Donald Trump Is Just Like ... Henry Ford?

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

Trump—a billionaire business mogul who’s put his name everywhere, and blends anti-immigrant rhetoric with promises to put Americans back to work and make the nation great again—has seen his presidential prospects take flight, eclipsing the establishment candidates of the Republican Party in the early polls. Historians are looking for precedents for his run. Ross Perot? Strom Thurmond? George Wallace?

No, says Mark Sholdice, a doctoral candidate at the University of Guelph:

Like Trump, Ford’s business success made him a household name. Like Trump, he promised to be a man of action, thinking bigger than government bureaucrats would dare to dream.

Ford’s signature proposal was to take over a stalled government project in Muscle Shoals, Alabama, building a dam and then a 75-mile-long city along the lake that would form behind it. Like Trump, he tapped into economic angst, and potent resentments toward political leaders and coastal elites. And, like Trump, he channeled hostility toward immigration. The paper he owned, the Dearborn Independent, ran a series called, “The International Jew: The World’s Problem,” over 91 installments.

In the summer of 1923, Ford’s prospects surged. Collier’s magazine sent agents door-to-door, surveying 253,553 Americans on their views. Ford garnered 34 percent of the vote, with a clear plurality in every state but six; Warren Harding, the incumbent Republican president, managed only 20 percent. He was particularly popular with white, native-born voters. A consortium of 2,000 rural newspapers surveyed 679,906 readers, and Ford picked up 41 percent support. These voters were not even sure whether he would run as a Republican or a Democrat; in fact face-to-face surveys suggested that the inability to fit him into standard partisan positions was central to his appeal. By early fall, speculation reached a fever pitch. But Ford ultimately bowed out; apparently bartering his political prospects for a better shot at the Muscle Shoals deal.

So if Ford’s the most apt parallel, what does it suggest about Donald Trump? That he, too, will ultimately put business ahead of politics? Perhaps. But maybe it says less about either Trump or Ford than about the American people—about their weakness for blunt-speaking business moguls, about their hopeful search for new solutions, and about the persistence of their darker passions.