Presidents Are NOT CEOs – John Paul Rollert | The Atlantic

Presidents Are NOT CEOs

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

John Paul Rollert  |  The Atlantic

Donald Trump

Donald Trump

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 labour 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 favour 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 behaviour 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 favours 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 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 honour 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 tomorrowrather than the plain light of today.

The reason for this is simple: Charismatic leaders labour 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.

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Comments

  • Clyde Duncan  On January 30, 2017 at 11:57 pm

    Muslim countries where Trump does business are not on the list of banned Muslims. Some of these countries have financed terror networks. I don’t think any Muslims should be banned except for those individuals who pose a documented proven risk. But let’s suppose that Trump is correct in banning all Muslims. Then why is he protecting the Saudis? They produced 9/11. They financed extremism worldwide. They are the epicenter of all that is worst about extreme fundamentalist religion.

    Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Egypt are places Trump has money interests. These three countries have exported terror to the United States of America in the past. They accounted for 18 of the 19 terrorists who perpetrated the Sept. 11 attack on American soil. The attack was directed by a member of the Saudi elite, Osama Bin Laden, with the assistance of an Egyptian, Ayman al-Zawahri.

    These countries, unlike those subject to the ban, are ones where Donald Trump has done business. According to the Times, “In Saudi Arabia, his most recent government financial disclosure revealed several limited liability Trump corporations. In Egypt, he had two Trump companies registered. In the United Arab Emirates, he had licensed his name to a Dubai golf resort and a luxury residential development and spa. Some of these entities have since been closed, and others remain active.”

    A look at other nations with large Muslim populations only reinforces this troubling pattern. Turkey, India and the Philippines could all pose similar risks as the banned countries of origin that concern the president. Yet Mr. Trump has done business in all three places. They, too, are omitted from his list.

    As I said… If Trump is right about the need to ban Muslims (he’s not) and if you take him at his word it’s clear he puts his business interests ahead of the safety of Americans. Trump is thus a corrupt traitor to American interests by his own standards.

    Frank Schaeffer – The Huffington Post

  • Clyde Duncan  On January 31, 2017 at 12:01 am

    Angela Merkel’s Censure Of Donald Trump’s Executive Order Puts Theresa May To Shame

    “That way of thinking is against my interpretation of the basic tenets of international refugee support and cooperation,” Merkel said.

    Alana Horowitz Satlin | Assignment Editor – The Huffington Post

    German Chancellor Angela Merkel issued a strong rebuke of U.S.A. President Donald Trump’s sweeping executive order blocking travelers from seven predominately Muslim countries.

    “The necessary and decisive fight against terrorism does not justify a general suspicion against people of a certain belief ― in this case people of Muslim belief or people from a certain country,” Merkel said at a press conference on Monday. “That way of thinking is against my interpretation of the basic tenets of international refugee support and cooperation.”

    Merkel’s statement was quickly compared to the much more tepid response from British Prime Minister Theresa May.

    “We do not agree with this kind of approach,” Downing Street said of the ban on Saturday. May met with Trump in Washington, D.C., on Friday, just hours before he signed the executive order.

    The order also puts a freeze on America’s Syrian refugee resettlement program at a time when the crisis is worsening by the day.

    Germany has taken in over 1 million refugees and migrants from Syria and other areas in conflict since 2015.

    Merkel’s statement reflects a growing divide between her administration and Trump’s. The president has repeatedly criticized Germany’s efforts to bring in refugees, and the German leader has already spoken out about Trump’s ban.

    The two heads of state talked on the phone over the weekend, and she apparently had to explain to him some pretty basic foreign policy facts.

    “The Geneva refugee convention requires the international community to take in war refugees on humanitarian grounds,” a spokesperson for Merkel said. “All signatory states are obligated to do so. The German government explained this policy in their call.”

  • Clyde Duncan  On February 11, 2017 at 5:08 pm

    Donald Trump is Finally Realising that You Cannot Run the USA Like a Business

    You can’t blame Trump for being furious at the judiciary. Many presidents have felt the same. Back in the 1930s FDR threatened to pack the Supreme Court with new liberal justices when it blocked his New Deal initiatives

    Rupert Cornwell | Independent UK

    The best moment Donald Trump has had in his tumultuous first three weeks in the White House was the nomination of Neil Gorsuch to the Supreme Court. The roll-out was pitch perfect. Trump for once was not over the top. And by common consent, Gorsuch is admirably qualified and a great guy. Now the President risks messing it all up.

    Part of the problem is the almost vertical learning curve to which this most ignorant and least experienced president in history has inevitably been subjected.

    Mastery of Twitter is fine but it doesn’t cut the mustard. However, the biggest problem, and the biggest lesson, is another.

    You can’t run the government like a business.

    If there’s one thing Trump adores, it’s sitting at his desk in the Oval Office, with those spanking new gold curtains behind him and the portrait of that earlier populist chief executive Andrew Jackson over his shoulder, signing presidential orders that are down payments on his campaign promises.

    Obamacare is to be subjected to slow death by government agencies. WHAM. An order decreeing that a “continuous physical wall” be constructed along the border with Mexico. WHAM. An order taking aim at organised crime, drug cartels and the like. WHAM.

    Trump is above all image-conscious and PR-super-savvy. And the image he wanted to send was that of the CEO taking government by the scruff of its neck. And any underling who defied him? FIRED.

    At least that’s the way it worked for him in corporate America. But not in government, divided by the Constitution into three equal branches, with its deliberately calibrated system of checks and balances.

    For proof, look no further than the fiasco of the travel ban on citizens from seven predominantly Muslim countries, and Trump’s reaction to the court decisions against it.

    Now you can’t blame Trump for being furious at the judiciary. Many presidents have felt the same. Back in the 1930s FDR threatened to pack the Supreme Court with new liberal justices when it blocked his New Deal initiatives. More recently Barack Obama, usually a model of urbane civility, vented his anger at the court’s Citizens United decision of 2010 that opened the floodgates to corporate spending on political campaigns.

    In normal times, the notion of the judiciary overruling the president on a matter of national security gives many people pause for thought.

    Now, here comes some federal district judge, at the very start of the new presidency, putting a temporary halt to a ban purporting to make Americans safer, followed by a panel of three appeal court judges unanimously agreeing that, at the very least, the judge had a legitimate case to make.

    But as usual with Trump, the problem wasn’t so much his hostility to the verdict but the crudely ad hominem manner in which he expressed it – deriding the author of his misfortunes as a “SO-CALLED” judge, lambasting the court decisions as “DISGRACEFUL” and suggesting that a half-witted high school student knew better than the gentlemen in robes.

    The result is a mess entirely of his own making.

    The judicial rulings have yet to deal with the substance of the issue: whether the President exceeded his constitutional powers. And it may yet be that the appeals court subsequently decides that in fact he hasn’t. But his options are not promising.

    If he takes his case on an emergency basis to the Supreme Court, the one body that can overturn a decision by federal appeals court judges, Trump could lose.

    There are currently just eight justices, rather than the full complement of nine. The four liberal ones, all appointed by a Democratic president, seem bound to vote to maintain the stay, meaning the best he can hope for is a 4-4 split that would leave the lower court ruling intact.

    Or the White House can go a slower route, waiting for the lower courts to pronounce on the merits of the case. It could win, but a decision might take months, by which time whatever political impact the original ban contained would be lost.

    But most damaging of all, now Trump is talking about some new – and presumably district court judge-proof – travel curb order next week.

    But whatever happens, Judge Gorsuch has now been sucked into the mess as well.

    At first Gorsuch seemed to be moving adroitly to allay the fears of Democrats still outraged by the Republicans’ year-long refusal to even consider Obama’s choice to fill the vacant seat on the court, Merrick Garland.

    In meetings with Democratic Senators – some of whose support he will need if he is to assemble a filibuster-proof majority of 60 for confirmation – Gorsuch reportedly referred to Trump’s onslaught against the judiciary over the travel ban as both “DISHEARTENING” and “DEMORALISING”.

    It seemed like a clever attempt to persuade he wouldn’t be Trump’s poodle on the court bench.

    But within hours the White House had pulled the rug from under him, declaring that Gorsuch had been talking not about Trump’s latest histrionics, but about attacks on the court system in general. That was all the Democrats needed.

    Gorsuch meanwhile refused to repeat in public his private criticism of the man who nominated him – confirming their suspicions the nominee was not to be trusted and would tolerate Trump’s attacks on the independence of the judiciary.

    A few days ago, some were cautiously hoping that a really bruising confirmation battle over Gorsuch could be avoided. Now one seems a dead certainty.

    Once again the CEO might not have his way. But how many times must it be said?

    You cannot run a government like you run a business.

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