Can We Agree Now That Trump Is a Weak Leader?
Donald Trump envisions himself as a strong leader, worthy of being on Mount Rushmore with iconic American presidents. He is not constrained by stale, old ideas. He fights valiantly for the people. And because of his strength, he, and America, have become perpetual winners. With the debacle of his minions storming the Capitol and failing to overturn election results, many Americans are belatedly beginning to reassess what it means to be a strong leader. We need to continue this task of disentangling brashness, bravery, and proclamations of force, from true strength and leadership.
Fox News and Republican politicians served as an enthusiastic cheering section for Trump, loudly proclaiming how powerful he was, and how well he was leading America. Somehow millions of Americans accepted this, despite ongoing evidence to the contrary for four years. But Trump’s grotesque behavior of the last two months has led many to start questioning his leadership, even if his recent actions have been more a distillation, rather than a departure from the rest of his term in office. We need to examine why so many Americans were duped about his character, particularly when one of the mantras of Trump’s political campaigns has been that everyone else lies all of the time.
We ostensibly chose presidents who will keep us safe and encourage us to prosper. While individuals may exert leadership in different ways, Americans apparently have overvalued the wrong attributes, or confused outward appearances with true character.
A bold leader surveys the choices before him and opts for the one most likely to succeed, particularly when it defies conventional wisdom. Bold leaders force us to consider old problems in new ways. They are willing to say things that others may consider unconventional or unacceptable, to call out old habits that might be corrupt, effete, decrepit, or outmoded.
Trump has consistently behaved boldly, taking steps where others feared to tread. He met with North Korean dictator Kim Jung Il, slapped tariffs on trade with China, recognized Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, and encouraged his followers to challenge the validity of election results even after repeated scrutiny had revealed no fraud. He swiftly elevated to powerful positions many who had never before served in government, and dispatched them with equal dispatch when they no longer pleased him. He voiced sentiments considered politically incorrect, attacking black athletes who knelt for racial justice, praising white supremacists, mocking and disparaging faithful allies, and commenting on the physical appearances of female leaders.
Trump’s boldness appears innate, tied to his impulsivity. He barges into situations for which he has done no research, lacks comprehension of the nature of the problem, and remains unconcerned about the ramifications of his actions. Often he is not so much thinking outside of the box, but is completely ignorant of the box, or has a vague idea of the outline of the box only in order to stomp on it.
His followers praise him for being an iconoclast, often seemingly valuing disruption and destruction as inherently good, without considering what was being broken or overthrown. They love how he gored sacred cows, trampled on polite society, owned the libs, and upended behavioral norms for politicians. Many of his fiercest acolytes are still framing the invasion of the Capitol building in this way — as a fresh new way to challenge the stale old oppressive system.
Nobody can deny that Trump has show boldness in his leadership.
While boldness often implies courage, we can separate the two attributes. Courage requires taking action in the face of imminent, serious danger, and persisting even when under attack. Bold, innovative actions may represent departures from the norm, but don’t necessarily entail reckoning with peril. Furthermore, pursuing bold actions when one isn’t even aware of the inherent dangers, doesn’t involve courage. Ignorance may not always be bliss, but it can be a powerful balm protecting one from awareness of the risks of a situation.
Certainly in the realm of confronting life threatening risk, Trump has not displayed courage. While his fan club, at his urging, trashed the Capitol, Donald Trump was safely ensconced in the White House, two miles away. When peaceful demonstrators protested in Lafayette Square last summer, Trump cowered in the White House basement bunker, before having troops use tear gas and helicopters to clear the area so he could walk across the park and wave a Bible for the cameras. During the Vietnam War, despite having played high school football, tennis, and squash at a military academy, Trump used medical deferments five times to escape being drafted.
Trump doesn’t appear to comprehend courage. He repeatedly disparaged soldiers for being suckers and losers, trashed John McCain for his wartime valor, and didn’t seem to grasp why John Lewis was respected for being bashed in the head. Most people who behave courageously acknowledge some self doubt, some amount of fear, but persevere anyway. Courage contains within it the acceptance of possible failure, made tolerable by knowing that one has done one’s best to confront the situation at hand. Trump appears to consider any admission of fear as a sign of weakness and failure. Embracing fear while simultaneously, resolutely, continuing on a path creates a cognitive dissonance too great for him to bridge. Trump’s own difficulties with staying on any one course of action, given his distractibility and resistance to sustained effort, may also make the concept of courage particularly elusive for him.
Trump epitomizes the loudmouth braggart, braying about his bravery, yet manifestly behaving cowardly. He even lacks the courage to accept responsibility for any of his myriad failures. Americans, particularly Republicans, need to become more discerning, to stop confusing bluster for valor.
Donald Trump has not been a courageous leader.
Strength involves withstanding great forces to achieve a goal. Strong leaders remain steadfast in their commitments, and persist in working hard, despite adversity. Above all else, Trump has praised himself for being a strong leader. He equates strength with winning, and weakness with losing. He has told us how valiantly he would fight for Americans, how he would stand up against China, battle the evil socialists abroad and at home, and overthrow restrictions that kept Americans from being great.
Teddy Roosevelt advocated speaking softly but carrying a big stick. But our most recent Republican presidents have acted as if bravado equates with strength. Bush emphasized how tough we would be against terrorists, how powerful our military was, how we would defeat the “Axis of Evil”. Trump makes himself the center of the equation, boasting of how forceful he will be in negotiations, how strong he is by tearing up treaties, how he would build a wall and make Mexico pay for it. Sometimes advertising your power can help cow opponents, but people who repeatedly insist on how formidable and powerful they are, often undermine their message. They can end up sounding like they are really trying to convince themselves that they are strong. Although we have had our quiet heroes, Americans often seem to appreciate verbal assertiveness, a trait that we increasingly over-value in our short attention span, social media-driven world.
Strong leadership requires knowledge as well as power. You need to know what your goals are, why those are your goals, and how you want to accomplish them. You must know how to sustain yourself when the journey grows long and formidable. Trump values shows of strength, as if unadorned power will triumph over wisdom, expertise, and truthfulness. However, strong leadership requires a guiding and constraining intellect. Far too often, Trump and his allies have asked us to trust their instincts, or justified their actions by claiming that others feel the same way they do, without being able to explain their course of action.
Trump and his followers also seem to mistakenly confuse being strong with being perfect. They act as if acknowledging any mistake would reveal weakness. But this brittle perfectionism is almost the antithesis of strength and resilience. As Helen Reddy sang, “I am strong. I am invincible…You can bend but never break me.” Strength entails returning to one’s path after opposing forces caused one to temporarily deflect from one’s goal. Possessing real strength means that even despite your flaws and weaknesses, you will persevere. If one never deviates, even slightly, then one probably didn’t face real challenges. So why does the right continue to pretend that strength requires an unrealistic, un-human, inhumane perfectionism? How can we heal our racism, our sexism, our violent and authoritarian tendencies if we can’t even acknowledge them?
A brittle perfectionism condemns one to failure, as illustrated by cognitive-behavioral treatment (CBT) of panic attacks. CBT can effectively diminish the intensity, and then the frequency of panic attacks. After weeks without panic, patients begins to feels a sense of calm. Many of them want to be told that they are perfect again, that they will never have any more panic attacks. If one acquiesces to this brittle perfectionism, then at some future point, maybe after years, some danger, real or exaggerated, will likely trigger another panic attack. When it does, these individuals are blindsided, and become even more overwhelmed because they were unprepared for ever feeling this anxious again. Paradoxically, we know that we encourage resilience if we teach them that we have not eradicated their nucleus accumbens, that their panic center remains intact and may be triggered at a future date, but that they already possess the tools to foreshorten and shut down the attack. Resilience and strength come from knowing that you can endure whatever arises, not from magically wishing that you have vanquished all problems forever.
Trump’s Weak Leadership
Trump is a large and restless man, which probably helps perpetuate the myth that he is a powerful leader. On issues that interest him (the size of his inauguration, fraud in the 2020 election) he can be tenacious in proclaiming his beliefs. But he lacks the mental discipline to be a strong leader. His mind wanders. He avoids learning about topics that he is ignorant of. He has difficulty forcing himself to put in hard work. He has trouble planning, organizing, and carrying out missions. His severe ADHD derails his ability to be a strong leader.
His recent fumbling with the COVID relief bill highlights how his lack of strategic thinking and his inconsistency render him a weak leader. For six months after House Democrats had approved a plan, he avoided engagement with the topic. After his own White House negotiators reconciled a compromise deal with the House and Senate, Trump suddenly objected to individual benefits being $600 rather than $2000. He strenuously objected for a few days, proclaiming how he was fighting for the common man. He didn’t attempt to work with the House Democrats, who were eager to support the larger amount. He delayed action until after people had already lost a week of unemployment benefits. Then he surrendered and signed the bill, with the lower amount of relief intact, without any clear explanations. But somehow his lackeys claimed that his irrelevant yammering, because it was vociferous, somehow projected great strength.
Trump’s unreasonable fear of showing weakness undermined his leadership around mask-wearing and COVID. Actually, there is nothing inherently weak about wearing a mask to reduce your risk of catching or spreading a potentially lethal virus. Indeed, we consider it a sign of macho strength when militiamen tote guns at demonstrations, or policemen wear helmets or wield shields, or soldiers stay in their tanks. We claim that all of these are manly, defensive measures. A strong and skillful leader would have framed mask-wearing along these lines — coronavirus is a formidable enemy, and the mask helps us to fight it. Masks could have been deployed as part of our warrior regalia in the battle against the coronavirus. Tens of thousands more Americans would be alive right now had we done so. But Trump’s terror that 30 square inches of cloth over his face would make him look weak made him disparage and discredit this simple, easily accessible, and helpful tool. Masks don’t create a perfect defense, but neither do shields or helmets or guns. If it’s not cowardly to hide behind your automatic rifle, why would we pretend that a mask emasculates us?
Even in recent days, I have heard a few Trump defenders claim that he did show great leadership in standing up to China. This ignores that his predecessor, Obama, spoke at least as forcefully, if not as histrionically, about unfair trade practices, industrial espionage, and human rights abuses. Those claiming that Trump’s strong leadership over the last four years has led to success in our relationship with China ignore the following: our trade deficit with China is larger than ever; China was the only major economy to grow last year: our tariffs hurt American farmers and pushed China into closer economic cooperation with Russia, against our strategic interests; China has escalated military dominance over smaller or weaker neighbors in sea lanes and mountain passes; China has accelerated its economic colonization of Asia, Africa, South America, and even Europe without any viable response from the US; China has increased its domestic human rights abuses, from oppressing Uighurs to stifling freedoms in Hong Kong to socially monitoring its citizens; and no evidence supports that it has backed off on industrial espionage or unfair trade practices after four years of Trump’s bluster. If that was success I’d hate to see what they consider failed leadership.
Ironically for someone whose claim to competence was building buildings, Trump has shown his strongest leadership in dismantling things. He repeatedly, but unsuccessfully tried to destroy Obamacare, without ever proposing an alternative, or improving health care accessibility or costs. He left the Paris Climate Accords when even American businesses lobbied to remain in the pact, knowing that delaying action will only result in greater costs to our humans and natural worlds. He nixed the Iran deal, removing restrictions on that country’s development of a nuclear bomb. He even created a new destructive force in the world: Space Force. He has cancelled rules protecting worker safety and environmental protection. He has been a force of destruction not construction. His legacy will be the numerous ways he has torn America down, not made her great again.
Trump has been bold, but neither courageous nor strong. Meat Loaf sang that “two out of three ain’t bad”. But one out of three is pretty bad. And one out of three for the leader of the free world is downright terrible. We can’t just blame Trump for our current mess. He had powerful enablers among the media, his political party, and parts of the corporate world. But we hired him for this job, and failed to get rid of him when he was failing to carry out his constitutional duties. America needs to mature and appreciate what true strength and leadership looks like, and keep that image in mind during the next election, if we even continue to hold elections.