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....
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.
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.