Economy & Business

Before Trump, There Was Iacocca

Former Chrysler Chairman Lee A. Iacocca is seen during a Chrysler briefing on earnings in February 1991. (John Hillery/Reuters)
After Chrysler, he pioneered the protectionist-plutocrat electoral lane.

Before Donald Trump, Lee Iacocca wanted to make America great again.

The ex-CEO of Chrysler died last week at the age of 94 after a career that transcended his industry and made him a pop-culture icon. Iacocca advocated the restoration of American manufacturing, championed punitive tariffs on Asian imports, and flirted with running for president in 1988.

His personal-brand development was a template for Trump’s successful presidential run in 2016, and the groundswell of support for Iacocca as the Democratic candidate reflected the enduring urge on both sides of the aisle for a populist businessman as president.

After a successful Detroit career that spanned the launch of the 1960s Ford Mustang and the 1980s Chrysler minivan, Iacocca became a national figure when he persuaded a Democratic Congress in 1979 to help bail out Chrysler.

His turnaround of the automaker (paying back federally guaranteed loans ahead of schedule) vaulted him to a 1980s symbol of America on the rebound. Chrysler turned a $1.7 billion loss in 1980 into a $2.4 billion profit by 1984.

The first-generation Italian immigrant’s subsequent autobiography, Iacocca (1984), cemented his brand — reigning on the New York Times best-seller list for 88 weeks, 37 more than Trump’s own The Art of the Deal, published three years later.

Chapter 28 of Iacocca was titled “Making America Great Again.” It might have been written by The Donald.

“Unless we act soon, we’re going to lose both steel and autos to Japan by the year 2000,” wrote Iacocca. “And worst of all, we will have given them up without a fight.”

Colorful, profane, with an ego bigger than Lake Michigan, Iacocca captured the American imagination with his plainspoken style.

Doron Levin, a long-time Detroit columnist and currently host of Sirius XM’s “In the Driver’s Seat,” says that Iacocca, like Trump and Ross Perot, was a brand that cut across political parties.

“They’re populists,” says Levin. “They could run in either political party depending on the election year. Trump saw an opportunity as a Republican in 2016 against Hillary Clinton. Iacocca seriously considered running as a Democrat in 1988 against George H. W. Bush.”

In his book Behind the Wheel at Chrysler, Levin wrote:

The loan guarantee debate, Chrysler’s subsequent return to health, and the publication of [Iacocca’s] best-selling autobiography conferred mythic status on him as the nation’s economic Winston Churchill. At the peak of his popularity, many Americans believed not only that Iacocca held the answers to the nation’s economic ills but also that he should lead the country as president.

Iacocca’s Trumpian call for a national industrial policy in 1988 fit perfectly with that generation’s Democratic party — its power base rooted in the Midwest, with union mouthpieces such as House Commerce Committee chairman John Dingell (D., Mich.) and caucus chair and future majority leader Dick Gephardt (D., Mo.) wielding power.

TV newscasts and newspaper headlines in the early 1980s were filled with painful pictures of American steel mills and auto factories shuttering across the Midwest. Iacocca’s partnership with Washington to rescue Chrysler offered Democrats a white knight in the fight against Reagan Republicans’ policy of free-market economics.

Democrats and their media partisans embraced Iacocca’s call for a Beltway-led industrial policy.

“As important as it is, high tech will never employ the number of people that our basic industries do today,” wrote Iacocca. “In other words, our country needs a rational industrial policy. Governments all over the world plan — except for ours. . . . We’re the only advanced country in the world without an industrial policy.”

If Trump’s bogeyman is China, Iacocca’s was Japan. He warned of the Asian nation’s threat to America’s industrial base and stumped for import quotas.

“I am called a protectionist, I am really a free trader,” Iacocca said at the Detroit Economic Club speech some years later. “The thing that I want to protect is free trade. And the way you do that is you retaliate against those who don’t believe in it.”

Despite favorable polling numbers, Iacocca never threw his hat in the presidential ring.

“For myself, I concluded long ago that to run for president you’ve got to be overambitious or just plain crazy,” he would write years later.

Where would Iacocca fit in today’s political landscape? It’s hard to know. Like Trump, whose pro-business, protectionist policies simultaneously attract and repel conservatives, Iacocca was hard to pigeonhole.

After retiring from Chrysler in the 1990s, he helped start an electric-vehicle company, EV Global Motors, that pioneered the electric bicycles and scooters that are commonplace today and hailed by Democrats for their low emissions. Yet Iacocca would probably have cringed at the takeover of the Democratic party by Californians such as Nancy Pelosi and recent Commerce Committee chair Henry Waxman and their Silicon Valley sponsors.

Today’s planet-saving Green New Deal industrial policy is a long way from Iacocca’s vision of saving the Rust Belt.

The lure of the celebrity executive endures, however. Trump is now president. And a recent Zogby 2020 campaign poll found Oprah Winfrey leading Trump by 53 to 47.

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