by Troy M. Olson
After the article: check out the Iowa-centric “Agreeing Loudly” Flagship Podcast.
It is safe to say we’ve all underestimated the popular appeal of Donald Trump as a candidate for President of the United States. Left, center, or right, inside or outside the beltway, Main Street, Wall Street or Evergreen Terrace – anyone who pays nominal attention to American politics has to be somewhat surprised by his recent political fortunes. We’ll find out this week just how much that appeal in the polls translates into actual results of course, but we’ve all been just a little bit wrong about Trump.
What I’m interested in taking a look at is not so much the story this week but what the story and Trump narrative could be looking forward. Thus far, Trump’s candidacy is the closest you can get to the “internet comments” running for President. On one hand, his candidacy has been characterized as George Wallace-like in its level of cynicism. On the other hand, as Carson Starkey pointed out this week on Twitter: “Strange times when both parties feature candidates demanding fair trade, higher wages, and economic mobility.”
People forget that the ’68 Wallace candidacy featured similar xenophobia for one group (segregationists and white supremacists in the South), but economic populism for another group (working class voters in the North). Wallace carried the staunch segregationist hold-out states of Mississippi, Alabama, Arkansas, Louisiana, and Georgia. He was competitive in border states like Tennessee, Kentucky as well as the eastern old confederacy states of Virginia, North Carolina, and South Carolina. But where else did Wallace play outside of the South? The rust belt. Industrialized and working class states like Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania, West Virginia, and Indiana. With Trump as GOP nominee, this type of campaign can only take him so far. This is why I think any ultimate Trump candidacy, especially once the larger GOP establishment gets involved, will be based first and foremost, on his life spent in business. In other words: Willard Romney 2.0 Real Estate Edition.
If you are hoping for a third consecutive Democratic administration, this is a good thing. After all, how is President Willard Romney doing? Every time the GOP has trotted out the so-called “business & industry” candidate that candidate has lost and lost badly. Donald Trump, if he is the GOP nominee and if they take his message in that direction, will go into the dustbin of losing Presidential campaigns. He would be better served strategically by playing to his strengths. Many of Trump’s supporters consider him like themselves: the “unpolished” or non-political “outsider” who disdains “political correctness.”
For someone who inherited a real estate fortune via contacts, businesses, and eventually, the Trump estate itself, this is a remarkable feat that Romney could have never pulled off.
Prior to Trump, Romney and GOP establishment attempted to position Willard as the problem-solving, turnaround artist of the private sector during the 2012 Presidential Election. Romney had spent most of his career in private equity; an impenetrable and unexplainable profession disdained by most voters from both sides of the aisle. Romney came off as overly patrician, too East Coast for a modern day GOP nominee, and compounded this image with his tone deaf 47 percent gaffe at a private fundraiser in front of millionaire and billionaire funders, who did not seem to appreciate the irony that they were the biggest recipients of “welfare” in the country in the form of tax cuts, subsidies and giveaways to choice-industries, friendly inheritance and estate tax laws, and immediate access to the best accountants and tax lawyers in the country to take advantage of every last rule in our convoluted tax code.
Prior to Romney, Herbert Hoover was elected President in 1928 during an age where so-called serious people thought that “boom and bust” business cycles were a thing of the past. Hoover was an actual good version of the “business & industry” candidate image. Coming from a considerably more humble background, Hoover really did “bootstrap” himself upward to the extent that exists in a time when upward mobility, at least for those who had access to it (i.e. White Males), was actually more viable. Hoover had considerable success in the mining industry and was Secretary of Commerce during the 1920s. It seemed sensible to the GOP “Dukes and Earls” of the day to select Hoover to succeed Calvin Coolidge.
Less than a year into Hoover’s first year in office, the stock market crash, the Great Depression began, and it was the humble-pie background Herbert Hoover that played the role of the weak, apathetic, or ineffectual leader in history just prior to a great leader, FDR. Hoover’s philosophy that the economy will run and reboot itself, and that government should take little role in influencing the economy or ensure the economic security of people, fit in well with the “roaring twenties”, but became a tone-deaf, do-nothing figure during the early years of the Great Depression. It was FDR, the New Deal, and massive amounts of Government spending and Keynesian economics that characterized the years when conventional wisdom would have told us that a “business, industry, and economic” leader is needed to have a “calm and steady” hand. FDR was not only patrician, but his politics most resemble Democratic hopeful Bernie Sanders today. How things have changed.
So why have “business & industry” candidates or leaders fared so poorly? Mostly, it’s a complete fiction. There is no such “business” experience that prepares anyone for the U.S. Presidency. It can be part of a larger story, but it cannot be the story. Most business experiences create a knowledge of that specific industry, but not how other businesses might work and certainly not how macroeconomics works. Call it the Specialists vs. Generalists problem.
Mr. Trump may know real estate, he may know the deal, he clearly has proven to be a great marketer of himself, but he is no business expert, and certainly no economic expert. His campaign has been razor thin on specifics, but lets look at two of them:
First, the “wall” and Trump’s plan to deport 12 million people. In addition to the humanitarian catastrophe, resulting in a considerable loss of “soft power” and respect around the world, his deportation and construction of a wall at the U.S. – Mexico border would also wreck the U.S. economy. Very few U.S. citizens are competing for the same jobs undocumented immigrants are currently doing. This labor shortage in these jobs would have a very real effect on the economy creating a “demand” problem.
Second, Trump’s proposal of a 45 percent tariff on Chinese imports is a pure economic fantasy. The resulting effect would not be aid to the manufacturing sector, but rather would be importing fewer goods period, which would then result in a loss of manufacturing jobs. A “supply” problem. People forget that the U.S. still manufacturers a great deal of goods, but we do it after importing cheaper raw materials, from countries like China. Trump thinks he is getting the best “deal” and doing good for American workers with this proposal. If he seriously believes that, who knows… but I always argue ignorance is more forgivable than cynicism and pandering to fears and prejudices. This proposal could have other negative effects that spill over into geo-politics. China would seek new trading partners to do business with and the second largest economy in the world would grow more isolated from the largest. Increasing tensions with China is the last thing the U.S. or China should seek in the 21st century.
Like Romney and Hoover before him, Trump would fail miserably as a “business” or “economic” expert candidate. Because he isn’t an expert at either. He is like most of us, a specialist.
Public leaders with high aspirations and ambitions should seek to be good generalists as much as possible, with a decent grasp of not just politics, but history, economics, philosophy, and the law as well, starting with the U.S. Constitution, a document I imagine Mr. Trump has never read all the way through.
The real qualities worth looking for in a President, the qualities that are transferable throughout history: leadership, judgment, and character.
A subject for another day, perhaps further along in the primary season once we have more clarity.