Donald Trump’s leading competitors for the presidency during the last few months in both major parties—with the exceptions of Ben Carson and Carly Fiorina—are far better-qualified than Trump for the position.
Even more remarkable, for the first time in its history, the Libertarian Party is set to nominate a candidate for president more qualified—and eminently so—for the office than the Republican. Gary Johnson, the likely LP candidate, served eight years as governor of New Mexico after building a successful construction company. Trump has never served in public office, although he has operated a largely successful real estate business.
This got me wondering: Has any major candidate for the office ever been less qualified than Donald Trump? Certainly voters are skeptical about his qualifications; although Trump has taken a two-point lead against Hillary Clinton in a recent Washington Post-ABC News poll, 65 percent of registered voters think Clinton has the “experience to be president,” versus 26 percent who think Trump does. The question of presidential qualifications is worth exploring.
We should start with the question of what qualifies a person to be president. This in turn depends on what it is the president is called on to do.
As Article II of the Constitution lays out, the president’s main responsibilities are to serve as chief executor of the laws, to be commander in chief of the military, to “make treaties” with the Senate’s approval, and to appoint Supreme Court justices and the like (again with the Senate’s approval). In a way the president serves as the nexus between Congress and the courts; the president not only appoints various judges but provides the “state of the union” to Congress.
The president’s job, then, largely involves knowledge of the law, particularly the Constitution; familiarity with the military; familiarity with foreign policy; and a working knowledge of how federal government operates. Nothing in Trump’s background indicates that he has mastered any of these fields. Indeed, in myriad ways Trump has demonstrated that he is largely ignorant about all of them; for example, he recently suggested that Supreme Court justices sign “bills.”
Johnson, to continue with the contrasting example, although weak on military and foreign policy experience, has held an important executive position in government (albeit in a low-population state). Holding a governorship typically is considered good experience for the presidency. In our federalist system, successful governors must be intimately familiar with federal policy and how it affects state governments. As the president interacts with Congress and with federal courts, so a governor interacts with state legislatures and with state courts.
Trump as Businessman
The one area in which Trump arguably outshines Johnson and many major-party candidates for president is in business. Certainly running a successful business should be counted a qualification for the presidency, as it involves managing many other people—a skill important to the presidency. And the negotiation skills involved with running a business presumably carry over in some ways to matters of domestic and foreign policy.
But Trump’s business experience is not a very good qualification for the office of the presidency, for several reasons.
Although Trump does not seem to understand this point, government is fundamentally different from private enterprise. Government necessarily and always involves the use or threat of force. Private enterprise, when it is not marred by the cronyism of government controls and subsidies, involves consensual relationships. Treating government as a business is disastrous (as is treating a business as a government). So while experience in a governorship or a Senate committee involving foreign policy (for example) obviously is relevant experience for the office of the presidency, running a business, however successful, is far less relevant.
Besides, Trump is hardly the only person to succeed in running a business. At least hundreds of people now living have been more successful or about as successful in business; many thousands have been successful at a level that would similarly qualify them for the office of the presidency. (I think even Johnson fits this category; he’s worth millions compared to Trump’s billions, but Johnson built a large business without the family money and ties that Trump had.)
Then there is the problem of the quality of Trump’s business dealings. Trump’s use of eminent domain illustrates his cronyism and indifference to individual rights. Trump’s businesses also have declared bankruptcy four times. Whether or not Trump abused the bankruptcy laws, Trump’s views about bankruptcy in business seem to taint his views about how to handled the U.S. debt—Trump has suggested government might partly stiff its holders.
The Economist makes a couple of relevant points about Trump’s business success. For one thing, “Trump’s performance has been mediocre compared with the stockmarket and property in New York.” For another, Trump’s “clannish management style suggests he might be out of his depth if he ran a larger organisation.” No doubt he would be out of his depth trying to run the executive branch of the federal government.
Still, it would be a mistake to dismiss Trump’s business experience as a qualification for the presidency. For a while I wondered whether we’d be better off just choosing a president randomly from among all registered voters, rather than electing Trump or Hillary Clinton. I think Trump really is a better pick for president than the average person. My best guess is that Trump is in something like the top five percent of registered voters in terms of capacity to serve as president. I guess that ain’t bad, but it still means I think something like fifteen million people could do a better job. So I have to wonder how in the hell we ended up with two leading candidates that most Americans despise and rightly distrust to serve as president.
Does Experience Really Matter?
It is worth pausing to note that many Americans these days see experience in government as a disqualifier, not a qualifier, for the office of the presidency. Have our “experienced” presidents really done such a great job? Have our other “experienced” elected officials?
I am very sympathetic with the view that the “political elite”—here meaning the officeholders of high rank within the Democratic and Republican parties—largely have failed the American people. Republicans talk about blocking or reforming such things as ObamaCare and the Obama administration’s dangerous deal with Iran, but they don’t seem very serious about making headway on such issues. Leaders of both parties have failed to address such large, long-standing problems as the national debt and entitlement spending. It feels very much like the country is off the rails and our supposed leaders are playing power games in the tax-funded luxury of the dining car.
But experience does matter, especially for the office of the presidency. Relative to a member of Congress, the president has enormous power. And an executive position is inherently different from a legislative one. For legislative offices, ideology matters much more than background experience, I think. Not so with the presidency. It’s pretty hard to desperately screw up the job of legislating (many of our legislators especially at the state level are not exactly the brightest bulbs).
But someone with an ideology I regarded as perfect could still be a disastrously bad president. The president is commander in chief of the most powerful military force in the history of the world, for God’s sake, and a lot of people are treating this year’s election like a joke.
Trump Would Be the Least-Experienced President of All Time
If you review the list of United States Presidents, you will observe that everyone who has become president served as governor of a state, a member of the U.S. Congress, a high-ranking member of the federal executive, or a military leader.
Many presidents had experience in two or more of those areas and then some; for example, Teddy Roosevelt was a state assemblyman in New York, a police commissioner, a distinguished military veteran, an Assistant Secretary of the Navy under McKinley, governor of New York, and Vice President under McKinley. I disapprove of many of Roosevelt’s political stances, but I can’t argue that he lacked experience to serve as president.
Donald Trump, by contrast, has accomplished none of those broad categories. He has never held political office, never served in the federal government’s (or in a state government’s) executive branch, and never served in the military. If elected he would be the least-qualified person ever to hold the office.
Perhaps the least-qualified person ever to serve as president was Herbert Hoover (incidentally, a Republican and successful businessman who played a major role in tanking the economy). Yet Hoover was vastly more qualified for the position than is Trump. Hoover headed the U.S. Food Administration during World War I and served as Secretary of Commerce under Warren G. Harding and Calvin Coolidge. So at least he had some experience in the federal executive branch.
I reviewed the major candidates for the presidency going back to 1892, and I couldn’t find even a major losing candidate for the office with less relevant experience than Trump.
The only two losing candidates to stand out, in terms of lack of qualifications, are Wendell Willkie (who lost to FDR in 1940) and Ross Perot (who came in a distant third in 1992 and 1996). But even Willkie and Perot were far more qualified for the office of the president than is Trump.
Willkie was a lawyer and successful business executive, so in that way comparable to Trump. Unlike Trump, Willkie had at least a little military experience, having volunteered for World War I (he made it to France, but the war ended before he saw action). Although Willkie had no experience in elected or appointed government office, he had extensive experience interacting with government as a political activist; as the leader of an electric utility, he (unsuccessfully) led the fight against the federal takeover of part of the electric-generation industry. Willkie got trounced by ten points, by the way; essentially he was the Republicans’ sacrificial lamb to go against the mighty FDR.
Ross Perot doesn’t count as a major candidate; at best he was a spoiler in 1992. Even so, he was far more qualified for the office of the presidency than is Trump. Perot’s success in business is comparable to that of Trump. Unlike Trump, Perot had some military experience, having attended the Naval Academy and served in the Navy.
Given the above, it’s shocking that enough Republican primary voters supported Trump to turn him into the presumptive nominee. The idea of Donald Trump as president rightly should be considered a joke, and nothing more. Yet here we are.
I keep expecting Ashton Kutcher to show up with a video camera and tell us we’ve all been “Pun’k.”
So far I have focused on the sort of qualifications that one might expect a candidate to list at the top of a resume—positions in government or in business. Obviously if we consider qualifications more broadly, then other, less-tangible qualities matter very much. How does Trump fare under such review?
The four things that most matter in a president, I think, are these: experience, integrity, competence, and ideology.
Clinton definitely has the experience, having been an active First Lady, a U.S. Senator, and a Secretary of State under Obama. But she totally fails on the other three standards, by my lights. The events in Benghazi, Clinton’s mishandling of her official emails, and the events revealed by Clinton Cash are, to me, more than adequate to show that Clinton lacks both the competence and the integrity to ably serve as president. Ideologically, Clinton wants to gut the First and Second Amendments to the Bill of Rights, impose higher taxes, impose more regulations, and in general move the country further away from the principles of individual rights. My only hope is that she’d be somewhat better than Trump on matters of trade and immigration.
Bernie Sanders has the integrity in some sense (at least he takes his ideas seriously and is true to them), but he doesn’t have much relevant experience regarding the military or foreign policy. I don’t think his legislative experience would translate to competent handling of the executive branch, and his ideology is largely the opposite of mine. (At a deeper level, I think Sanders lacks integrity, too, because he promotes socialism while ignoring or downplaying its horrific history and ideological failures.)
What about Trump? I have already outlined the reasons why I think Trump largely fails in the matter of experience and totally fails with regard to integrity and ideology. To summarize briefly, Trump is an enemy of free trade, free speech, and freedom of association; a cronyist; an aspiring strong-man; a conspiracy loon; and a mean-spirited bigot. I’d say Clinton is the more despicable human being, but Trump is a strong competitor.
What about competence? As is obvious from Trump’s handling of most American media, he is a master manipulator of media and of (some) public sentiment. The fact that he beat far more qualified candidates for the Republican nomination and is now in a position to give Clinton a serious run speaks to his competence in certain areas.
Trump definitely has the gravitas to serve as president. Of course, lots of political leaders have had plenty of gravitas and, largely because of that quality, have led their nations to complete disaster.
So, although I think Trump is masterfully competent in certain ways, I don’t think most of the things he is competent at doing would make him a good president—quite the opposite. “Quiet Cal” Coolidge is far closer to a model president for me. Trump’s competency in demagoguery is not a point in his favor.
Barring something close to a miracle, it appears that January 20, 2017, will be a very bad day for either of two reasons. On that day, either the deeply flawed Donald Trump, the least-qualified person to be elected president in the nation’s history, will begin his term—or else Hillary Clinton will begin hers.
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Image: Gage Skidmore
Trump Might be Influenced by Better Minds
Good summary of the two candidates remaining. Perhaps overlooked is the following.
Hillary is a known quantity: She has always been after power and will continue as president in the worst of Statist ways.
Trump, despite being such a pragmatist and lacking qualifications, could be influenced by better minds and develop somewhat of an ideology by end-of-year that he would be bound by. And he and would lead to much less harm to our economy and foreign relations than would Clinton.
Some focus on Supreme Court appointments might favor Trump. In the worst case for each of them, I think I would rather take my chances with overturning Roe v. Wade than with the banning of guns.
May 24, 2016
Ari Armstrong replies: The article speaks specifically to the qualifications of the candidates; it is not a definitive answer to which candidate one should support. Certainly I think it would be very bad to have a president who is basically unqualified for the position; however, arguably other possibilities would be even worse.
I don’t believe that Trump is capable of changing his ideology at this point. He is driven by a combination of nationalism, pragmatism, and self-promotion. Because of that, he cannot be trusted to keep any promise or adhere to any stated position for longer than five minutes. That Trump would be a bad president I have no doubt; but what exactly he would do, and how bad he would be, is anyone’s guess. He’s a crap-shoot.
I do think the possibility that Trump might choose less-bad, and maybe even good, Supreme Court Justices is, to my mind, the best reason to consider voting for him. But no one knows whom he’ll actually nominate. At any rate, the Court will not overturn Roe v. Wade nor ban guns into the indefinite future; however, it might allow much more restrictives laws on abortion or guns.