With the seasons of primaries in the US presidential election starting next week, all attention is on Donald Trump, the front-runner in the Republican Party camp. The real estate tycoon and TV celebrity benefits from the fact that most commentators believe the Democrats have already chosen Hillary Clinton as their standard-bearer in this year’s elections.
Thus, the only suspense left is about whom the Republicans might pick. Right now, the answer is: Trump. But is it?
The cluster of opinion polls conducted in the past six months shows that Trump enjoys backing from a third of Republican sympathizers. Since Republicans represent around a third of the electorate, we could assume that Trump’s support base is around 10 per cent of the total American electorate. Thus, some 70 per cent of Republicans and 90 per cent of the broader electorate do not support Trump. However, we must admit that he is the most interesting show in time. His often outrageous utterances and his feeling for the dramatic, a result of his years as a TV show host, mark him out as a colorful man compared to his largely grey rivals.
Yet, it is not at all certain that Trump will be the Republican candidate and that even if he does secure that position, he will be able to win the presidency in November. This is because, compared to older nations, Americans have a short memory and many regard Trump as a bolt out of the blue.
However, without wanting to type-cast him, we could regard Trump as the latest in a series of American tycoons who nursed political ambitions and, in some cases, even managed to have an impact on the outcome of a major election.
Admiring businessmen has always been part of the American folklore which values free enterprise and financial success in a capitalist market economy. Due to recent mass immigration from all over the world, the average American today is more envious of the wealthy than his counterpart was 30 or 40 years ago. But even then a majority of Americans still regard success in business as honorable, unlike many Europeans who hold businessmen in low esteem as selfish “money-makers.”
Last week, Michael Bloomberg, a former Mayor of New York and another billionaire, announced that he, too, might throw his hat into the presidential ring to oppose Trump and/or Bernie Sanders, the socialist who seeks the Democrat Party’s nomination.
The question is whether the business of the nation can be entrusted to a successful tycoon?
In the first century of America as a nation the answer was an emphatic no. Because of the War of Independence and then the War of Secession, not to mention the new nation’s armed expansion in all directions, men with military backgrounds were often favored as leaders.
Next to them, professional lawyers turned politicians were entrusted with high office as the new nation built legal structures inspired by the Constitution. From the late 19th century when the US emerged as the world’s biggest economic power, a new generation of businessmen started to make a place for itself alongside generals and big-shot lawyers.
The first tycoon to be tempted by power at the top was William Randolph Hearst who created America’s largest press empire around the San Francisco Examiner which he inherited from his father.
By 1902, Hearst had become a key shaper of American opinion and started discreet canvassing about chances of running for President of the United States. However, due to a mixture of personal problems and the fact that he lacked the political skills needed in a western democracy, the tycoon had grudgingly retreated to his niche by 1904.
Decades later he was to be the inspiration for Orson Wells’ film “Citizen Cane”, depicting the tragedy of frustrated obsession with power.
Two decades after Hearst’s abortive entry into politics, another tycoon, Henry Ford, was tempted by the prospect of seeking the presidency. Despite an unsuccessful attempt at winning a Senate seat from Michigan, Ford sought the Republican nomination in 1923 which in the end went to Calvin Coolidge, a “mere lawyer-politician.”
Hearst’s lesson was confirmed: Americans liked to toy with the idea of a tycoon as president but changed their minds once they had a closer look at the choices available.
Unlike Hearst, Ford did not become the subject of a film but he, too, had a dark side, including his obsessive anti-Semitism, which, exposed over the decades, marked him out as unfit for political leadership.
In the 1930s it was the turn of Charles Lindbergh, the aviator turned businessman, to be tempted by the prospect of entering the White House. Lindbergh had it all, being an all-American hero with good looks and a wife from the nation’s top banking family. He also had something that neither Hearst nor Ford had had: a political organization in the shape of the German-American Bund (Federation) run by Nazi agents with unlimited funds at their disposal. More importantly, Lindbergh could play on pacifist sentiments at a time when most Americans were anxious to stay out of another big war in Europe. This was similar to the anti-war sentiment of 2008 that helped to propel Barack Obama into the White House. Lindbergh’s ambitions evaporated when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, forcing the US to enter the Second World War with the aim of total victory against the Axis led by Germany.
American presidential elections remained tycoon-free until 1992 when Ross Perot, a man who had made his fortune selling business machines to Iran, ran for president. Taking votes from the incumbent President George W H Bush, Perot ensured the victory of Democrat candidate Bill Clinton with one of the narrowest margins in US history.
Perot was not as wealthy as the tycoons who preceded him but had more stamina. In 1996 he ran again, ensuring another defeat for the Republicans.
Hearst, Ford, Lindbergh and Perot all marketed a cocktail of populism with talk of “the American dream” being threatened by “others” ranging from Jews, in the case of Ford and Lindbergh, to Italians and East Europeans in the case of Hearst, to Latinos in Perot’s case. They all claimed that the government in Washington had become too big and that the average citizen was no longer master of his destiny. In addition to this, they all adopted an anti-war posture at a time that the mood in the US was pacifist.
Trump is following in their footsteps by singling out Latinos and Muslims as the threatening “other”, and attacking Washington and the political elite. He has a problem that his predecessors didn’t have. He wants to appear anti-war, claiming that, like Obama, he had opposed the removal of Saddam Hussein in Iraq, but promises war against the Islamic State and other unspecified “Muslim enemies.”
Will Trump end up like the tycoons that preceded him? The first answer comes next week in Iowa.