In the Battle of Billionaires, Howard Schultz Doesn't Measure Up to Trump

In the Battle of Billionaires, Howard Schultz Doesn't Measure Up to Trump
Image credit: David Ryder | REUTERS
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What would a battle of billionaire CEOs be like if Donald Trump squared off against Howard Schultz?

Well, there will be a clear choice. One candidate is a self-absorbed, megalomaniacal billionaire who can't seem to stop saying the wrong things. The other is Donald Trump.

Put politics aside for a second. From a leadership perspective, Trump actually shapes up much better Schultz, the Starbucks CEO who reportedly is being urged to jump into the presidential race.

Why? It all comes down to understanding your market.

Trump has shaken up the early election season by speaking what's on his mind. He's done this by ignoring the unwritten rules demanded by America's polite-society political class and the mainstream media. When he linked immigration to violent crime, the talk-show denizens were shocked -- shocked! -- that he would say such a thing. They eagerly awaited his apology, even condescended to suggest appropriate wording to properly express deep regret while gracefully bowing out of the presidential contest. No apology ever came. In fact, his poll numbers rose. When Trump questioned John McCain's status as a war hero, it was lather, rinse, repeat.

No one paid to figure out the likes of a Donald Trump seems to be able to figure out Donald Trump, but he isn't hard to understand. He knows what the people want and delivers it with clarity, aggression and bravado. He is a true businessman, but he is an even better caricature of the American billionaire industrialist, a Mr. Monopoly without the fluffy mustache. Americans love to play Monopoly. And they love a winner. Donald Trump plays that part better than anyone, and the hustings is his perfect stage.

There is also a growing mistrust of political correctness, a terror of even of speaking your mind for fear of the liberal backlash it might cause. Have a religious objection to same-sex marriage? You are a homophobe and a hater. Back the vast majority of police who do their jobs professionally? You are a tone-deaf racist. Confused about whether someone can "identify" as a woman, and get a reality show to boot out of it? You are speaking from the standpoint of cisgendered privilege, and probably didn't go to an Ivy League school anyway, where you would have been taught better.

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These are Very Important Liberal Ideas. Not incidentally, they're actually not shared by the vast majority of Americans, and they're certainly not shared by the Republican base in this country, which is Trump's audience -- or, to put it in business terms, his target market. And those customers are buying it in bulk.

And then there is Howard Schultz. He has a wonderful backstory of someone who came from very little and built it into something venti. Yet, what he wants to be known for is simply his espousal of the Very Important Liberal Ideas. He wants to send all his employees to college, so he provides free tuition. Want a national dialogue about race? He proposed his baristas start it, while you're waiting in line for your grande skinny vanilla latte. 

One would think that these proposals would make Schultz a natural standard bearer of the Very Important Liberal Ideas. But he faced a backlash from the liberal base itself. When he unveiled his college-tuition plan, the writers over at Think Progress lamented that the program was too limiting, since it required you to pursue an online degree from one college. "It’s a farce to claim to be offering ‘free college’ to employees when what’s being offered is simply the chance to pursue a degree at one specific university, only online, only if you enroll full time and work at least 20 hours a week,” Dr. Sara Goldrick-Rab, professor of educational policy studies and sociology at the University of Wisconsin, told Think Progress.

And then there was the diastrous Race Together campaign, wherein employees were told to invite customers to discuss race issues. It was a disaster on several levels. "Tone-deaf and self-aggrandizing aspects of Race Together haven't helped in establishing a strong base for employees to build on," our own Kate Taylor wrote. "Starbucks' press photos for the event appear to feature only white employees. The press release on Race Together bizarrely leads with the subheading 'It began with one voice,' painting Howard Schultz as a visionary progressive for daring to discuss race – something others, especially people of color, haven't exactly been silent on in recent months or the last couple centuries."

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Both initiatives showed how out of touch Schultz is with his own audience and customers. Most CEOs get fired for that disconnect. Only Schultz would think it could get him elected president.

Of course, it's not all his fault. The odds-on favorite for the Democratic nomination is a candidate almost nobody likes. The same intelligentsia who say Trump alienates everyone around him are convinced Howard Schultz has the name recognition to be a serious candidate for the serious issues, even though most Americans probably think Starbucks is run by some guy named Starbuck (who may also have a topless-mermaid fetish). Doesn't hurt that he's a billionaire, since politics is expensive and it's always great to find a fellow who likes to pick up the tab himself. Poor Howard probably thinks they like him for his charisma, when the rest of the world knows he's the best person to rob a liquor store with, since most Americans couldn't pick him out of a lineup.

Anyway, none of this is about politics, per se. Politics, oddly, has little to do with whether either would make a good candidate, let alone a good president. Trump's political views haven't been fully explored yet by many of his own supporters. Once that happens, many will question whether he is conservative or libertarian enough, particularly in relation to the rest of this crowded Republican field. Schultz's political views are reliably liberal, to the point of tedium. The only suspense lies in whether his base distrusts everything he says because it comes from a position of male, white privilege or white, male privilege, depending on the issue.

So all we can do now is judge both on leadership. Each has had success. Each has built a strong business. Each is likely a skilled manager of people, strategic in thinking, and a deserving beneficiary of the American Dream. But Trump, right now at least, has shown himself to be a better leader because he knows his customers, gives them the products they want, and makes them come back for more.

If Howard Schultz is serious about a presidential run, he's going to have to follow Trump's lead.

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