. In the days after November 3, postal workers received standing ovations in the streets of America’s major cities. People wear Anthony Fauci T-shirts. Such displays may strike us as cringeworthy in certain ways—it’s not the point of public service to court mass adulation, after all. But at another level, they’re also a healthy and long-overdue celebration of the real good that democratic institutions can do. A Biden presidency stands poised to rehabilitate the public servant and to put to rest, at least for a time, the myth of the omnicompetent business reformer.