Myth 1: Politics Is Easy and Most Politicians Are Lazy or Stupid
As Cheers’ Norm famously told Tip O’Neill, Congress consists of “a bunch of clowns. You could take the average guy off the street and he’d do a better job.” This belief runs pretty deep in the American psyche, and helps explain why Congress has such consistently dismal approval ratings. And yes, if we just judge members of Congress by the amount of time they spend on the chamber floor or in their offices, we would get the impression that they have pretty cushy jobs, working roughly 20 hours a week, just between Tuesday and Thursday, and receiving a lot of nice perks.
One of the main lessons from Richard Fenno’s 1978 classic book Home Style: House Members in Their Districts, though, is just how much work politicians do. In addition to legislating, they’re also supposed to be representing, and that involves meeting with a lot of individuals and groups back home. They spend a lot of time in planes and cars just getting to those people as well. Yes, they spend quite a bit of time raising money for their re-elections, but even if you take that out of the picture, they’re still putting in a way longer work week than we’d expect in most other professions.
This lesson applies to plenty of other politicians too. Most state legislatures aren’t in session all year, but their members continue to do work even in the off-season (and even if they hold other jobs), meeting with colleagues and advisors, strategizing agendas for the next session, talking with constituents, and so on. And of course these lessons apply many times over to the president, who is essentially always working. Even on the golf course, at dinner, or on vacation, the president is never without a connected advisor and a security detail, and every event has a political purpose to it.
This is a lesson that Trump apparently missed up until now. His pretty paltry record of 100-day accomplishments and his recent expressions of astonishment that the job is harder than his previous one suggest that he had little idea of how politics works. Perhaps his binge-watching of Fox News over the past eight years suggested to him that Barack Obama spent a lot of time on the golf course, and that the job was actually pretty easy. This would also help explain why he has been so slow in hiring executive branch personnel — you probably don’t need all those people if the job isn’t that hard.
Myth 2: The Best Politicians Have the Least Experience
Fenno’s research was also a reminder that being a good politician isn’t just about putting in hours — it’s about developing expertise. The work involves a variety of important skills, including specialized knowledge on some issues, an ability to explain those issues and stances to different audiences, an understanding of when to accrue and expend political capital, the capacity to discern between good and bad advice, etc. It’s only natural that those who have done the work longer have achieved greater competence in these areas than someone for whom the job is new.
This would also likely be a difficult lesson for Trump, whose entire rationale for seeking the presidency was that he was from outside a corrupt system and could use his skills from other spheres to fix the problems in this one. It’s a silly idea — like assuming that a welder can fix health care or an astronaut can fix the National Football League — but, in fairness, Trump’s hardly the first to say it. The concept that any political insider is inherently suspect and the best person for the job is the one with the least experience in it has a long pedigree in American politics. It’s what powered the terms limits revolution three decades ago and many other reform movements before that.
But Trump’s own experiences 100 days into his presidency serve as a reminder that expertise is important. Not only has he failed to hire many people, but those he has hired tend to have little experience in previous White Houses or on Capitol Hill. This is how you end up with health-care plans that fail catastrophically, miscommunications over the location and direction of aircraft carrier groups, mixed messages expressed toward allies, etc.
Myth 3: The Country Should Be Run Like a Business
Related to the above two myths is the idea that the best person for the presidency is not only a political outsider, but one with experience running a business. Again, this is pretty bizarre. Businesses and governments do very different things to create jobs, providing mandated services is very different from serving voluntary customers for profit, and the federal government can print money and run debts over a very long time period while that might prove fatal to a business. But this, too, was one of Trump’s rationales for running for office; he made money in the private sector (at least in some years), so he’d be good for the government’s bottom line.
If anything, Trump seems, instead, to be importing some of the private sector’s worst features, including secrecy, nepotism, self-dealing, and unaccountability. The thrift and efficiency one theoretically needs to survive in the business world are nowhere to be seen. He’s spending on personal travel at a rate more than eight times that of his predecessor, who had no business experience.
It’s too early to know whether Trump’s business experience will make him a good job creator as president. The early evidence isn’t great, but presidents don’t actually have a whole lot of direct control in this area anyway.
In some ways, Trump isn’t a very fair test for these myths. It’s certainly possible a different politically inexperienced corporate leader with a temperament more suited to politics might be running the executive branch considerably better at this point in a presidency. But he’s doing some real damage to these persistent myths, and we may just end up better off for the experience.