I was recently in Denver for the annual meeting of the American Historical Association. I caught up with friends from graduate school, met with book editors, and talked about . . . Donald J. Trump. One big question on everyone’s lips: Have we seen anyone like him in the White House?
The people we most often compare to Trump never made it to the presidency, and the presidents we liken to Trump aren’t like him at all. Put simply, we have never elected a chief executive who resembles Trump. And that might be the scariest thing about him.
To be sure, other business figures have coveted the presidency. The most prominent one was Henry Ford, who traded on his cult-hero status as a car manufacturer. Like Trump, Ford shuttled between political parties: After failing to win a Senate seat as a Democrat in 1918, he toyed with running for president as a Republican in 1924. He also engaged in vicious xenophobia, directed not at Muslims — Trump’s favorite target — but at Jews.
Computer magnate Ross Perot won almost 20 percent of the vote in 1992. Until Trump, however, that was as close as any person from business got to the White House. Herman Cain, the godfather of Godfather’s Pizza, briefly led the GOP field in 2012. Four years later, former Hewlett-Packard executive Carly Fiorina made a few waves in the Republican primaries before Trump drowned her out.
But none of these modern business candidates touted their businesses as part of their candidacies. Perot and Fiorina had cashed out from the computer industry before seeking the presidency; you didn’t see them speaking from a podium that sold their wares, as Trump did with his strategically placed advertisements for his properties.
Other historians in Denver pointed to George Wallace, who carried five states in a 1968 presidential bid. Wallace railed against journalists and other “pointy-heads” in government and higher education, presaging Trump’s man-on-the-street populism. His rallies were marred by fistfights and other kinds of violence, like some of Trump’s campaign appearances. And Wallace stoked racial fears and resentments, of course, dating to the infamous “segregation forever” speech in 1964.
But Wallace ran as a third-party candidate rather than as a nominee of the Democrats, his longtime party, which had embraced civil rights and turned away from his racism. And he was a career politician, serving for 16 years as Alabama’s governor. That’s nothing like Donald Trump, who wasn’t elected to anything until last November.
That’s also what distinguishes him most sharply from our other presidents, most of whom held multiple posts in government before ascending to the White House. Eighteen served in the House of Representatives, 16 in the Senate, and 14 as vice presidents; eight had been in a presidential Cabinet, six were secretaries of state, and 17 were state governors. Our eighth president, Martin Van Buren, held prior positions, including senator, secretary of state and vice president.
Our only three presidents who did not hold prior political office — Zachary Taylor, Ulysses Grant and Dwight Eisenhower — were army commanders. Trump doesn’t have any military experience, either; receiving four draft deferments while in college, he got a fifth one — after he graduated — because of bone spurs in his heels.
Yes, Richard Nixon celebrated the “silent majority” that Trump now embraces. And Ronald Reagan, like Trump, catapulted from a career in entertainment into the White House. But Nixon was a senator and vice president, and Reagan served two tumultuous terms as a governor.
Trump is our first truly non-political president, a tacky TV star with an overused Twitter handle. Let’s hope he’s our last one, too.
Jonathan Zimmerman teaches education and history at the University of Pennsylvania. He is the author of “Campus Politics: What Everyone Needs to Know.”