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Globe editorial: Kevin O’Leary, Donald Trump and the downside of celebrity politicians

Kevin O'Leary, the businessman turned television celebrity running for the leadership of the Conservative Party, sells himself as a hard-bitten, no-nonsense operator. "You can't fool me. I can read a balance sheet. I can read an income statement," he said when he announced his candidacy.

It makes you wonder how it would go if Mr. O'Leary, the showman, applied to work at a company owned by Mr. O'Leary, self-avowed giant of industry. We are not convinced it would end with a firm handshake and a "Welcome aboard!"

Mr. O'Leary is applying for a job for which he has no experience. He has never shown any interest in government, and is usually dismissive of what it does.

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But, like many before him, he is selling this as a positive. Politics has fooled others into believing the same madness: that only outsiders, who have no clue about the complex demands and choices involved in leading a $317-billion-dollar government, can actually "make government work."

Ignorance rarely leads to bliss. The United States is currently living with the consequences of putting a celebrity with no relevant experience in charge of the biggest and most complex organization in the world.

President Donald Trump's first month in office has been chaotic. One cabinet member has been fired, another walked away from his nomination. The White House, theoretically at the head of a vast array of secretariats and agencies, appears entirely disconnected. Major campaign promises have been blocked by courts, opponents and hard reality. A frustrated Mr. Trump has demonized adversaries, the media, security agencies and the federal bureaucracy, only to learn that they can all push back.

The former reality TV show host and real estate magnate has been exposed to a simple truth: The President is not the owner of a small family business, who can issue unilateral orders and fire anyone who crosses him. He has also learned that governing requires a different set of skills from campaigning; it is not all rousing, made-for-televison speeches to friendly audiences, followed by a ride home in a private jet with gold toilet seats.

Mr. O'Leary has to be at least somewhat aware of what he is getting into. But we can safely say two things: that he would be surprised by the demands that are placed on party leaders; and that leadership in the world of business is not a guarantee of successful leadership in elected politics.

Consider the example of Pierre Karl Péladeau, the Quebec telecommunications magnate who lasted less than a year as leader/saviour of the Parti Québécois and has now returned to run the company he never should have left in the first place. Or consider Michael Ignatieff. A successful scholar, he spent a lifetime writing on history, politics and public policy. But he spent almost no time on, or in, the country he proposed to lead: Canada. He led the Liberal Party of Canada to its worst showing in history in 2011, and quickly exited politics.

We are not saying that the only people qualified to be national leaders are previous national leaders. If that were true, politics would be more like sports, and Canada would be sending four cabinet ministers and a parliamentary secretary to be named later to Germany, in a trade for the proven veteran Angela Merkel.

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But playing an abrasive businessman on a reality television show in no way prepares a person for the complexities of leading a party, a caucus, a government, a bureaucracy and relations with other countries, all at the same time. Getting that experience requires time in the halls of government, or a serious study of what goes on in those halls, and how the machinery works. Nobody wants to be operated on by a surgeon who has neither studied nor practised medicine.

It is, in fact, insulting the way celebrity political candidates tout their brands as proof of their competence while deriding the far more valid qualifications, garnered through hard work and sacrifice, of elected politicians. One imagines that Mr. O'Leary, Serious Businessman, would feel the same if he were hiring someone to look after his precious assets. There is nothing charming about hearing a job candidate tell you that his or her utter lack of experience or interest in your business is a plus, and that anyway they'll be great because they can sell baseball caps with their name on them.

And yet that is what Mr. O'Leary, The Brand, is asking of the Conservative Party and, at some point, if all goes as he plans, Canadian voters. These days, there is all too much reason to worry that a tough-guy TV businessman shtick won't translate well to a job that demands patience, nuance, compromise and boring attention to detail. A wise recruiter would push an ill-suited resumé like Mr. O'Leary's to the bottom of the pile. No doubt there is a part of Mr. O'Leary that agrees with that statement.

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