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Henry Ford for President!

The nation’s leading capitalist emerges as a surprise candidate for president.  His political views range from unknown to repulsive to incoherent, but he vaults to the top of early opinion polls.  He has that flair, that self-reliance, that je ne sais pas that set him apart in an undistinguished field.  The man, of course, is Henry Ford.  Long before Donald Trump burst into contention for the Republican nomination, Ford briefly became the most exciting prospect for the presidential election of 1924.  Americans find something strangely seductive in imagining our most powerful economic leaders grasping the reins of political power as well.  The ill-fated Ford-for-President movement shows why that scenario has remained imaginary.

By the 1920s, Henry Ford was one of the great heroes of American culture.  Born on a farm in Michigan, he had parlayed his ambition and mechanical genius into an automobile empire.  Other inventors had designed experimental cars, but Ford’s unique innovation lay in his ruthlessly efficient system of “mass production,” a phrase he popularized.  Many voters began to dream about bringing some assembly-line efficiency to Pennsylvania Avenue.

Ford had become the “people’s tycoon,” as the title of Steven Watts’ biography has it.  The Model T was to be a “farmer’s car,” built for ordinary country families.  The Ford Motor Company put modern transportation within reach of vast new swaths of American consumers.  On the production side, Ford was hostile to unions but paid high wages, culminating in the famous five-dollar-day that he announced in 1914.  Unlike the robber barons of the previous generation, Ford appeared to exemplify an enlightened economic leadership that made profits but also improved Americans’ lives.

His forays into politics were less successful.  When the First World War broke out in Europe, Ford ardently stated his pacifist convictions.  More than that, he sponsored a “Peace Ship” that carried an antiwar delegation to Europe to negotiate a settlement of the conflict.  The press heaped ridicule upon the project, and the venture was undone by a variety of mishaps.  When the United States finally entered the war, he pledged his support to Woodrow Wilson and the Allied cause.  The only formal political campaign that Ford undertook was at Wilson’s urging, a run for U.S. Senate in 1918 that he narrowly lost in his heavily Republican home state.

Despite this inauspicious record, many Americans wanted the great industrialist in the White House.  Ford had, without campaigning, won the Republican presidential primary in Michigan back in 1916.  His party affiliation was ambiguous, but that did not stop his supporters from preparing for 1924.  Ford-for-President clubs sprang up in Michigan and around the nation.  A poll by Collier’s magazine in the spring of 1923 had Ford leading all candidates, including the current president, Warren Harding.

To be sure, the choices were uninspiring.  Harding had campaigned on the banal promise of “normalcy” after the upheavals of the war years.  His death in August 1923 left Calvin Coolidge, his equally bland vice president, in the Oval Office.  Meanwhile, the Democrats were in disarray, plagued by infighting that would lure many of them to support Robert LaFollette’s Progressive Party.  How Henry Ford fit into this picture was by no means clear.  Initially, he appeared poised to run as a Democrat, later as a Republican.  Some wanted to create a new party around him, while existing third parties tried to grab him.  For a while, the Prohibition Party looked like a good home, given that Ford was a staunch foe of alcohol and carefully monitored his employees’ drinking habits.

More skeptical observers thought that Ford’s popularity was largely the product of a media circus.  A critic writing in the Independent attributed the “bizarre” phenomenon to the rise of the American voter’s “movie mind” (this in the early decades of feature films).  Overstimulated modern people were always looking for “new sensations” that a “tame president” could hardly satisfy.  “If you were a motion-picture producer,” the writer asked, “bent on furnishing a glimpse into the future dramatically, wouldn’t you, now wouldn’t you, choose Henry Ford as your hero?”

Well, maybe.  Despite his potential, the people’s tycoon had some serious liabilities.  Like Trump, he had a weakness for conspiracy theories. Before The Donald’s perplexing sympathy for the birthers was Ford’s perplexing suspicion of the Jews.  In his magazine, the auto magnate disseminated a variety of anti-Semitic writings, including the notorious Protocols of the Elders of Zion.  Indeed, Ford was the only American praised by Adolf Hitler in Mein Kampf.  Being an anti-Semite did not necessarily disqualify one from high office during this period of resurgent nativism, but Ford’s enthusiasm along these lines would undoubtedly have been an embarrassment.

The most important obstacle to a Ford presidency, though, turned out to be the man himself.  He was a cold, even callous personality.  More importantly, unlike Trump, he turned out not to be very interested in running.  In fact, he was opposed to the principle of running.  “I don’t think any man should run for president,” he opined back in 1916.  If the Ford Motor Company needed someone to do an important job, he explained, the company would go out and find the right person.  The Ford-for-President crowd took this to mean that he wanted the American people to do the same, to draft him for president without any active participation on his part.  He would not play politics or alter his views to court constituencies.  He would be the Model T president, right for everyone just as he was.  In the end, the American people never did convince him to apply for the job.

So the Ford candidacy never happened.  Ford eventually threw his support to Calvin Coolidge, the pro-business Republican.  Coolidge defeated obscure Democratic nominee John Davis, while Robert LaFollette attracted some progressives as a third-party candidate.  Michigan would have to wait fifty years for a Ford of its own to attain the highest office in the land.

Soon, Henry’s star faded.  He grew increasingly irascible and his once untouchable empire slowly lost its dominance.  The one-size-fits-all concept exemplified by the Model T became obsolete as General Motors began to offer a variety of cars targeted to particular tastes and incomes.  In the 1930s, violent labor battles tarnished Ford’s reputation as a generous friend of workers.  By then, the Depression had taken hold, leaving business moguls less credible as champions of the people.

Ford had little chance of winning in 1924, even if he had wanted to run.  As his uneven forays into politics had shown, the skills required to make automobiles or assembly lines were not those required to make laws or end wars.  Neither does Trump have any hope of being more than a sideshow.  Yet the attraction of economic success, the hope that financial greatness could somehow translate into political brilliance, is undeniable.  If you were a motion-picture producer, wouldn’t you, now wouldn’t you, choose Donald Trump as your hero?