HISTORY LESSON

America has elected presidents with almost no experience before, and survived

Obsession
2016
Obsession
2016

Donald Trump will be the first US president with no background in government or the military.

For many of his supporters, that’s a key virtue; they proudly cast their ballot to send an outsider to Washington. But for others, it’s deeply troubling, particularly given his statements about renegotiating trade deals and knowing more about ISIS than active generals.

Trump may turn out to be a brilliant president. As Obama said today, “we’re all rooting for his success.”

In the meanwhile, it may be comforting to know the US has survived the election of other leaders with little experience.

The president whose career trajectory most resembles Trump is perhaps Zachary Taylor, the 12th president, elected in 1848. Like Trump, Taylor was a celebrity—he was a war hero who won significant battles in the Mexican-American War—but had no distinct political convictions until he was persuaded to run as the Whig candidate. And like Trump, Taylor was crude and unpredictable before and during his campaign. Once elected, however, he was largely uncontroversial as president in the year he served before dying in office.

Ulysses Grant and Dwight Eisenhower, like Taylor, arrived in Washington with no experience in government but with impressive military credentials. Eisenhower is generally considered a success, and Grant a failure.

In fact, there’s very little correlation between prior government experience and successful administrations. For every Franklin Roosevelt, who spent decades in office as state senator, governor and Secretary of the Navy—and is generally considered one of our greatest presidents ever—there’s a James Buchanan, who also spent decades in office as a state representative, senator, and Secretary of State—and is widely thought to be our worst and who, through inaction and incompetence, helped usher in the US’s single biggest catastrophe, the Civil War.

Granted, no president yet has brought to the White House Trump’s mix of flamboyance, and populist appeal. But there are recent precedents for seemingly unqualified celebrity politicians doing at least credible jobs in office. Bodybuilder-turned-actor Arnold Schwarzenegger took office as governor of California in 2003 with even fewer credentials than Trump, and while his accomplishments in office were modest, few regard him as a failure. And in 1998, Jesse ‘The Body” Ventura, a former professional wrestler was elected governor of Minnesota, after serving as a small town mayor. Ventura ran as a rabble-rousing populist, but governed as a moderate, investing in public transportation and schools.

Ventura declined to run for reelection, apparently tired of the scrutiny and the daily grind that comes with the office. Being in elected office isn’t for everyone, it would seem. Whether Trump comes to the same conclusion is an open question.

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