On March 4, 1801, President-Elect Thomas Jefferson took the oath of office at 11 a.m., in what was considered a simple ceremony. Certainly no A-list celebrities attended. He didn’t even ride the inaugural carriage to the Capitol as Presidents George Washington and John Adams had done before him. Despite the simple ceremony, James Madison said of the peaceful transition of power, “What a lesson to America and the world.” Jefferson was the third president, but this was the first time power transferred from one party, the Federalists, to another, the Democratic-Republicans. It came after a campaign that made the 2016 battle look quite tame.
Long after his presidency had ended, Jefferson expanded on Madison’s thought, referring to his election as the “Revolution of 1800,” because, he explained it was, “as real a revolution in the principles of our government as that of 1776 was in its form; not effected indeed by the sword, as that, but by rational and peaceful instruments of reform, the suffrage of the people.”
There will be plenty of protesters at Friday’s inauguration of Donald Trump, perhaps some led by A-list celebrities. But in broad terms, it will be a peaceful transition of power, as in no militant coup to install Hillary Clinton or keep President Obama in power.
But further, just as Jefferson talked about a second American revolution, Jan. 20 in many ways marks a third American revolution.
Love or hate Trump, his election marks truly the first time someone entirely outside the political system and government became president. He has broken a barrier, a general belief among the public and most successful Americans in the private sector, that at least some government office is a prerequisite to being elected president.
For all the jokes that Kanye West will run for president, there is a decent chance we’ll see more truly successful Americans who know how to make things work emerge as presidential candidates, without feeling the need to run for governor or U.S. senate first.
Only Presidents Dwight D. Eisenhower and Zachary Taylor never held political office, but were both celebrated generals. Andrew Jackson was the first president to run an outsider vs. the Washington machine, but he was also a general, and later a U.S. senator before his ascension to the White House. Though Ronald Reagan was often attacked for being a movie star, he served two terms as governor of the largest state in the country before becoming president.
The presidential victories of Jefferson, Jackson, Franklin D. Roosevelt, and Reagan marked major political realignments. It is too early to speculate if Trump’s victory will spark a permanent political shift. Many wrongly predicted as much after Obama’s 2008 win. What his victory does mark is a new chapter in the evolving American experiment.
Trump broke through doing what no one else has done: become president without any prior government experience — save maybe for lobbying and donating to politicians, which he readily admits were the cost of doing business.
The closest anyone else came to doing what Trump has done would be Wendell Willkie, the New York businessman, with a Democratic past, who never held political office. He won the Republican presidential nomination in 1940, and managed to win 44 percent of popular vote but a measly 82 electoral votes against the FDR juggernaut.
Since Willkie, we’ve had other CEOs try and fail. Ross Perot won 19 percent of the vote in 1992 as a third-party candidate. While he didn’t even pull half that much when he ran again in 1996, he inspired others, such as magazine publisher Steve Forbes and former Godfather’s Pizza CEO Herman Cain. But we’ve never really seen the titans of modern industry, CEOs of Wal-Mart or Apple, enter the presidential fray.
Successful businessmen frequently win lower offices, such as Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.), a co-founder and former CEO of Directed Electronics, and Sen. Mark Warner (D-Va.), a co-founder of Capital Cellular Corporation. Businessmen don’t fit neatly into a single party mold. Most conservatives would probably flinch at the thought of Mark Zuckerberg becoming president. But, Zuckerberg certainly knows how to make something work, and if unity is your thing, he’s certainly brought more people together than any politician has.
Trump was almost a post-ideological candidate. He made the debate about who can get things done vs. a cabal of career government failures. Even if his business record wasn’t 100 percent successful, it shined by comparison to eight years of the Obama administration — and for that matter, much of the Bush administration.
Americans have long been warm to the thought of government running as efficiently as a business. In 2016, they meant it. Even if Trump doesn’t succeed, he has still shattered another glass ceiling that needed to be shattered — busting through the political-governmental complex. That is indeed a peaceful revolution.