President Trump rallied his supporters in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, last week. During the event, he made a comment that hasn’t really come in for as much attention as it deserves:
“So somebody said, ‘Why did you appoint a rich person to be in charge of the economy?’ … I said, ‘Because that’s the kind of thinking we want … because they’re representing the country. They don’t want the money. And they had to give up a lot to take these jobs.”
He then continued the thought: “We can’t have the world taking advantage of us anymore. And I love all people, rich or poor, but in those particular positions, I just don’t want a poor person. Does that make sense? If you insist, I’ll do it — but I like it better this way, right?”
A few commentators reacted predictably. Some contrasted the remarks with his populist rhetoric on the campaign trail, when he railed against Wall Street bankers and vowed to defend “the forgotten.” Others recalled how he had assailed Washington elites for their remoteness from ordinary Americans — and then filled his Cabinet with tycoons, making it the wealthiest administration in U.S. history.
All valid criticisms. But I’ve found myself wondering about another point: Does commercial success really translate into successful political leadership? Is running a country essentially the same as running a business? Many Americans — especially those who voted for Trump — instinctively assume that the answer is yes.
Let’s consider an example from history. Winston Churchill is widely regarded — at least in the English-speaking world — as one of the towering leaders of the 20th century. American Republicans view him as a kind of demigod. President George W. Bush claimed Churchill as his role model, placing a bust of the British leader in the Oval Office. President Barack Obama moved it out — but none other than Trump has restored it to its place of honor.
What Trump seems to have forgotten — or maybe never knew in the first place — is that Churchill, the savior of the West, was a financial basket case. Throughout his life, Churchill, who despite his aristocratic origins had little inherited wealth to fall back on, struggled to make ends meet. He made most of his money from — gasp! — journalism and book-writing — just the kind of egghead work that Trump and his Cabinet friends love to sneer at.
But the great leader never really managed to achieve a sound financial footing. He made terrible investments. As his masterful biographer Roy Jenkins wryly observed, Churchill was a congenital spendthrift who never seriously considered cutting his expenditures — he always opted for boosting his income instead. Needless to say, it was a formula for perennial chaos. At one point in the late 1930s, Churchill was in such dire monetary straits that he even had to put Chartwell, his beloved country house, up for sale. In May 1940, as he took over the job of fending off a Nazi invasion, he was also trying to figure out how to come up with the cash to pay his bill from his shirt-maker.
Luckily he had a group of well-heeled political friends who were willing to subsidize him at critical moments — just the sort of cozy arrangement that would probably raise a few eyebrows today. (Or would have, at least, in the pre-Trump era.)
Yet none of this made Churchill any less effective as a leader. Why? Because he understood politics. He knew how to stir up public emotions to powerful and productive ends. He knew how to exert influence in myriad obvious and less obvious ways. He knew how to get things done within a bureaucracy. He grasped the importance of clear communications, constantly bombarding his subordinates with memos and letters exhorting them to improve performance. Like few other leaders before or since, he appreciated the power of words.
I can already hear the objection: Churchill made his name as a wartime leader, not an economic manager. Yet Churchill had a long record of public service before World War II that encompassed quite a lot of economic responsibilities, including stints as minister of munitions in World War I and as chancellor of the exchequer (a key economic post) in the 1920s. And when he finally became prime minister, he wasn’t just ordering armies around — he was also overseeing the entire British economy, which he did quite successfully.
We rightly remember him as one of the greatest statesmen of modern history. But he was terrible at business. Should we care? For what he did have was the unique ability to combine pragmatism with high ideals, and he demonstrated qualities of courage and compassion that inspired millions. Trump and his friends could learn a lot from his example.