Donald Trump has managed to brand himself as the anti-establishment candidate, but the real estate mogul is winning support from those considered among America’s most establishment types: owners and chief executives of business.

Though the media have focused on CEOs who vigorously oppose Trump—such as Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg and Hewlett Packard’s Meg Whitman—a survey by Chief Executive earlier this year found Trump leading all Republican candidates with 21 percent of support from top executives, followed closely by Marco Rubio. A recent analysis of campaign-contribution data by the Center for Public Integrity found that, other than retirees, the heaviest concentration of Trump donors were individuals identified as owners, presidents, and CEOs of businesses. Trump has garnered endorsements from some high-profile CEOs, including tech investor Mark Cuban and Marvel Entertainment’s Isaac Perlmutter, but many of the executives donating to Trump own or run small firms out of the national limelight. Some of what they say about Trump—and about politics in general—could hold a lesson for the rest of the GOP.

Trump is a businessman, but he isn’t a Chamber of Commerce type. His restrictive views on immigration are contrary to the desires of many CEOs for easier access to workers from around the globe. His call for international trade restrictions, especially with China, worries firms operating in the global marketplace, who fear what a trade war would do to their business. He’s even lambasted big CEO paychecks as a “joke” and a “disgrace.” Even so, a good number of CEOs seem to share ordinary Trump supporters’ frustration with the political process and resentment at the way government treats them. President Obama infuriated business owners during the 2012 campaign when he said, “If you’ve got a business—you didn’t build that. Somebody else made that happen.” His administration, meantime, has rolled out significant new rules and regulations—including Obamacare—that have raised the costs of hiring and made doing business more difficult. One Trump-supporting owner described the situation to the Center for Public Integrity as “unbearable.”

Obama has presided over one of the weakest recoveries in American history. During his administration, the economy has never grown more than 3 percent in a single year. Voters, including apparently some business owners, blame not only the president but also a Republican Party that seems inept in opposing him. Hence, Trump has generated a certain enthusiasm. “Just get somebody in there who’s different. I don’t even care anymore,” one proprietor said.

Speculating on the support for Trump among its readers, Chief Executive focused on the fact that the Donald says not only that he wants to make America great again but also that the source of the nation’s greatness is its business community. That’s not a message that business owners hear consistently from other Republican candidates. The magazine also noted that the typical CEO today must operate within an environment of political correctness, avoiding any comments that might seem even mildly insensitive and having to tussle regularly with government regulators and social media scolds. Trump’s willingness to shoot from the hip—damn the political correctness—is refreshing to these people. And not every business owner feels that unrestrained free trade at all costs is a plus. Some who have had to compete feel that Washington has allowed foreign governments—China’s in particular—to tilt the playing field too far in their own favor.

Trump’s background as an executive has enabled him to focus on controversial noneconomic issues that resonate with voters—like restraining Muslim immigration—while also earning at least some credibility among owners of firms as a pro-growth, business-friendly candidate. By contrast, much of the economic messaging from the other Republican candidates has seemed tepid and perfunctory. That’s an extraordinary failing in an election year in which even candidates from the president’s own party aren’t running on the “Obama economy.” It’s an election year when the economy still rates among voters as the Number One issue, though you’d hardly know that from the campaigns.

A Heritage Foundation study argued that, while economic freedom is advancing in many places around the world, it’s in retreat in America. Business owners straining under the tightening yoke of government can’t be blamed if they’re unenthusiastic about GOP candidates who don’t share their passion for undoing the damage of the last eight years. In Trump, at least, these CEOs believe they see someone who has walked in their shoes.

Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images


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