The Outsider Businessman Who Could Inherit Trumpism

Why you should care

Because in 2020, this man might adopt the playbook of Donald Trump, package it with less vitriol and present it to the public with more success.

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The wealthy businessman had just emerged from a bloody primary against a crowded group of Republican rivals. Painting himself as the only outsider fit to reform a system full of cronies, the first-time candidate rode a wave of antiestablishment sentiment straight up the polls. Then he got a message. It was from Donald J. Trump, who wanted to talk.

So David Perdue, the former CEO of Dollar General and Reebok, met with the billionaire in New York. It was the summer of 2014, Perdue was vying to become the freshman senator of Georgia and, as he recalls, Trump “wanted to talk about our race.” And so Perdue told Trump all about it — about how he built his team, a motley crew of experienced strategists and staffers who transformed him from an unknown into his party’s nominee. And about how his team tempered his message to a simple one of grand peril in the face of economic uncertainty, ensuring that the cause had to be bigger than just one man could take on. “What I tried to explain to him was that this wasn’t about me: It was bigger than me,” Perdue says. “What I saw going on was that the country was headed in the wrong direction. And he agreed totally.”

Today, Perdue is a senator and sits on five committees that are helping power him into the hearts of conservatives — while Trump is all but done. The Republican’s presidential campaign is in shambles, former GOP allies have abandoned him to political exile and polls show him trailing Hillary Clinton by double digits. Although Trump hasn’t overcome his own flaws so far, including the release of lewd remarks he made back in 2005 or more recent allegations that he sexually assaulted women, it doesn’t mean the zeitgeist behind him will fade. History books are full of revolutionaries whose flags were later shouldered by more acceptable messengers, including the silver-tongued Ronald Reagan who succeeded where the blunt Barry Goldwater could not. And, in four more years, someone is bound to adopt the playbook of Trump, package it with less vitriol and present it to the public once more. Perdue has positioned himself to be that man. Georgia-based strategist Seth Weathers isn’t ready to count the Republican nominee out yet, but, as the former Trump state director puts it: “If Trump is hit by a Clinton campaign bus tomorrow, there would be nobody better to carry on the Trump mantle than David Perdue.”

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For anyone who witnessed Perdue’s populist rise, it’s a bit of a shock to see him now in the U.S. Capitol, where even the bathrooms are made of marble. Sitting in his Senate office, gone is the denim jacket from campaign ads that showed Perdue walking in grassy fields as a nod to his upbringing in farm country — although it was dusted off this summer when he stepped on the floor at the Republican National Convention as one of Trump’s most vocal supporters. Along these hallways walk the same type of “career politicians” he depicted as crying babies in a series of TV spots that helped propel him to office almost two years ago. Notches under Perdue’s belt since then include being named chairman of two Senate subcommittees — “a major coup for a rookie,” as OZY contributor Daniel Malloy noted at the time for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution— and helping pass the Iran Nuclear Agreement Review Act, which Perdue says made public the details of a flawed deal that would have remained obfuscated otherwise. “Digging deep into the issues and becoming an expert is the way to move ahead of your time in your tenure here,” says Sen. Bob Corker of Tennessee, who adds, “Perdue is definitely doing that himself.”  

Once the man gets going, Perdue’s railing sounds familiar: “I came in screaming about the debt. Let me tell you where we are, and then let me tell you where we can go.” But as the only Fortune 500 CEO in Congress speaks about America’s crushing financial burden, it’s clear he differs from Trump in ways that could help him avoid the same mistakes. First, he has an obsessive eye for history — in this case, that of the budget process, which he asserts has only worked four times in its modern form. Second, he comes prepared, armed with hard facts that hardly roll off the tongue but underscore the need for change. After explaining the authorization process, the rising tide of debt, the grand bargain lawmakers struck to avoid future fiscal fights and, inevitably, the budget battle Washington is facing despite those concessions, his methodical approach finally reaches its explosive conclusion: “It can’t be fixed,” Perdue says. “This is the perfect example of where bureaucrats in Washington, through the lens of career politicians, decide on a process that nobody in business would do.”

Despite that pox-on-the-politicos rhetoric, Perdue has played nice since arriving in Washington. “I decided not to come up here and blow the place up because I thought I would get marginalized very quickly,” Perdue says. To get a good deal, he continues, you have to work “within the lines,” which certainly sounds contrary to his overall shtick but has allowed him to wield abnormal influence for a district newbie. Sure, Perdue’s seat on the Budget Committee doesn’t control the federal purse strings the way Appropriations does, but it gives him a national platform to rage against an impending fiscal crisis that’s become a popular rallying call for conservative inheritors of the tea party movement. “He understands better than most that in order to fix our country’s fiscal dysfunction, we must unstick the current budget process,” says Senate Budget Committee chairman Mike Enzi.

Perdue is also a member of the Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry Committee and an ally of the Farm Bureau, where he can give his own twist on the anti-regulation routine while directly overseeing the Environmental Protection Agency, another favorite whipping boy of the right. And should Clinton become president as polls predict, the Foreign Relations Committee member’s ongoing assessment into the practices of the State Department — which will include Clinton’s time there — could give Perdue a platform from which to lob politically advantageous grenades His assignments position him well to enter a broader spotlight as a conservative leader, says Weathers, who adds, “His leadership in taking on the EPA, State Department and budget are all issues that Republicans can rally behind.”

All the while, Perdue has had to balance getting things done like an insider while upholding his promise to be an outsider. “I have this ability, because I’ve been on the outside, to look at what we’re doing, and see it through this lens,” he argues. That’s thanks, in part, to his experience making business deals overseas. Yet some ardent Trump supporters could argue that Perdue has made a career supporting and benefiting from the kind of trade agreements that Trump himself would have opposed. Perdue voted with other senators to give President Obama fast-track authority to negotiate the Trans-Pacific Partnership, though Perdue could still later turn down the deal if it was a bad one. “I hear Trump saying it’s really about a level playing field; that’s what I’ve been saying for 35 to 40 years,” he says. Democrats will likely hit him with the same criticisms they used in his Senate race, including a gender pay discrimination lawsuit and a 2005 deposition in which he said he had spent “most of my career” outsourcing — a comment that Perdue’s staff says specifically referred to outsourcing manufacturing materials, not jobs.

What I’m trying to do is effect change. Now as a CEO, you can do it much more quickly. 

David Perdue

Sticking with the outsider bent, Perdue has had to take contrary positions at times, voting to replace the current tax system, proposing a federal fail-safe that would revoke pay from Congress if it didn’t pass a budget — thus fundamentally reinventing the way the federal government is funded — and instituting a two-term limit on senators (Perdue, who is 66 years old, ostensibly wouldn’t lose much under such restrictions). Most notably, Perdue opposed a popular bipartisan criminal justice reform bill that he argues would only serve to make it easier for “dangerous felons, many of whom have multiple prior convictions for violent crimes” to go free instead. “In practice, that’s not the way it’s actually working right now — the federal system actually has more and more low-level offenders,” says Tim Head, executive director of the Faith & Freedom Coalition, which supports reform bills. (Perdue’s camp points to a federal report showing only 0.1 percent of federal inmates as serving time for simple drug possession, among other stats.)

Perdue’s fight to maintain his independence is one he often considers, he says, and the United Methodist churchgoer quotes the Catholic edict to “be in the world, but not of it” as words to live by in Congress. Still, there is a sense that he misses his days as a chief executive. “What I’m trying to do is effect change. Now as a CEO, you can do it much more quickly.”

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In future races, opponents will probably paint Perdue as an uncaring businessman, as they successfully did with Mitt Romney in 2012. However, Perdue can play on his common-man upbringing in a way that Trump can’t, having grown up as the son of two schoolteachers in rural Houston County. In the summers, Perdue worked picking watermelons on the farm of his cousin, Sonny Perdue, who would later become Georgia’s first Republican governor since Reconstruction. “That’s the real DNA you see in David today,” says Sonny. Neal Purcell, who oversaw Perdue as a board member at Dollar General, knows that Perdue, with his sharp suits, smart air and tall gait, looks the stereotype of a guy “born with a silver spoon in his mouth. But nothing could be further from the truth.” Purcell adds, “Neither of our parents had a lot of money at any point.”

Perdue’s made-for-politics evolution story surprises even Perdue, a Georgia Tech grad who claims he decided to run for office only after (unsuccessfully) trying to draft Sonny into doing it. “I had a huge learning curve,” Perdue admits of his first campaign, where he struggled initially in debates and had to learn to address voters differently than members of his boardroom. Perdue says that he didn’t foresee himself becoming a business leader one day. “I never personally thought about the next job in my career. What I try to do is work,” he says.

Still, this election has made it clear that there is appetite for a businessman who promises to get things done fast and fight the politics-as-usual mentality. It’s not certain the Trump faithful would flock to Perdue, who sometimes sprinkles his straight talk with a hint of Southern politeness and says that, compared with the business career of Trump, “I had to be a little more tempered in terms of building consensus.”

Despite Trump’s major setback and mass defections of supporters, Perdue has continued to back the billionaire — even after recent sexual assault allegations. “Senator Perdue believes it’s time to turn the page from the failed economic and foreign policies of President Obama and Hillary Clinton,” a spokeswoman says. That might have put him on more treacherous ground if he were more of a national name. But here in Georgia, which overwhelmingly backed Trump in the primary and still favors him over Clinton by about 5 percentage points, Perdue’s core constituency likely sees loyalty as a plus. “I think this wave that he’s hit is the same wave that I hit,” Perdue says. “And it’s not a short-term issue.”

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