Why The World Needs Greater Leaders (And How to Be One)
Or, Why A World Falling Down is Desperate For a New Deal
Wanted, dead or alive. An entire intelligentsia is scratching their furrowed brows, desperately hoping to solve the most pressing, baffling, and enigmatic scientific riddle of our age…before it’s zero hour. Like Godzilla thundering through the puny artillery fire mere frantic earthlings hysterically hurl at his armored scales…Donald Trump’s survived everything an entire political establishment has thrown at him…and only gotten stronger. So. What gives?
I think the answer is hidden in plain sight — and it holds lessons for us about what leadership truly is, and why we seem to have so little of it.
Trump’s a consummate dealmaker. And what people are desperate for is a better deal.
Here’s the deal they’re getting. Work harder to get poorer on stuff that doesn’t matter so share prices traded by robots can rise to make a smaller and smaller number of people who don’t appear to care about society, the planet, the young, the old, the poor, or anything beyond their bank accounts richer than Midas. Does that sound like a deal anyone wants to you?
So while it’s easy to condemn Trump, if that’s all we do, then we’re missing the point. Trump’s meteoric rise holds lessons both profound and true about decline, stagnation, and leadership.
The Old Deal isn’t working. And it hasn’t worked for a very long time now. That’s what decline is. So what people are desperate for is exactly what Trump promises…and what he’s made a career on…a better deal. You can think of course of the (actual) New Deal as the canonical example. It was a necessary vision to take a nation’s desperation, it’s stagnating human potential, and put it at least to good use.
Here’s the thing. A generation of technocratic leaders doesn’t get this. They see the world as One Big Plumbing Problem. The economy’s blocked — financial wrench here, tax socket there — hey, presto!! Problem solved. They believe that a tax credit is the second coming of the Messiah. Newsflash: that’s not really what human potential’s about. If you’re sweating a hundred minimum wage McGigs yet barely making the rent….0.02% less marginal tax on your non-leveraged capital gains isn’t exactly going to transform your life. Yet, plumbers of the body politic, technocratic leaders present people with incremental policies, minor turns of wrench.
But people are looking for transformation. A whole new system of plumbing for the body politic, the economy, and society. And they’re right to want it. Incremental policies aren’t going to solve the problems of an imploding middle class, growing ranks of new poor, young with no future. It is going to take a new social contract to fix them.
Here’s the inconvenient truth.
The demagogue’s greatest weapon is the fact that he tells the truth. The old deal is a swindle. Leaders have failed. Institutions are broken. In times of decline, the demagogue isn’t the disease — he’s the symptom that confirms we have one.
What we must cure is the disease — not merely treat the symptom. Merely attacking demagogues isn’t enough to rescue societies from decline. How then can we begin?
In times of decline, the fundamental organizational job of a leader is offering a New Deal. it doesn’t matter whether the organisation being led is a country or a corporation or a club — the challenge is precisely the same.
To distill some lessons, let’s think about deals for a moment. What would say the central components of deals are? I’d say that they’re freedom, justice, and prosperity.
What’s really in decline in ages of decline? They are. And so the demagogue’s purported New Deal merely reallocates the shrinking slices of freedom, justice, and prosperity, in ways that mollify people’s rage. But such deals don’t stop the pie from shrinking — historically, if anything, they accelerate decline — and so society advances headlong into the abyss. Rage becomes vengeance becomes…worse.
The leader’s job is this. He or she must craft a deal that truly expands the sum total of freedom, justice, and prosperity — not merely reallocates its shrinking slices in ways that mollify the people’s anger.
Let’s take each one by one, to understand why leaders fail at combating demagogues.
Freedom. What’s the opposite of freedom? Oppression. Who’s really oppressing the people in times of decline..the most? Their enemies, neighbors, peers, bosses? Nope. The demagogue is the only figure in the landscape of power who understands, and speaks, the simple, and thus powerful, truth. The people are the most oppressed by the establishment.
In times of decline, the demagogue offers people a different kind of freedom: freedom from the very institutions and leaders who have failed them. He doesn’t say: I’m going to give a marginal bit of freedom by offering you a tax credit that you probably can’t use because you’re never going to be rich enough to earn it. I’m going to free you from the failed establishment. Who’s broken your dreams and thwarted your potential.
Leaders in ages of decline, by contrast, are usually tinkering at the edges of the old deal. When they do offer people freedom, it’s usually of an impoverished kind — tiny turns of broken screws that don’t change people’s lives. The result is that they just don’t get it. They’re not just outcompeted in the quantity of freedom — but in the quality of freedom.
Justice. In times of decline, demagogues offer people the justice they seek. Retribution. Decline makes people angry, and the angry seek vengeance. Their natural impulse is to seek retribution for the wrongs that have been done to them. Hence, the demagogue points the finger — and the people roar.
But that’s the lowest kind of justice. Retribution is consolation. But it isn’t healing. You can hurt the people who hurt you back…and still be just as wounded. So the leader must go a step further than retribution. He must do justice to people’s human potential — by offering them a New Deal that allows them to make the most and best of themselves.
That might sound simple, perhaps trivial. But the cold, hard truth is that our leaders aren’t doing it. Hence, the rise and rise of Trump. If no one’s offering you any other kind of justice, then retribution, at least, is a tempting consolation.
Prosperity. What’s the opposite of prosperity? Not merely poverty, but impoverishment — staying poor, forever. So here’s the most subtle part of the demagogue’s appeal: he promises to negotiate with the powers that are impoverishing people, so they have opportunities tomorrow that they don’t today.
Thus, people will have future chances to make the most and best of themselves. It is precisely that possibility that leaders aren’t offering. After all, that’s essentially what decline is.
But how are people to make the most and best of themselves? The demagogue’s new deal is grounded in the foundational mechanism of demagoguery: unpersoning. He will negotiate with the powers that are stifling people, but only to elevate the potential at the cost of others. He may include white Americans in his New Deal — at the cost of excluding brown, black, and mixed ones. But that is merely taking human potential from the former to give to the latter. Therefore, the demagogue isn’t so much expanding human potential as merely giving with one hand what he takes away with the other.
The leader’s job isn’t merely pointing all this out — though that’s necessary. It’s offering a deal in which people don’t have to make this fools’ bargain. Here’s the thing.
The demagogue’s deals aren’t just morally compromised and socially divisive. They’re too good to be true. Any fool can craft a deal in which one person gets rich at another’s expense — in which the growing ranks of the new poor suddenly feel more secure today because they’ve taken opportunities away from the even poorer. But that’s not just a recipe for moral decline — it’s also a recipe for prolonged economic stagnation. Because such prosperity depends for its growth on eating itself.
The deals that are truly difficult to craft are those in which everyone wins. In which my prosperity doesn’t subtract from yours. That’s precisely the challenge of a true leader. To craft them, a leader has to not just exert dominance over (trade, political, economic, cultural) partners — but offer benefits to partners. A strongman can bully and bluster — but a leader must lead everyone who follows them, including the parties they’re making deals with, to a better life. Whether those parties are the American middle class — or Chinese workers, Mexican migrants, Syrian refugees, Bangladeshi immigrants, African schoolkids.
Let me digress slightly to put that another way — and unearth the logic of true leadership. The illogic of leadership that’s only “there for it’s own” is precisely the same as supporting feudal kings, emperors, monarchs.
A leader’s job isn’t just “winning” for his own people — it’s crafting wins for everyone. Leadership is not an act of zero-sum dominance — it is an act of positive-sum service. If everyone’s in it for their own, humanity as a whole can’t progress much: true prosperity isn’t a zero sum game of giving to us what we take from them. That’s just dominance, violence, plunder, oppression. We are simply creating a loser for each winner, not truly expanding the sum total of human potential.
When we suppose leaders are just there to “win” for their own, we ourselves subscribe to an naive, mistaken, egocentric view of leadership. But if it’s justified for a leader to win purely for his “own”, who are those “own”? His country…or his clan…or his cousins…or his immediate family? Thus is royalty falsely born, the idea that some people are divinely born, inherently worthier in their very blood than others — and thus how freedom, prosperity, and justice smashed on the rocks of feudalism.
Therefore, if we believe leaders are only “there for their own”, it’s difficult to see how the globe goes anywhere but right back into the dark ages.
Let me conclude.
To compete with a demagogue, a true leader must offer people a New Deal…that’s truly better. That offers everyone who strikes such a deal more prosperity, freedom, and justice. That “everyone” isn’t just “us” — it’s also “them”. For if it’s just “us”, then little has been accomplished at all. Though the figureheads may have changed, we’re still at the mercy of the very idea that failed us. That prosperity, justice, and freedom should only be available to some — and the most to the most powerful.
So a leader must not just say, but demonstrate that the demagogue’s offering a bad deal, with the wrong people. Building a wall might keep others out — but it isn’t going to lift you up. Keeping others down might satisfy your need for vengeance — but it isn’t going to lift you up. And so on.
So let me say it again.
What’s really in decline in ages of decline? They are. Freedom, justice, and prosperity. The demagogue offers some people larger slices of freedom, justice, and prosperity — but only by taking them away from others. And they love him for promising them something. It might work today — but its success is society’s undoing. Because a people are now eating themselves.
A great leader’s job is crafting a deal that truly expands freedom, justice, and prosperity. Their sum total in society, across societies. So that human potential can grow and flourish to higher heights. It is not merely reallocating the shrinking slices of freedom, justice, and prosperity in ways that mollify the people’s anger. What characterizes the leaders that we remember throughout history as great, from FDR to Gandhi to Washington to Lincoln, is accomplishing all the above.
The demagogue’s New Deal seems like a lifeline into the abyss. The leader’s job isn’t just explaining why it isn’t. But demonstrating it — with a New Deal that is. The leader must offer transformations in freedom, justice, and prosperity that are morally worthier, economically more sustainable, and socially more desirable, than the demagogue. Otherwise, it’s only right and fair that the demagogue bests the leader. For the leader has failed at his or her fundamental task: elevating human lives.