Some excitable conservatives have recently been comparing Donald Trump to Ronald Reagan. That’s a stretch, to say the least.
The former Republican president who Trump most resembles isn’t Reagan, but Herbert Hoover, who served from March 1929 to March 1933, when his reelection bid was defeated by Franklin D. Roosevelt.
Let me outline some of the similarities between the two men.
Like Trump, Hoover had never held elective office. A near prerequisite for winning the presidency of the United States is to have been elected to some previous office or a war hero. Hoover was neither, and the same applies to Trump. Unlike Trump, however, Hoover had been appointed to several government positions, which helped indicate the kind of president he would be.
Hoover was rich. He graduated from Stanford University with a degree in geology and quickly began working with gold mining companies. By the age of 40, in 1914, he was reportedly worth about $4 million, which isn’t $10 billion, even 100 years later, but it’s still a whole lot of money.
Hoover was once quoted as saying, “If a man has not made a million dollars by the time he is 40, he is not worth much”—which actually sounds a little like Trump.
Hoover was a great manager. Trump’s supporters say he’s a businessman who can get things done. Americans thought the same about Hoover.
Before the U.S. entered World War I, Hoover coordinated relief efforts for Europeans. Once the U.S. entered the war, President Wilson put Hoover in charge of the U.S. Food Administration, managing food reserves for the Army and allies. He did these jobs so well that a 1920 New York Times poll named him one of the “Ten Most Important Living Americans.” In other words, he was something of a national rock star.
Hoover wanted to avoid foreign entanglements. Prior to World War II, Republicans, as well as the public, had a long-standing aversion to getting involved in other countries’ rivalries, which Hoover promised to continue. That reluctant interventionism was replaced with a much more aggressive foreign policy after World War II.
Trump’s “America first” theme and his statements like “war and aggression will not be my first instinct” are again raising charges of isolationism. Those criticisms may be hyperbole, but it does appear Trump is more comfortable with the pre-World War II Republican foreign policy.
Hoover was big on infrastructure spending. And so is Trump: “Rebuild the country’s infrastructure—nobody can do that like me, believe me. It will be done on time, on budget, way below costs, way below what anyone ever thought.”
For his part Hoover advocated public works and spent heavily on them—can you say Hoover Dam?—and was criticized by the New York Tribune in 1930 for his “pump priming,” as historian Steve Horwitz points out.
Hoover limited immigration. American University history professor Andrew Lichtman explained in The Hill, “Hoover in 1930 issued the most far-reaching executive decision in the history of American immigration policy. Ostensibly to keep American jobs for Americans during the Great Depression, he unilaterally decided that his administration would issue immigration visas only to persons with the means to support themselves independently in the United States.”
That executive order, Lichtman says, “slashed immigration from all foreign lands by nearly 90 percent. In 1931, for the first time in the country’s history, the outflow of residents leaving for other lands exceeded the inflow of immigrants.”
It’s not clear Trump would go that far, but he certainly echoes the same general theme.
Hoover was a protectionist. Like Trump, Hoover thought that limiting trade saved and created U.S. jobs. And though he thought it went too far, he signed the most protectionist law in 100 years, the Smoot-Hawley Act of 1930, which reduced exports and imports by more than half. Today, most economists think Smoot-Hawley exacerbated the Great Depression.
There are more similarities between the two men, but there are dissimilarities as well. Hoover was ever the gentleman, and having worked in the government, including as secretary of commerce, he had some experience navigating its labyrinths.
Today, most economists think protectionism and very restricted immigration hurt the economy. And, rightly or wrongly, they often point to Hoover’s presidency to prove their point, which is why very few presidential candidates have ever wanted to be compared to Hoover. But with Donald Trump, the analogy fits like a glove.