If you’re one of the many Americans dismayed by the thought of another scandal-prone Clinton administration, disgusted by the idea of a President Trump, and disinclined to vote for a third party candidate or write-in with no chance, here’s one more thing for you to think about….
Donald Trump, if elected, would be the first American president to assume office without having any prior experience as a civil servant, soldier, or elected official at a local, state or national level.
For 227 years, the American people have upheld this basic tradition: before rising to the highest office in the land a president should take some time to serve the public in a lower position.
Wendell Wilkie was the only other person besides Trump to become a major party nominee (GOP) without serving in a political office, civil service job, or top military post, but he did fight in World War I. Many others have run for president without prior elected, civil or military service experience, but each has either failed to get a major party nomination or run as an independent and, ultimately, lost.
Does this tradition matter? The Constitution surely doesn’t require prior public service for presidents. One only has to be a natural born citizen, at least 35 years old, and a resident of the country for at least fourteen years.
And, of course, more experience doesn’t necessarily make for better presidents. Richard Nixon was a long-time Congressman and Vice President. George W. Bush was a two-term governor and son of a president. Both were disasters. Abraham Lincoln served just one term in Congress and a stretch as a state representative before taking office. Dwight Eisenhower was a soldier with no elected political experience. Both, most would agree, were successful presidents.
The argument that a president should at least have some prior experience in public service is mostly a moral one – rooted in a small-r republican anti-elitism that expects a president to do a tour of more modest public service before assuming the highest office in the land. In the Christian tradition this ethic is exemplified by the parable from Luke 16 that says we should prove we can be faithful with little before expecting to be given much.
Donald Trump, of all people, would seem to understand this notion. After all, he called his show The Apprentice, not The CEO who got the job without having to prove himself in a lower job first.
At 70 years of age, and as someone who grew up rich, Donald Trump has had more time and opportunity than any other presidential candidate before him to do some kind of public service. But, besides giving money to politicians over the years when it benefited his business interests and showing up for jury duty when the cameras are rolling, Trump’s public service resume is empty. He dodged the Vietnam draft as a young man, and he turned down offers of help to run for office in New York State, saying he was really only interested in “the big thing”.
This lack of interest in any aspect of public service besides the top job should both alarm and offend us.
Expecting our presidents to do prior public service also has a practical dimension. It helps us understand what kind of choices candidates might make when they are actually in office. When you’re just a candidate you can make arguments in the abstract. Employed public servants have to make actual choices between competing goods in an environment of scarce time and resources. What is most important to know about a candidate is how they would prioritize their beliefs when forced to choose among them, not what they believe in the abstract.
Trump’s campaign has been a case in point for how a candidate without any prior public service can make anything seem possible, because nothing is known. Even his most ardent supporters admit they really aren’t sure which of his many campaign promises he would keep, and how much political capital he would expend on them when the going gets tough. Would he ban Muslim immigration until we figure out what the hell is going on, or not? Would he torture the families of terrorists, or not? Would he create a deportation force for all undocumented immigrants, or not? Would he punish women who have abortions, or not? Would he bomb the hell out of ISIS, or not? Would he slap a 30 percent tariff on Chinese imports, or not?
If you’re still open to voting for Trump, I don’t want to judge you. There has been enough of that. I just want to urge you to apply to him the same standard he has applied to his employees. Make him do a tour as an apprentice first. Force him to serve somewhere, somehow, before giving him the keys to our country’s most important office. It doesn’t have to be a major political office. I know the fact that Mr. Trump is “not a politician” is part of what people like about him. Ask him to do a stint on the AmeriCorps “Senior Corps” or join a local school board. Heck, have him become a deputy voter registrar for a weekend. Anything. Anything at all. He is getting old, after all, and doesn’t have much time.
Maybe he’ll show himself to be the greatest public servant since George Washington. Maybe he’ll win so much, the people he’s serving will truly get bored of winning. And then he can run for president again and say “I told you so.”
Or maybe he’ll flip flop, lie, sabotage opponents, make common cause with violent bullies, take on projects he can’t possibly deliver, turn people against minorities and immigrants as a scapegoat for his failure, disparage women’s looks and people with disabilities along the way, and drive whatever area of responsibility he’s given into the public sector equivalent of bankruptcy until the people collectively tell him, “You’re fired.”
The only way to have any inkling of what Trump would be like in public service is to make him be faithful with little before giving him much. Call it The Apprentice: Public Service Edition.
One last point.
Part of what has made America great is our ability to proceed in moderation - too much moderation at times, as our history of slavery illustrates. But, unlike so many countries that devolved into chaos or dictatorship after their revolutions, America has constantly marched forward little by little. Our lesson to the world has been the one Alexander Hamilton put forward in the last paragraph of the Federalist Papers so many years ago:
“...a lesson of moderation to all the sincere lovers of the Union that ought to put them upon their guard against hazarding anarchy, civil war, a perpetual alienation of the States from each other, and perhaps the military despotism of a victorious demagogue, in the pursuit of what they are not likely to obtain, but from time and experience.”
To give Donald Trump the presidency without asking him to do some kind of lower public service first would be out of step with our tradition of moderation and the core tenets of conservatism. Rather than making America great again, his presidency would just be un-American.