Presidents Aren't CEOs

On the meaning and implications of the country’s first true businessman president

DenisNata / Shutterstock / Paul Spella / The Atlantic

Among the more arid and promiscuous expressions in the English language is saying that someone is “in business.” The pawnbroker, the accounts executive at CBS, and the risk arbitrageur are all nominally engaged “in business,” but that fact probably does more to obscure the differences in their daily affairs than to reveal any fundamental similarities.

Donald J. Trump has certainly been “in business” for the better part of 50 years. And while his electoral success has made him a global face for American capitalism, the fact that he’s the first businessman to vault from the C-Suite straight to the presidency says little about what the country might expect from the next four years—or at least not nearly as much as many tend to think.

Most presidents have had some experience in private enterprises before entering the Oval Office, a few of them quite substantial. Herbert Hoover made millions as a mining consultant; Jimmy Carter managed a successful peanut farm; and George W. Bush ran an oil company. No president, however, has ever spent his entire adult life immersed in the hustle and bustle of business or, to use Trump’s preferred nomenclature, deal-making. That activity—global in scope, arcane in detail—has received special scrutiny in light of the president-elect’s refusal to release his tax returns, and not without reason. Conflicts of interests come in many forms, but few are as worrisome as the leader of the free world keeping one eye on his portfolio whenever he contemplates some policy decision.

Such concerns have always dogged presidential contenders who campaign on their business acumen, and the reason why so many Americans are willing to overlook the opportunities for cronyism and self-dealing is an abiding belief that spending time “in business” is ideal training for being the commander-in-chief. That assumption is hardly outrageous, but it is too often predicated on the belief that the president is essentially the nation’s CEO, a common misconception that warps one’s understanding of how exactly the federal government works.

Instead of an obvious and (as far as the Founders were concerned) highly desirable consequence of the division of powers and divided government, Washington’s inability to “get things done” is seen as unmistakable evidence of gross deficits in the character and competency of its leaders. If the president, in particular, were simply more technically gifted, managerially adroit, and decisive in his decision-making—in other words, if he had the skills we often associate with successful CEOs—Washington would at last “work,” a remarkable conclusion that assumes surprising unanimity about the “work” that most Americans would like to see done.

Beyond a strange insensitivity to the contending interests that enliven American politics as well as the dubious presumption that most political leaders are either knaves or fools (for otherwise they would just “get things done”), those who labor under the fallacy of the CEO president betray a profound ignorance about the actual powers of the American presidency. Then again, they’re in good company. “The most startling thing a new President discovers is that his world is not monolithic,” an unnamed Truman aide told Theodore White in The Making of the President 1960. “In the world of the presidency, giving an order does not end the matter. You can pound your fist on the table or you can get mad or you can blot it all and go out to the golf course. But nothing gets done except by endless follow-up, endless kissing and coaxing, endless threatening and compelling.”

The contrast to the head honcho of a Fortune 500 company should be obvious. CEOs may assume their orders will be dispatched faithfully by subordinates, if not always to their full satisfaction, but when dealing with members of Congress, a president’s power is by and large confined to the power of persuasion. Yes, the president does have a limited battery of carrots and sticks—the promise of a political appointment, for example, or the threat of withholding support in the case of a bruising primary—but for the most part, when one can neither freely promote nor fire the individuals one must work with in order to get anything substantial accomplished, they are power centers unto themselves rather than pawns to be moved at will.

The impotence of presidential authority is not without exception or work-around—the commander-in-chief has wide discretion in foreign affairs, and the use of executive orders is an example, albeit a circumscribed and highly controversial one, of unilateral decree—but relative to a CEO, the opportunity to fully envision and implement a single complex project, much less a comprehensive vision, is limited to the degree that a president can convince others to sign on. The same may be said for other high-ranking officials across the federal government. One cannot simply divine a remedy, channel one’s inner pharaoh, and expect one’s will be done.

Not that this prevents some from trying. “I’ve seen a lot of people suck in government,” the TV host and former congressman Joe Scarborough observed in early December on Morning Joe, sounding a warning to Trump’s Cabinet-level nominees. “Some of the people that suck the worst are CEOs that go in there [saying], ‘This is the way I worked Trans-Saw Enterprises, and it’s gonna work here!’ No, actually it doesn’t work that way.” He continued, making reference to the speed-trap of career civil servants. “They’re like vultures—they will pick your eyeballs out of your face.”

As of yet, the president-elect’s eyes remain intact, as does his abiding belief that brute determination will overcome any obstacles to his ambition. “You can get any job done through sheer force of will,” Trump contends in The Art of the Deal, “and by knowing what you’re talking about.” If his presidential campaign seemed, at once, to affirm and embarrass this declaration, it suggests that a Trump presidency is likely to exhibit too little of the best, and too much of the worst, of what might be expected from a commander-in-chief who’s spent a lifetime “in business.”

With respect to the best, unlike a president who has spent decades cultivating the hard skills that lend themselves to complex bureaucratic management and quantitative acumen, Trump consistently boasts of shunning hard analysis and expert opinion (“I don’t hire a lot of number-crunchers”) in favor of the oracle of gut instinct. On the other hand, in terms of the worst, Trump maintains a “my way or the highway” ethic that makes even the most stubborn CEOs look positively accommodating.

In The Art of the Deal, the president-elect is unapologetic about his heedless determination when pursuing some initiative (“I’ll do nearly anything within legal bounds to win”) and entirely spiteful when things don’t go his way. Recounting the difficulties the hotel magnate Barron Hilton had in the 1980s obtaining a gambling license in New Jersey even as Hilton Hotels had already started construction on a massive casino complex in Atlantic City, Trump says that, had he been in Hilton’s place, he would have been relentless in pursuit of the license. “I’m not saying I would also have won,” he admits, “but if I went down, it would have been kicking and screaming. I would have closed the hotel and let it rot. That’s just my makeup.”

It shouldn’t escape notice that, while Donald Trump is president, this reckless approach to “getting things done” will be underwritten by the American people. To that end, The Art of the Deal, the vade mecum of Trumpology, is both instructive and admonitory, like a home-repair estimate prospectively authored by an arsonist. “I fight when I feel I’m getting screwed,” Trump warns his readers, “even if it’s costly and difficult and highly risky.”

Hopefully this scorched-earth inclination will be reserved for bureaucratic infighting. Indeed, whatever the effective limits of executive authority, it is obviously true that President Trump will have far greater scope for his grand ambitions than he ever did “in business,” and he would hardly be the first commander-in-chief to believe that he shouldn’t be confined to the water’s edge. Even for an erstwhile casino magnate with six bankruptcies under his belt, this is high-stakes poker. Domestically, the president-elect will be playing with house money. Overseas, he will be gambling with blood and treasure.

Whatever one makes of this prospect, the better framework for assessing what one may expect from a Trump presidency is less what might be extrapolated from the behavior of a conventional CEO than from that of a showboating businessman who has proven himself a mass-marketing savant and a master of self-promotion. To this end, rather than a proving ground for technocratic expertise, Trump favors another far less flattering vision of business, one in which the essential “arts,” as the economist Thorstein Veblen acidly described them, are “bargaining, effrontery, salesmanship, [and] make-believe.”

Trump’s success in the 2016 campaign surely involved involved all four of Veblen’s ingredients, and, in fairness, he is far from the only political candidate to have called upon them. Since the advent of television advertising, politicians have consistently relied on sales techniques more familiar to selling Doritos than domestic policy; the president-elect’s was a virtuoso performance. “Trump created a sense of what the problem was, framed it and then juxtaposed himself as the solution,” the CEO of the American Marketing Association, Russ Klein, told The Washington Post shortly after the election. If anything, this undersells Trump’s success. Think of how many campaign catchphrases are now stamped in the popular consciousness. There are the primitive epithets (“Little Marco,” “Lyin’ Ted,” “Crooked Hillary”), the crude promises (“Drain the Swamp,” “Build the Wall,” “The Muslim Ban”), and, most importantly, the very premise of Trump’s entire campaign (“Make America Great Again”). In every one of these respects, the electoral apprentice proved himself a master of political sloganeering.

Throughout the fall, Trump’s success was obvious to anyone watching his rallies. It wasn’t so much that the attendees knew all the old standards by heart; it was that, when they chanted “Lock her up!,” they believed fervently in the sordid request and that there was only one man who would honor it. In this conviction, they had encouragement. “I am your voice,” Trump declared at the Republican National Convention, adding “I alone can fix it.”

That promise was consistent with the bombast of the GOP nominee, and more than any other artifact of his outrageous campaign, or any element of his business record, it portends his likely undoing as president. Consider the warning of Jerry Cave, a media consultant and enthusiast of Trump’s. In a recent interview with The Atlantic, he described the perils that lie ahead for a president who has shown himself to be uniquely gifted at self-promotion in a campaign context. “It was the message and who he is and all this other stuff [that enabled him to win,]” he said. “But that has nothing to do with who’s governing.” Cave likened Trump’s electoral success to a used-car salesman getting a potential buyer to make his way to the dealership. Once the customer’s inside the front door, however, heady optimism soon gives way to hard reality, and there is almost inevitably a good deal of messy negotiation before the driver takes to the road.

As a matter of policy making, for reasons already discussed, Trump will almost certainly fall short of his bluster, but even more than the failure to cut the extraordinary deals he’s promised, the fact that his powers of persuasion will be shown insufficient will risk breaking the spell among many of his supporters. Indeed, Trump’s marketing genius during the campaign effectively turned him into a textbook example of what’s called a “charismatic leader,” a figure whose hold on power is sturdiest only when it might be exercised in a distant tomorrow rather than the plain light of today.

The reason for this is simple: Charismatic leaders labor under impossible expectations of their own creation. As the sociologist Max Weber famously defined it, charisma typically describes a certain “supernatural, superhuman” quality that sets a leader apart from “ordinary men.” Indeed, it is often regarded as being of “divine origin” and is not infrequently supposed to be “resting on magical powers.” If, unlike Julius Caesar’s claim to be a direct descendant of Venus, the president-elect has yet to acknowledge his divinity, he has shown himself to be highly sympathetic to the notion that some people are simply exemplary by nature. In a 2009 conversation with the journalist and critic Deborah Solomon, he expressed confusion about the constitutional premise that all men are created equal. “It’s not true,” he said. “Some people are born very smart, some people are born not so smart. Some people are born very beautiful and some people are not, so you can’t say they’re all created equal.”

Whatever one makes of this claim, Weber believed that it was a working assumption of those who gravitate to charismatic authority. Their loyalty tended to be characterized by “complete personal devotion,” he said, that is, until the promises of the leaders prove empty, at which point, like a crystal vase in careless hands, the fragile quality of charisma becomes strikingly evident. “If he is for long unsuccessful,” Weber writes, “above all if his leadership fails to benefit his followers, it is likely that his charismatic authority will disappear.” And once it is evaporated, followers have a tendency to be bitter and brutal, for having put their stock in no substantial talents or experience, they are saddled with a figurehead who is a constant reminder of their foolishness.

This is the danger President Trump faces if he fails to live up to his bluster, and it is one reason why Peter Drucker, the godfather of modern management theory, inveighed against an over-reliance on charisma in business executives. “Every CEO, it seems, has to be made to look like a dashing Confederate cavalry general or a boardroom Elvis Presley,” Drucker wrote in one of his most famous essays. He not only scorned the emphasis on style over substantial accomplishment (the essay is pointedly titled “Leadership as Work”), he believed that powerful personalities became dangerously enchanted with the personas they had lovingly confected. Charisma is ultimately “the undoing of leaders,” he contended. “It makes them inflexible, convinced of their own infallibility, unable to change.”

The tendencies toward inflexibility and assumed infallibility are occupational hazards of CEOs, which often makes them poorly equipped for the wheedling, cajoling, and occasional arm-twisting of government. Congenitally unapologetic and given to megalomania, Trump has made virtues of these traits, which helps to explain his successful claim to charismatic authority during the campaign season.

What follows from such commitments as he ascends to the presidency remains to be seen, but as he prepares to become the most powerful person on earth, Trump might recall the slogan most often attributed to another showboating businessman, P. T. Barnum: “There’s a sucker born every minute.” Insofar as the president-elect has embraced the comparison with Barnum, he might bear in mind that the circus comes to town for only a few days at a time before departing, again, in the dead of night. Even if Barnum never said a sucker is born every minute—and history is unclear on this matter—he certainly knew that a sucker was best conned quickly, and that a showman risked his advantage when he stuck around for the moment of reckoning.

Moments of reckoning mark the beginning and end of things. Last weekend, Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey announced that it was shutting down its tour after a 146-year run. This weekend, a new show begins. The world will soon find out whether a stationary circus can endure for four years straight without the acts becoming tiresome, the customers wanting a refund, and the ringmaster having good reason to look for safe escape.