“This is not a showman’s job. I will not step out of character.” — Herbert Hoover
Herbert Hoover became the nation’s 31st president after winning the 1928 election in a landslide. Four years later, the tables turned. Hoover lost the 1932 election in a landslide because he ineffectively addressed the biggest crisis of that time, the Great Depression. Hoover’s fall from grace was so dramatic that after he received a 21-gun salute at a 1932 campaign event, someone yelled, “You missed him.”
Given the current pandemic crisis and resulting economic impact, comparisons of President Donald Trump to Herbert Hoover are emerging. See Forbes’ “Will Trump Become the Herbert Hoover of the 21st Century?” and “Will Trump Become the New Hoover or Roosevelt?” in Real Clear Politics. While ineptitude in addressing their respective crises creates eerie similarities, history suggests that the sweeping comparisons of Hoover to Trump taking place today are actually very unfair … to Hoover.
Not cut from the same cloth
Hoover was born in West Branch, Iowa, in 1874. He grew up poor and was raised as a Quaker, a faith that emphasizes integrity, community and peace. Historians suggest that Hoover’s lifelong commitment to volunteerism may have been rooted in Quaker tradition.
Born in New York in 1946, Trump grew up without concern about making ends meet. During his childhood, Trump attended a church ministered by Norman Vincent Peale. Peale was a promoter of believing in oneself and became renowned for authoring “The Power of Positive Thinking.” Trump credits Peale with having a formative impact on his life. In sharp contrast with Hoover, Trump’s “faith” appears to be based on a misplaced belief in his own superpowers.
Hoover graduated from Stanford and went on to enjoy a successful business career as an engineer. When accepting the Republican nomination for president in 1928, he expressed gratitude saying, “My country owes me no debt. It gave me schooling, independence of action, opportunity for service and honor. In no other land could a boy from a country village, without inheritance or influential friends, look forward with unbounded hope.”
While Hoover credited the country for his success, Trump ignores his inherited wealth and falsely portrays himself as a self-made man. In his 2016 campaign, Trump painted a picture of a broken country consisting of “rigged” systems and a swampy government controlled by people who needed to be locked up. After his election, he called the White House a “dump.” Hard to find gratitude and “unbounded hope” here.
Vastly different backgrounds
Hoover was a serious, deliberative person who was not keen on public appearances. He married once and remained married for 45 years. No personal scandals chased Hoover. Trump’s résumé reads differently.
Neither Trump nor Hoover came to the presidency having held elective office. Before assuming the presidency, their experiences with crises were starkly different.
Having made his fortune by age 40, Hoover used his personal wealth to engage in volunteerism. He helped evacuate tens of thousands of Americans caught in Europe at the outset of World War I. He oversaw humanitarian relief to Belgium by coordinating logistics for delivery of several million tons of food. His success led to other postwar efforts that fed millions of starving people in Germany and Russia.
Subsequently, as secretary of commerce, Hoover mobilized public and private resources to address the 1927 Mississippi flood, which displaced 1.5 million people. Although this effort was tarnished by the disparate treatment that black Americans received, his reputation as a “get it done” manager caused President Truman to solicit Hoover’s advice on the rebuilding of Europe in the aftermath of World War II.
Unlike Hoover, Trump entered the presidency with no crisis management experience outside the need to rescue his own faltering businesses. His only brush with charitable activities was the operation of a sham charitable foundation, a foundation now shuttered by regulators.
In 1928, Americans admired Hoover for his humble background, business achievements, volunteerism and ability to get things done. This Hoover does not resemble Trump in any respect. Broad-based comparisons are simply inappropriate. However, as occupants of the Oval Office, Hoover and Trump enjoy similarities in the way they bungled their response to their respective crises.
Behind the curve in managing a crisis
On Oct. 24, 1929, the stock market swooned, and the Great Depression began. In failing to address this crisis in a timely and effective manner, Hoover’s reputation was forever tarred.
Trump now faces the pandemic crisis. Unfortunately, like Hoover, as the curve of those infected with the virus has rapidly accelerated, Trump has remained way behind the curve.
During the Depression, Hoover engaged in positive messaging. Shortly after the stock market crash, he stated that “… we have now passed the worse. … we shall rapidly recover.” A year after making that statement, Hoover asserted “… we have passed the worst of the storm, the future months will be easy.” These statements were made by Hoover years before the Depression finally receded.
Similarly, Trump has pushed positive pronouncements about the pandemic. On Jan. 24, Trump told the nation, “We have it totally under control … totally under control.” He then suggested that the coronavirus was no worse than the flu and would magically “disappear.” Trump has stated that we will get back to business as usual in a timeframe no serious health expert supports.
Beyond “happy talk,” both Trump and Hoover stretched to find scapegoats. Hoover “repatriated” Mexican immigrants, tacitly blaming them for the loss of jobs by “real” Americans. Following suit, Trump named the virus after “China,” blamed predecessors for a lack of testing and protective gear, states for not having prepared adequately, the press for misreporting and health care workers for hoarding.
In his inaugural address, Hoover stated that his election mandate included “the continuation of economy in public expenditures.” He eschewed federal government intervention and pressed local communities to meet the needs of their citizens. Consistent with those views, Hoover’s initial response to the Depression was to meet with business leaders and urge voluntary action. It was not until shortly before the 1932 election that Hoover retreated from his fixed-in-concrete philosophy. It was too little, too late.
As noted by historian David Hamilton, “Quite simply, Hoover seemed never to have grasped the grave threat that the economic crisis represented to the nation and that the solution to the Depression might require abandonment of some of his deeply held beliefs.”
While Trump’s philosophy of government is situational and not embedded like Hoover’s, he parrots Hoover by stubbornly welding his success to other specific factors: optics and ratings, stock market returns and low unemployment rates. This inflexible focus, combined with his vacuous experience and egocentric character, helps explain his similarly sluggish response to the pandemic.
In today’s 24-hour news, social-media-filled, highly connected world, the expected response time to a crisis is greatly accelerated. Trump’s response to the pandemic did not break from the gate for weeks. National security warnings about the pandemic were ignored presumably because they originated from the “deep state” and carried bad news that could upset Trump’s economic applecart.
When every hour and day counted, Trump was reticent to act, fearing that alarming the market might adversely impact his approval ratings. He repeatedly downplayed the possible severity of the pandemic in public pronouncements and asked Congress for appropriations that were a fraction of what Congress ultimately determined was needed. Trump very belatedly activated the Defense Production Act, but never used the Act to control the supply chain, thereby requiring states to instead fend for themselves. Simply put, for different but equally bad reasons, Trump has followed in Hoover’s footsteps by being repeatedly behind the curve.
In a recent survey of historians by U.S. News & World Report, Hoover ranked as the eighth worse president of all time, beating out Chester Arthur (ninth) and running slightly behind Millard Fillmore. Watch out guys, competition is on the way.
Robert Moilanen is a retired lawyer who formerly served on the staffs of Vice President Walter Mondale and Sen. Hubert Humphrey.
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