Donald Trump won the presidency in 2016 by convincing Americans that his experience as a businessman would make him a decisive and effective president of the United States. Trump's claims about his management prowess were always based on fantasy, as he wasn’t a particularly good businessman — he went bankrupt four times and is currently under investigation for massive irregularities in his financial dealings. But he managed to secure an Electoral College win.
Four years later, after experiencing Trump’s management style, Americans rejected the Republican and elected Democrat Joe Biden. The voters gave Biden a popular vote majority of 7 million ballots, a solid Electoral College mandate and a charge to clean up the mess that his twice-impeached predecessor made of pretty much everything — including what should have been a straightforward response to the coronavirus pandemic.
There are a lot of reasons why Trump's presidency crashed and burned. But the core problem was that he had no experience with governing and embraced the fatally flawed theory that government can and should be run like a business.
Some business leaders who go into politics recognize this reality and adjust accordingly. They use their management skills to serve in the public interest. But Trump never figured out how to do that, and his presidency produced a wreckage of broken promises, failed schemes, corruption and scandal.
Unfortunately, Trump did not learn any lessons from the experience. He has denied the reality of his election defeat, going so far as to try and disenfranchise Wisconsin voters whose ballots tipped the state from his column to Biden’s. And he continues to advocate for candidates who share the view that a businessman running as a “political outsider” is best suited to govern.
In Wisconsin, Trump has found a perfect match in Tim Michels, a construction company magnate who has spent most of the past decade living on a lavish estate in Connecticut. The former president endorsed the self-financing millionaire for the Republican gubernatorial nomination in a contest with a significantly better prepared candidate, former Lt. Gov. Rebecca Kleefisch.
Michels prevailed in the primary by aligning his candidacy with Trump, ideologically and stylistically.
“I’m not looking for a political career,” said Michels. “I’m 59 years old. I am doing this to serve. President Trump didn’t have to run for president, but he wanted to drain the swamp. I don’t have to run for governor, but I’m going to turn Madison upside down.”
As he campaigns this fall, Michels wants voters to hear his talk of turning Madison upside down as a election promise. But Wisconsinites who are concerned about maintaining the strong commitment to public education, public services and sound fiscal management that have been the characteristics of Democratic Gov. Tony Evers’s tenure will be forgiven if they hear a threat.
Throughout this campaign, Michels has regularly reframed his positions on critical issues like abortion rights, fair elections and how he might upend public education with voucher schemes. In doing so, he has shown himself to be more like Trump than anyone expected. Though Michels has run for office before — as a failed candidate for the state Senate in 1998 and the U.S. Senate in 2004 — he does not seem to have thought a lot about what he would do if he actually won an election.
This month's gubernatorial debate illustrated the problem. While Evers detailed his record and spelled out precise plans, Michels made grandiose statements that were lacking in substance. For instance, when the issue of gun violence arose, Evers spoke in detail about popular initiatives such as red-flag laws and universal background checks. How did the Republican respond? “And guns? I have a solution for that,” said Michels, who, the Associated Press noted, made his pronouncement “without detailing what that solution was.”
If that sounds familiar, it should. Trump did the same thing on issue after issue during the 2016 campaign. When he got power, however, his solutions were self-serving, ill-conceived and frequently disastrous.
Now, Michels proposes to repeat the fiasco in Wisconsin.
Early in this year's gubernatorial campaign, a Wisconsin Public Radio headline announced, “Tim Michels has run as a political outsider. To many, what he would do as governor is a mystery.”
As Election Day approaches, there’s no mystery. Tim Michels is another Donald Trump. If Michels succeeds in buying Wisconsin’s governorship, the chaos that the former president unleashed on Washington from 2017 to 2021 will be unleashed on Madison.