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Napoleons in Pinstripes: The Rise of the Business Mogul as Politician

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“As you know, I am not a politician. I have worked in business, creating jobs and rebuilding neighborhoods my entire adult life,” Donald Trump announced at a Charlotte, North Carolina rally during the 2016 election. At the Republican National Convention, he similarly promised, “I made billions of dollars in business making deals. Now I’m going to make the country rich again.”[1] These statements, in some respects, have represented the least aberrant aspect of Trump’s political career. Similar promises by politically inexperienced CEOs have become such  a  clichéd  element  of American  politics that few have sought to ponder that the presence of these figures and their claims embody a relatively new phenomenon.

Throughout much of American history, business figures largely avoided national elected office relying instead on their wealth to influence elections and governance from the out- side. Although many figures appreciated their close access to politicians, it took a particular type of business mogul to run as a candidate. Beginning with the independent candidacy of Ross Perot in 1992, many CEOs have done just that. By 2002, the Los Angeles Times reported that candidates with business, but no electoral experience, were running in a quarter of that year’s  gubernatorial   races.[2] In  the  ensuing years, the number has significantly  increased as figures from Jon Corzine of New Jersey and Mark Dayton of Minnesota to Rick Snyder of Michigan, Bruce Rauner of Illinois, and Bill Haslam of Tennessee all earned seats as governor, and the 2016 presidential race featured a spate of CEOs. Each of these political figures touted their success in the private sector and lack of experience in the public sector as an asset rather than a liability. This trend emerged from two key developments that have occurred since the 1970s: the frustration and distrust of government and career politicians, and the glorification and new celebrity status of CEOs and entrepreneurs such as Chrysler’s Lee Iacocca and Apple’s Steve Jobs. CEO political candidates have, in turn, played a fundamental role in normalizing the principle that government should be “run like a business” and the technocratic idea that business practices and metrics should be applied to democratic governance.

. . . [T]hese political figures touted their success in the private sector and lack of experience in the public sector as an asset rather than liability.

Despite their promises of making government fairer and more efficient, once in office, these elected officials have often exerted authoritarian tendencies. Their authoritarianism has not solely derived from the fact that they have no experience or knowledge of the basic norms of democratic institutions (which is often the case), but it is also rooted in their firm belief that what has made them great in their business career or their “will to power,” namely, their unique intelligence and ability to create rational and efficient solutions will be naturally applicable in the political arena and that their wealth will make them incorruptible.

The forms of authoritarianism these figures have exerted have proven that not all business experience is equal. Mitt Romney’s career in management  consulting  and private  equity  in part prevented him from assuming an authoritarian  leadership  style,  while  figures  such  as Ross Perot and Michael Bloomberg emerged from the data-driven fields of financial and information  services,  and  they  oversaw  their own private companies. This background made them prone to a distinctive form of techno- authoritarianism that combined technocratic business principles with authoritarian control. Trump’s experience in real-estate development and the fact that he has ruled over a private, family-run business has made him exert a distinctive form of patriarchal authoritarianism that has proven to be especially immune to the nor- mal structures of democratic accountability.

The campaigns of these business figures and governing rationality of authoritarianism they have sought to implement both collectively and individually deserve far more attention. Together, they represent a disturbing and subtle assault on the basic premises of representative democracy and the party system, and have helped further erode the separation between the spheres of business and government.

Ross Is Boss

Although often treated as a footnote in political history, Ross Perot’s 1992 presidential bid established several key themes and issues that would come to reshape the political landscape and create a new opening for CEOs to seek political office. The Texarkana-born Perot started the data-processing firm Electronic Data Systems (EDS), which he took public in 1969, sold to General Motors in 1984, and then used the profits to launch Perot Systems Corporation, a privately held information technology service provider. He had made several idiosyncratic forays into politics such as his delivery of supplies to POWs in Vietnam, his rescue of two employees in Iran, and his involvement in drug and education policy in his home state. While Perot’s decision to seek the presidency was unsurprising to those who had watched his career, the amount of support the billionaire received and the grassroots movement he sparked were unanticipated. Perot tapped into frustration with government and growing veneration of business that had contributed to the Reagan Revolution. Yet Perot, unlike Reagan, could claim he was a true political outsider.

CEO political candidates have . . . played a fundamental role in normalizing . . . the technocratic idea that business practices and metrics should be applied to democratic governance.

Throughout the 1992 election, Perot explicitly reversed the typical qualifications for holding public office, suggesting that experience in government hindered the ability of politicians to address the nation’s economic and political problems. “The folks in Congress and the White House, in my judgment, are not villains,” Perot told  the  Washington  Press  Club.  “They  just don’t know what to do. Most of them are either lawyers or career politicians. They don’t under- stand business.”[3]  Perot’s campaign focused on the gridlock, corruption, and lack of account- ability in Washington. He routinely stressed the ways in which these factors contributed to a breakdown in democracy as politicians had become more beholden to lobbyists than their constituents.   Connecting   this  theme   to  his larger  ideas  about  applying  business  metrics and tools to governance, he declared, “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.”[4] He argued, therefore, that the solution was to create reforms that would make the government run more like a private enterprise.

Perot promoted an alternative vision of democratic accountability, best captured in the idea of ownership, which became one of the central themes of the campaign. He adopted the tagline “We own this country” and frequently stressed, “Only the people, the owners of this country can make America strong again.”[5] These statements  combined  a  populist  language  with  a transactional and market-oriented vision of democracy.[6] He also proposed imposing term limits on all elected offices and prohibiting public  officials  from  lobbying  for five  years after leaving office. Perot presented himself as an alternative to career politicians who needed to perpetually campaign and raise funds. Harkening back to the Revolutionary era when many members of the political elite, including a number of the founding fathers, believed their wealth made them incorruptible, he suggested that his personal wealth left him unbeholden to anyone and able to stay removed from the pres- sures and control of either political party. Yet Perot did not ponder whether his wealth might also have made him unresponsive to the democratic will.

During the 1992 campaign, Perot spent a large amount of personal fortune to pay for a series of infomercials that aired on the major networks. In the thirty-minute spots, Perot sat behind a large executive desk holding a pointer in one hand while, with the other hand, he flipped through a stack of charts that illustrated his talk on the nation’s economy.[7]  Perot’s reliance on statistics and charts in both the infomercials and his book-length manifestos echoed progressive technocrats of old and their belief that even the most difficult problems could be solved.[8] Although he might have couched the message in folksy aphorisms, the infomercials revealed, in the  words  of Alan  Brinkley,  his clear “technocratic impulse.”[9]

. . . Perot did not ponder whether his wealth might also have made him unresponsive to the democratic will.

The spots also revealed his authoritarian impulses. The infomercials focused entirely on Perot sitting alone behind the large executive desk, which might have indicated his desire to speak directly with the people. Instead, it exposed his desire for control. Perot was notorious for running his companies, as history professor and author Sean Wilentz noted, “as a closely guarded autocracy” employing “like- mind people.”[10] Perot proudly declared in 1973, “I’m used to being able to say something once, in a whisper, and having committed guys across this country go make it happen.”[11]  He was known  to  operate  his  campaign  in  a  similar way. “Perot is the ultimate control freak,” Ed Rollins, Perot’s short-lived campaign manager, later observed.[12] Perot demonstrated an equally skeptical view of the grassroots aspects of his campaign and saw relying on decentralized net- works and ordinary people as antithetical to his vision of proper management.

Perot’s dismissal of career politicians also exposed a larger distrust of the democratic system. Throughout the campaign, he proposed electronic town halls, which would enable ordinary citizens to direct policymaking through technological and technocratic tools such as tele- polling. On the surface, this idea appeared to promote direct democracy. In reality, tele-polling had profoundly undemocratic implications. The plan thwarted discussion and debate, which are key elements of a functioning democracy and also sought to bypass and defang Congress, the judiciary, and most federal agencies. It thus demonstrated Perot’s impatience with, and disregard for, several of the most fundamental mechanisms of the democratic system.

Perot’s “authoritarian anti-democratic streak” did not alienate but actually appealed to a sub- set of voters frustrated  by “politics as usual” and deeply anxious about the economic pros- pects  for  themselves  and  the  country  as  a whole.[13]   Journalists Guy Molyneux and William Schneider spent time with a group of Perot  activists  in Orange  County,  California. The largely white male “yappies” (young angry professionals) they profiled believed Perot’s status as a high-tech businessman who would be able to “get under hood” and fix the nation’s economic problems through rational business- minded and technology-focused problem solving.[14] Many of these Orange County activists proudly embraced the bumper sticker slogan “Ross for Boss.” The idea of a technocratic authoritarian did not strike these white-collar supporters as incongruous because both components embodied their larger desire for order.[15]

In addition to these yappies (who resembled characters from the cast of Office Space), the “Ross for Boss” slogan also discovered considerable support among the union rank-and-file. A small poll conducted by The Detroit Free Press in June 1992 found that Perot was the most popular of the three  candidates  in the election.[16]

While his opposition to free trade was a factor, for many union workers, Perot’s appeal was that he represented a departure from the status quo. Labor leaders tried to warn that a Perot presidency would have disastrous consequences, especially given his union-busting tactics while head of EDS. Although some listened, pollsters estimated that one-fifth of union households supported Perot in the 1992 general election.[17]

Overall, Perot received nineteen million votes in 1992, which proved the best showing by an independent candidate since Robert La Follette.

“Like a Business”

In the 1990s and 2000s, across the country and the political aisle, a throng of business figures followed Perot’s example launching campaigns on the grounds that inexperienced CEOs made the best public servants. Soon, the appearance of novice business tycoons became an almost unremarkable feature in races at the local and state levels. They all promised to run government like a business. These campaigns and statements  further  normalized  the  neoliberal idea that government should be led and evaluated by private sector principles and metrics.

“Can’t we have one person in the government who’s had some experience running something?” Mr. Romney asked supporters . . .

Mitt Romney best personified this message, and his campaigns throughout the early 2000s capture these larger themes. The Bain Capital whiz kid made his first official foray in 1994 in a failed attempt to unseat Ted Kennedy. Almost a decade later, after further adding to his private equity fortune and a successful stint as co-chair of the Salt Lake City Olympics, he returned to Massachusetts to suggest that his experience at Bain made him more suited for the executive duties of a governor than a senator. He relied even more heavily on his business experience and track record of effective and efficient management in his 2002 bid. “Can’t we have one person  in  the  government  who’s  had  some experience running something?” Mr. Romney asked  supporters  at  one  event.  “We’re  not  a well-managed state. We need to run Massachusetts better.”[18] After decisively winning, Romney anointed himself the state’s first “CEO governor” and instituted an overhaul of state functions, which included sharp cuts to social services.[19]  Romney’s time in private equity and close study of management theory, nevertheless,  made  him  assume  a  leadership style that, while undoubtedly technocratic, was not especially authoritarian. “My usual approach,” he told state lawmakers early in his tenure, “has been to set the strategic vision for the enterprise and then work with executive vice presidents  to  implement  the  strategy.”[20]   His term at the state house bore out this statement and helped further bolster his image as an efficient manager.

Bloomberg remodeled City Hall to resemble a Wall Street bullpen with his own cubicle in the center.

Michael Bloomberg rode a similar wave into New York City’s mayor’s office, but he demonstrated a more authoritarian style than Romney. Bloomberg possessed a firm belief that his wealth and intelligence made him uniquely suited for the position as mayor. He sold himself as the only person with the skills to guide New York and its economy through the tumultuous aftermath of 9/11. Like Perot, the billionaire philanthropist made the aristocratic argument that his enormous personal fortune made him immune to the pressures of special interests. Yet it quickly became clear that part of his motivation to run was not purely altruistic.

Bloomberg remodeled City Hall to resemble a Wall Street bullpen with his own cubicle in the center. The layout was intended to demonstrate the transparency, accountability, and the purported lack of hierarchy of his administration. The trading desk design also reflected his business model approach to urban governance. “I’ve spent my career thinking about the strategies that institutions in the private sector should pursue,” Bloomberg declared in 2003. “The more I learn about this institution called New York City, the more I see the ways in which it needs to think like a private company.”[21]

Bloomberg made his fortune in the field of data and information, which also made him pre- disposed to technocratic solutions. New York Times reporter Bill Keller suggested that Bloomberg’s undergraduate training in engineering offered him “not just a set of skills” but “an approach to the world, a strategic sensibility different from a politician’s. It favors innovative solutions over incremental fixes, calculation over consensus.”[22] Yet Bloomberg shared aspects of Perot’s authoritarianism and lack of regard for many of the traditional trappings of democracy. Bloomberg’s background also increasingly made him see his constituents not as citizens but as data points. When combined with his enormous personal fortune, this perspective made him largely unaccountable to the people and dismissive of many of the basic strictures of the city’s democratic political system. Bloomberg firmly rejected Perot’s idea that term limits provided a stopgap on inefficient and unaccountable government. In 2009, he led a controversial campaign to rewrite city laws essentially to purchase a third term in office on the basis that only he was capable of guiding the city through the upheaval of the recession and rescue the city from potential financial ruin. Will to power indeed.

Force of Will

While the recession might have made the majority of the country doubt the wisdom and leader- ship of CEOs as public servants, it seems to have done just the opposite, contributing to the political rise of Trump. He clearly capitalized on the inroads of predecessors such as Bloomberg and Romney despite his fraught relationship with each of them. Like Romney, Trump stressed his resume and position as a political outsider. He also adopted Bloomberg’s argument that his personal wealth protected him from the corrupting forces of politics. And, Trump recapitulated aspects of Perot’s campaign style, particularly his fusion of populism, with his image as an authoritarian business leader.

Before seeking public office, Trump cultivated a public persona through his reality television show as an abusive boss and created a business career based on the premise that he defied traditional restraints. “You can get any job done through sheer force of will,” Trump brazenly  declared  in  The  Art  of  the  Deal.[23]

Throughout his presidential campaign, he suggested taking a similar approach to the problems of Washington and international politics. Similar to Perot, his brash tactics proved refreshing and appealing to a subset of voters anxious about the economic and job growth and frustrated by partisan gridlock.[24]

. . .Trump cultivated a public persona . . . based on the premise that he defied traditional restraints.

Trump’s experience, like Bloomberg’s, has come primarily from a private company, which has meant that for most of his career, he has not had to deal with the forms of accountability and constraints created by having to answer to a board of directors and shareholders, much less constituents.  Vox’s  Sean  Illing  has  remarked that “privately held companies are fiefdoms. They’re essentially extensions of the owner, of the  individual  behind  them.”[25]   This  is  even more true in large family-run enterprises, like the  one  that Trump  has  overseen,  which  are often very insular and where the view of the patriarch  is  rarely  questioned  or  subject  to either internal or external forms of review.

Trump was clearly accustomed to a professional  environment  that  does  not  sync  with even the basic functions of the presidency. Despite its clear power and influence, the position of the presidency actually has even less autonomy  than  Bloomberg  had  as  mayor  of New York.[26] Trump has discovered that it is actually quite difficult to run the country as he had run his business even with his children and their spouses on staff. The constrictions of the Oval Office, nevertheless, seem to make Trump further dig in his heels and redouble his patriarchal-authoritarian tendencies, insisting that he knows best due to his past experience in Trump Tower. “I know the details of taxes better than anybody. Better than the greatest CPA,” he boasted to the New York Times. “I know the details of health care better than most, better than most. And if I didn’t, I couldn’t have talked all these people into doing [sic] ultimately only to be rejected.”[27]

By temperament and background, Trump has none of the technocratic impulses of many of the other corporate figures who have entered politics. This makes him all the more dangerous. For all the problems with technocrats, those impulses have made figures such as Bloomberg possess a faith in research and rationality that Trump has so consistently lacked. Perhaps the Trump presidency will put an end to the notion that experience in business is qualification enough for public office. But as indicated by the long list of business people continuing to demonstrate political aspirations, this trend is unlikely to die on the vine. That is why it is all the more urgent to work to challenge it.


[1] Aaron Blake, “Donald Trump’s Best Speech of the 2016 Campaign, Annotated,” Washington Post, August 19, 2016; “Donald Trump 2016 RNC Draft Speech Transcript,” Politico, July 21, 2016, available at https://www.washingtonpost.com/ news/the-fix/wp/2016/08/19/donald-trumps-best- speech-of-the-2016-campaign-annotated/?utm_ term=.f5494c1374e5.

[2] Neal Gabler, “Mr. Businessman Goes to Washington,” Los Angeles Times, June 2, 2002, M3.
[3] Sonni  Efron  and  Michael  Kennedy,  “Angry Voters See Perot Riding in Like Cavalry,” Los Angeles Times, March 22, 1992, A24.
[4] Solon Simmons and James Simmons, “ The Politics of a Bittersweet Economy Economic Restructuring,   Economic   Stories,  and  Ross Perot in the Elections of 1992 and 1996” in Ross for Boss: The Perot Phenomenon and Beyond Ted G. Jelen, ed. (Albany: State University of New York Press), 88-93.
[5] Ross Perot, How We Can Take Our Country Back: A Plan for the 21st Century (New York: Hyperion, 1992).
[6] On the populist inflections, see Michael Kazin, The Populist Persuasion: An American History, Rev.  ed.  (Ithaca:  Cornell  University  Press, 1998), 272-73.
[7] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CJwjOJQtUAI.
[8] Alan Brinkley, “Roots,” New Republic, June 27, 1992, 44-45; Sean Wilentz, “Pox Populi,” New Republic, August 9, 1993, 34.
[9] Brinkley, “Roots.”
[10] Wilentz, “Pox Populi.”
[11] Michael  Jensen,  “Texas  Tornado  Hits  Wall Street,” New York Times, March 23, 1973, avail- able at http://www.nytimes.com/1973/03/25/ archives/texas-tornado-hits-wall-street-hes- wiry-talkative-unorthodox-and.html.
[12] Steven Holmes, “Billion Dollar Enigma,” New York Times, August 19, 1996, 1.
[13] Wilentz, “Pox Populi.”
[14] Guy Molyneux and William Schneider, “Ross Is Boss,” Atlantic, May 1993, 84-96.
[15] For more on this connection see Marc Hetherington and Jonathan Weiler, Authoritarianism & Polarization in American Politics (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2009).
[16] Doron P. Levin, “The 1992 Campaign: Labor; Union  Leaders  Seek  to  Keep  Auto  Workers from the Arms of Perot,” New York Times, June 18, 1992, available at http://www.nytimes. com/1992/06/18/us/1992-campaign-labor-union- leaders-seek-keep-auto-workers-arms-perot.html.
[17] https://onlabor.or g/the-union-household-vote-revisited/.
[18] Mark  Melady,  “Mitt’s  Message:  Efficiency; GOP Candidate Hits State Waste,” Telegram & Gazette, June 4, 2002, B1.
[19] Michael Kranish and Scott Helman, The Real Romney (New York: HarperCollins, 2012), 236.
[20] Ibid.
[21] Julian Brash, Bloomberg’s New York: Class and Governance in the Luxury City (Athens: The University of Georgia Press, 2011), 107.
[22] Bill  Keller,  “The  Bloomberg  Legacy,”  New York Times, July 14, 2013, available at http:// www.nytimes.com/2013/07/15/opinion/keller- the-bloomberg-legacy.html.
[23] Donald Trump and Tony Schwartz, Trump: The Art of the Deal (New York: Random House, 1987), 322.
[24] https://www.usnews.com/news/the-report/ articles/2015/10/01/donald-trumps-supporters- and-why-they-love-him.
[25] Sean Illing, “Trump Is Trying to Run the Government Like His Business. That’s Why He’s  Failing,”  Vox,  May  18,  2017,  available at https://www.vox.com/2017/5/18/15653808/ donald-trump-james-comey-michael-flynn- business
[26] Soergel, “Businessman in Chief.”
[27] “Excerpt from Trump’s Interview with the Times,” New York Times, December 28, 2017, available at https://www.nytimes.com/2017/12/28/us/poli- tics/trump-interview-excerpts.html.