Private Sector Leaders/Public Sector Leanings – Frazier and Fink in the Vanguard

The trend has been in evidence for some time.  However, since Donald Trump become president it has accelerated. Increasingly leaders in business are recognizing that they cannot or, better, that they should not, divorce themselves entirely from government.

In recent decades leaders in business have been assessed according to a single, simple standard: how good they were at making money. At delivering profits to their shareholders. Other metrics – for example, employee satisfaction, environmental consideration, and community contribution – were largely discounted or even entirely ignored.

In recent years, however, this began to change. A turning point was when Kenneth Frazier, CEO of Merck, announced in August 2017, that he was quitting the president’s business advisory council in the wake of the deadly protests in Charlottesville, Virginia, about which Trump had said there was “hatred, bigotry and violence on many sides.” To which Frazier replied, in a subsequent statement that took issue with Trump’s claim that “many sides” had been responsible for what happened, “I feel a responsibility to take a stand against extremism.”

In an interview some months later, Frazier further expanded on his decision publicly to distance himself from the nation’s chief executive. Last February he said it was his opinion “that to not take a stand on this would be viewed as a tacit endorsement of what had happened and what was said. I think words have consequences, and I think actions have consequences. I just felt that as a matter of my own personal conscience, I could not remain.”  Frazier continues his quiet but consistent campaign to involve the private sector at least somewhat more directly in issues lodged in the public sector. Just days before the recent midterm elections, he said that “as a group of business leaders, we have to think about the impact to our society of what’s happening in the political discussions in our country.”  

By no means is Frazier alone in his leanings. For example, Black Rock CEO, Larry Fink, is of similar mind and early this year he went similarly public. In a by now frequently cited letter to other CEOs, Fink wrote that “companies must benefit all of their stakeholders, including shareholders, employees, customers and the communities in which they operate.” Since then Fink has continued to remain committed to expanding our conception of the purpose of big business.  “I do believe,” he said recently, “that the demand for E.S. G. is going to transform all investing.” (E.S.G. means metrics including environmental, social, and governance impact.) Additionally Fink continues to predict without hesitation or reservation that E.S. G. is the wave of the future. He estimates that the change in how we measure corporate success – and, necessarily, CEO performance – “may be one or five years from now, but it’s not that far away.”

Neither Frazier nor Fink are expressing ideas that are altogether new. Notions of corporate social responsibility have been around for some time, and many companies have paid them lip service. But there is an enormous chasm between lip service and public service. If this chasm comes in the near term more clearly and quickly to close, it will be leaders like Frazier and Fink who paved the way.  

 

  

Standards Redux

Do I sound like an old fogey when I speak about, write about, leaders as professionals? Leaders that are expected to, even required to, live up to the standards, the high standards, that we expect of professionals?

If yes, I am not alone. Here’s a not-so-old voice sounding the same sentiments. On November 16, David Brooks wrote in the New York Times about conservatism in America.

If conservatism is ever to recover it has to achieve two large tasks. First, it has to find a moral purpose large enough to displace the lure of blood-and-soil nationalism. Second, it has to restore standards of professional competence and reassert the importance of experience, integrity, and political craftsmanship. When you take away excellence and integrity, loyalty to the great leader is the only currency that remains.

Notice the explicit association between high “standards” and “professional competence.” When I reference professionalizing leadership this is, above all, what I intend also to suggest. That to professionalize the pedagogy of learning to lead is, by definition, to improve the pedagogy of learning to lead. The content of the pedagogy is less important than the process of the pedagogy – which ought absolutely similarly imply “excellence and integrity.”

Followers Stopping Following

It was an amazement! After just two days, a worldwide strike by antiquarian booksellers against a subsidiary of among the biggest behemoths in the world, Amazon, succeeded.  As the New York Times summarized it, “It was a rare concerted uprising against any part of Amazon by any of its millions of suppliers, leading to an even rarer capitulation.”  I’ll say it was rare. This sequence, and the rapidity of it, was unprecedented. Why exactly Amazon surrendered so quickly remains unclear. Suffice to say it was an unusual chink in its generally impermeable armor.

But, this was even more of an amazement! In this case not so much because it was an action against another behemoth – in this case Google – but because it was not the first in a similar series. Google leaders have been the target of Google followers before, which suggests the beginnings of a  sea change. A sea change in which technology workers protest technology owners.

Last summer Google employees got Google employers to ditch Project Maven, a plan for cooperating with the Pentagon to develop software for targeting drone strikes. Last week Google employees got Google employers to take notice when some 20,000 of the former walked out to protest a culture of sexual harassment tolerated, if not fostered, by the latter. Never in the history of the tech industry has the leadership class so seriously and, now, serially, been challenged by the followership class.

I do not want to get carried away here. I am not predicting permanent revolution. But I am predicting occasional resistance. I am predicting a future in which tech workers – and maybe, increasingly, other workers as well – are more aware of their collective clout than they were before. Or, better, than they have been since the near complete collapse of unions, which in the past did just that. Which in the past got workers with shared interests to organize to make their voices heard.

Essentially employees who effectively challenge employers must take two steps. First, they must develop a collective consciousness. They must come to understand that, as a group, they are essential, critical, to the functioning of the company. Second, they must develop a sensible strategy. They must plan a series of steps in which, by joining forces, they can exercise major muscle.

Tech workers are generally well educated and well compensated. It would be an irony, then, if they led a revival of something even vaguely resembling a social, political, and economic movement.  But you never know. While the future has yet to reveal itself, the present feels decidedly different from the past.


Added note: Two articles in the New York Times elaborate on the points I make in this post. Their high quality leads me to provide the links.

https://www.nytimes.com/2018/11/07/technology/google-walkout-watershed-tech.html

https://www.nytimes.com/2018/11/06/business/google-employee-walkout-labor.html

 

Checks and Balances – Not Reliable, Not Effective

Even the most reasoned and reasonable constitutions reflect the fear and loathing of those who drafted them. The fear is that unless checks and balances are included, and implemented, bad leaders might, indeed someday will, win out. Human nature is just too malleable, too unreliable, fully to trust it. The loathing is of the authoritarianism and even despotism that are certain at some point to win out – absent the checks and balances intended to curtail and control them.

The reason tomorrow’s midterm election is widely considered the most important midterm ever in American history is precisely because the system of checks and balances that until recently seemed impregnable, now seems vulnerable. Given the presidency of Donald Trump, and given the Republican led Congress, which in consequence of his presidency and personality has been supine, and given the federal judiciary, which has been rapidly and, yes, efficiently staffed by Trump and his Department of Justice, the checks and balances on which Americans have come to depend are, at least for now, undependable.

Small wonder that Americans are being feverishly and fervently urged to vote. Given that the legislature and the judiciary have been enfeebled to the point of inefficacy, only ordinary people are left to stand guard. Only the American electorate can trump Trump!

Leader Being Followed – as in Hounded

George Soros is now 88 years old. He is a Hungarian born Jew who, in the aftermath of World War II, left Hungary for England, before settling finally in the United States.

Soros has been prominent as a leader in two different domains. The first is in finance. For the last fifty years or so he has been among the world’s leading investors. Soros’s investments in companies and, especially, in currencies, were daringly speculative and exceptionally lucrative. In the 1980s The Economist called him “the world’s most intriguing investor.” And in the 1990s his audacious decision to bet the family farm on shorting the pound earned him, according to the New York Times, a “profit of $1 billion.”

For the last forty years or so, he has been, in addition, among the world’s leading philanthropists. It is not too much to say that Soros has been as singular a leader in the world of philanthropy as in the world of finance. Through his Open Society Foundations, he invested enormous sums in nothing less ambitious than the democratization of the countries of East Europe, especially in the years preceding and succeeding the collapse of the Soviet Union. It was an intention of breathtaking proportion – it is safe to say that no single individual did more to democratize the countries of the former Soviet bloc than did Soros.

In more recent years, Soros increasingly turned his attention to politics in the U. S. He became in time one of the largest contributors to the Democratic Party and to various Democratic candidates. In the 2004 he donated $27 million to defeat President George W. Bush. In 2016 he donated more than $16 million to groups supporting Hillary Clinton. And, according to the Times, during this electoral cycle he has given more than $15 million to support various Democratic candidates at the federal level. Soros has, in other words, spent enormous sums of money supporting multiple liberal causes both at home and abroad.

There is one last arena in which Soros has been a leader. In fact, as the special target of anti-Semitic attacks in recent years, again both at home and abroad, he has been so far ahead he has been the canary in the coal mine. I will not here detail the nature or the extent of the attacks on Soros. I will say that they have been, during the regime of Viktor Orban, especially vicious and vitriolic in Hungary. And I will say that they have been, during the regime of Donald Trump, especially vicious and vitriolic in the United States.

It has in short come to this:

Soros is being followed now not as a leader – but as a victim. He is being followed as in hounded. He is being persecuted because he is inordinately rich, because he is deeply political, and because he is manifestly Jewish. A Jewish canary in a deep dark coal mine.

 

 

Standards

What follows is the text of a keynote speech that I delivered on October 27, 2018, at the annual meeting of the International Leadership Association (ILA) meeting in West Palm Beach.

One day, late last August, the New York Times printed and posted several articles that signal this speech on Standards.

When Erin Schrode ran for Congress in 2016 she woke to find tens of thousands of messages in her e mail, on her phone, and posted to her various other social media. One said, “All would laugh with glee as they gang raped her and then bashed her bagel-eating brains in.” Another said, “It’d be amusing to see her take twenty or so for 8 or 10 hours,” again suggesting gang-rape. In the case of Erin Schrode at least, the abuses – a toxic sludge of online trolling steeped in misogyny and anti-Semitism, that also included photo-shopped images of her face stretched into a Nazi lampshade, and references to “pre-heating the ovens” – never stopped.

In this election cycle, in 2018, the abuses against women in politics have only increased. A Democrat running for a congressional seat in Iowa, Kim Weaver, gave up her campaign against the Republican incumbent when a neo-Nazi web site published an article about her titled, “Meet the Whore Who’s Running Against Steven King.”

On the same day, it was August 26th to be precise, the Times published another article on a different subject altogether, that nevertheless was all about, you got it, the erosion of standards that in recent years has gone from creep to gallop. “Trump Assails Legal System,” ran the headline, “Eroding Trust.” Whatever you might think of President Donald Trump, it is inarguable that in the last year he has relentlessly criticized the Justice Department; fired some of its top officials; questioned the integrity of prosecutors leading the Russia investigation; mercilessly demeaned and defiled his own attorney general, Jeff Sessions; and, more generally, recklessly bandied about terms with possible legal implications such as “flip,” “witch hunt,” “treason,” and “lock her up.” The president’s flagrant flaunting of respect for the law, and for that matter for anything resembling civil discourse more generally, threatens increasingly not only to further erode faith in our legal system, but, more importantly, to further erode public trust in the various pillars of American democracy.

I hasten to add the American presidency is not the only institution so diminished. As we recently witnessed, the Senate has dropped the rules of decorum that for most of American history were the hallmark of what once was referred to as “the world’s greatest deliberative body.” And it manifestly shed some simple but, one would have thought, essential standards such as veracity, and the virtues of the rules of evidence. That the Supreme Court has itself recently been diminished in the eyes of many if not most Americans, goes nearly without saying.

Nor are standards being eroded only in the public sector. As that same issue of the Times testified, the private sector contributes mightily to the sense in the US that something’s off, that something – that everything – is in decline. There is the growing suspicion that a few behemoth companies in several of the nation’s key industries suppress both wages and growth. There is the growing suspicion that a few behemoth technology companies control too much of our individual lives, and intrude on too much of our collective lives. And, there is the growing suspicion that those few at the top see nothing wrong with their being infinitely better off even than those in the middle, and certainly than those at the bottom. Since 1978 the average American paycheck increased 11.2%. During this same period the average CEO’s pay increased 937%. Even the American Dream has effectively vanished – or, better, moved north, to Canada. Moving from the bottom 5th of income level to the top 5th, is now twice as likely to happen in Canada as in the US.

Nor, obviously, have standards been eroded only in the United States. Again, in that very same issue of the NY Times was an article that described the Irish Catholic Church as being “in tatters;” that alluded to related, wretched, recent abuses uncovered in Chile, as well as in the US; and that described a Pope, Pope Francis obviously, who was repeatedly reduced to voicing regret at the legacy of abuse in the Catholic Church worldwide.

Of course, the Church is not the only institution that has been so charged. Moreover, one could argue that the revelations of abuse of minors, which cascaded beginning in 2002, are helping to restore standards, not abetting their diminishment still further. But it cannot be denied that the revelations themselves, and the Church’s real reluctance fully to face the implications thereof, have contributed significantly to the sense that what we used to assume were generally high standards of behavior by people in positions of authority – whether priests or teachers, judges or generals, private sector executives or public sector politicians – was an illusion. Where once we thought, or perhaps foolishly presumed, were generally high standards of personal and professional conduct, now we know this was an illusion.

This is not, of course, to say that every leader is bad, painted with a sullied brush. Rather it is to say that we have a stronger sense that people, all people, no matter their status or station, are complicated: a mix of passions, proclivities and personalities; drives, motives and incentives; sensitivities, sensibilities, and standards. Additionally, now we now know that in some cases were no standards at all, at least not as we conventionally think of them. No standards at the level of the institution (think Volkswagen or Wells Fargo; the Department of the Interior or the city of Flint, MI); and no standards at the level of the individual (think Travis Kalanick, Paul Manafort, or, for that matter, Vladimir Putin).

Since I am speaking today to you, members of the International Leadership Association, let me state directly that leaders – defined for the present purpose as those in positions of power and authority – have contributed mightily to this decline in the erosion of standards or, at a minimum, to the perceived decline.

For our purpose. the reasons for this are twofold. The first are changes in our culture, arguably especially those that relate to levels of transparency. We now tend to know, we now tend to demand to know, the details of dalliances of presidents of the United States. We now tend to know, we now tend to demand to know, the drinking habits and sexual proclivities of nominees for the Supreme Court. We now tend to know, we now demand to know, the intricacies of intimacies practiced by men in position of power and authority on women who are not. (And yes, sex plays an important role in this cultural shift….)  We now tend to know, we now demand to know, the truths about taxes and finances; about monies stashed at home or abroad; about hidden bank accounts, secret payoffs, and shady dealings.

The level of transparency is now such that people with zero power, authority, or influence feel more entitled to be told whatever there is to be told about those who rank higher than they. We now have victims of clerical abuse stepping up and willingly testifying to what was done to them when they were children and adolescents. We now have investigative reporters unearthing dirt on some of the highest and mightiest of our species. We now have women coming out and taking on men in ways previously unheard of. The result is that leaders have been increasingly demystified. Something of a sea change!

The extreme changes in our culture have, of course, been aided and abetted by the extreme changes in our technologies. I need hardly point out to this group the impact of social media on patterns of dominance and deference, on the dynamics between those who apparently are powerful and those who apparently are powerless. The #MeToo movement, arguably led by the work of three investigative journalists, is just one example, albeit a striking one, of the intersections of which I speak. The #MeToo movement is all about sex; or, if you prefer, it is all about dominance and submission; or, if you prefer, it is all about power and the lack thereof. It is, in any case, about behaviors that went nearly entirely unreported for most of human history but that have become, only recently, grist for our collective mill.

The fact that sexual harassment and sexual abuse, along with other nasty proclivities such as virulent racism, homophobia, anti-Semitism, have, to a degree, been outed, certainly in the United States, is attributable to changes in the culture. But, this outing would have been impossible absent the presence of social media, a technology that has enabled, indeed encouraged, an uncontainable contagion. There is a reason that authoritarian systems are hellbent now on controlling the internet!

Sad to say that the severe erosion of leadership – the destructive, dramatic decline in standards, in the conviction that the US is exceptional in its moral core, in trust in leading individuals and in the institutions that they profess to lead – has coincided completely with the rise of, the burgeoning of, what some of you in this audience know that I refer to as the leadership industry. The two axes intersect almost exactly. The decline of the one, leadership, intersects with the rise of the other, the leadership industry.

I, at least, think this must, or at least it should, give us pause. I am not, of course, suggesting that the leadership industry – of which virtually every one of us here in attendance is a card-carrying member – is responsible for this decline. What I am saying though is that, manifestly, we have been unable to stop it, to stem the tarnished tide. We, we in the leadership industry, continue to do our thing, while the context within which inevitably we are embedded testifies to the inability of leaders – most strikingly, most sadly, in liberal democracies – to make followers feel that they are being led wisely and well.

While leaders in other sectors are, as indicated, not immune, the decline of political leaders in liberal democracies, especially in the last five years or so, has been especially painful to witness. Nearly no nation has been immune to the trend. The US as an example, under President Donald Trump, is obvious. Great Britain has struggled, is struggling, mightily, to its indefinite detriment, with the question of how to manage Brexit. France’s Emanuel Macron, just 18 months ago widely perceived a boy wonder, has endured a strikingly rapid and dramatic decline in his approval ratings. Angela Merkel, for years a stalwart of Western leadership, is manifestly on the wane and on her way out. Sweden, in most of our eyes a paragon of Western virtues, is enduring a crisis of governance and confidence. Europe’s eastern countries – such as Austria, Hungary, and Poland – have had their democracies put to the test by shifts toward populism, nationalism, and some would argue flat out authoritarianism. In our own hemisphere, Brazil and Venezuela testify to how close we are to various, dangerous precipices. And nations that less than ten years ago had shown signs of loosening the reins of authority – nations such as Russia, China, Egypt, and Turkey – have in more recent years reverted to tightening them. Each of these countries, and then some, are more oppressive and repressive than they were a decade ago. Standards of human decency, human rights, have not ascended; they have descended.

Which brings us inevitably to two hard questions. The first is general: How and why during the last decade did we arrive at this sorry pass? As I suggested, larger forces are at play here, such as changes in culture and technology. There is, additionally, the overarching trajectory of human history, and the various cycles of human history, to which I often in my teaching and writing refer. The second question is specific. What has the leadership industry – specifically those of us deeply dedicated to a well-intentioned association such as this one, the International Leadership Association, on this occasion justly celebrating its 20th anniversary – done to address the deep, steep decline in trust in what we might broadly call the leadership class?  What in other words, have we, we putative leadership experts, contributed to the improvement of the human condition during a time when leading in liberal democracies, indeed leading everywhere, seems more complex, complicated, convoluted, and confounding a task than ever? How have we been responsible, accountable?

I do not for one moment question the proposition that as individuals, and in groups, those of us in the International Leadership Association have done good work.

What I do question though is whether the work that we have done is good enough. What I do question though is whether the good work that we did do is being adequately disseminated and actually implemented. What I do question though is whether as individuals and especially as a collective we have done enough to address the decline in standards to which I here refer. What I do question though is whether we have taken a good, hard look at the work we do as a critical mass of leadership experts, leadership professionals. What I do question though is whether there is more that we can do, more that we should do, to elevate leaders in the eyes of their followers. What I do question though is whether there is more that we can do, more that we should do, to raise the standards to which leaders are held. What I do question though is whether all of us, including those of us putative experts and educators in this organization, the International Leadership Association, have done the very best we know how to help leaders, and leader learners, do better.

Let me provide just one quick but telling example. My colleague and friend, Denny Roberts, recently brought to my attention the fact that in 2012 the Board of the International Leadership Association was presented with a White Paper that called for “more conscious attention to both legitimacy and accountability of leadership as a field of study within higher education.” This White Paper is a sensible, smart, serious attempt to apply standards to leadership learning, standards that include steps such as internal program reviews, external program reviews, certification, and accreditation. But, as I further understand it, the ILA Board tabled the idea at the time, which is where the White Paper, as of now, still sits. One line from the concluding section of this paper reads, “It is the recommendation of the Formalized Program Review Task Force that, as part of its offerings/services, the International Leadership Association establish external formalized program reviews.”

I want to be clear here. I was not part of this White Paper Task Force. And I was not privy to any of the relevant discussions either within the ILA or outside it. I am therefore in no position to know what happened or why. But I raise the subject because it pertains, directly, to my general concern about setting standards for leaders, and to my specific concern about what the ILA could do, should do, to foster the establishment and indeed the implementation of such standards. As if it were, or aspired to become, a professional association.

Some of you in this audience will know that I have spent nearly all my professional life in Leadership Studies. That is, my primary interest has been in leadership as an area of intellectual inquiry. But as a few of you in this audience likely additionally know, in my last book, Professionalizing Leadership, I took a turn. I turned from Leadership Studies to Leadership Development, specifically to the matter of how we teach how to lead.

Why did I do this? Why after all this time did I turn to the question of how we teach how to lead? The answers are simple. First because I did not like what I saw – the unrelenting decline in trust in the leadership class, particularly in liberal democracies. Second because I did not like what I saw – the failure of too many leadership teachers, leadership administrators, leadership facilitators, leadership coaches, leadership consultants, leadership you-name- it, to raise their, our, game and to insist that other leadership experts do the same. In short, I am disturbed by our collective failure to raise the standards to which we adhere. Or, indeed, as a collective to establish any standards at all.

I will not here reiterate the argument I make in Professionalizing Leadership. In fact, I am aware that a few of you recently debated the merits – and deficits – of what I wrote. I will, however, reiterate the book’s overarching point. That unless we leadership experts take on some of the trappings of professionals – say doctors or lawyers – we endanger our reputations, which in any case are tenuous at best. This is not to say that professionalism has spared doctors, for instance, from the decline in trust, or from, as Tom Nichols put it, the death of expertise. To the contrary. The medical profession is also experiencing growing distrust. But not at the same rate as the leadership class, not even close. Moreover, while our level of trust in doctors has declined, most of us do not hesitate even now to go to a medical professional with a medical question or concern. We know that, generally, our doctors have been well educated and well trained, and that throughout their professional lives most will be required to continue to learn. And so, generally, we deem them both reasonably ethical and reasonably effective.

Leaders, in contrast – the military being a major exception to this general rule – are not required to provide even a scintilla of evidence that they have been educated to lead, or trained to lead, or developed as leaders. Moreover, they are not asked to meet any kind of requirement, or to provide any sort of certification of excellence – even of competence. Ironically, we do typically require evidence of competence from our hair dressers and truck drivers, from our dog groomers and coal miners and day care workers. We do not, though, require any such evidence from our leaders – not even from those who would aspire to ascend to the nation’s highest political office.

Would you believe that it is possible – hypothetically, theoretically, ostensibly and supposedly possible – to become President of the United States of America without any political, or government, or military experience or expertise whatsoever?!

 

Follow the Fuehrer

Some of you will have seen Leni Riefenstahl’s classic, mesmerizing documentary, “Triumph of the Will.” It’s a real time film of a humungous Nazi Party rally in Nuremberg in 1934, one and a half years after Adolf Hitler came to power.

Hitler is, of course, the star. Though he does not say a word until well into the film, he ends dominating it, ultimately concluding it with a riveting speech. His most trusted followers, especially those who have been with him since the start, since the Beer Hall Putsch in Munich in 1923, are also prominent players. We see them throughout the film; occasionally some even get briefly to speak.

But to Riefenstahl’s everlasting credit, “Triumph of the Will” focuses as much on ordinary Germans, on followers, as she does on leaders, on the Nazi elite. From the beginning of the film to the end there are countless shots – some in closeup, some at a remove – of German men, women, and, yes, children cheering on their Fuhrer, their leader, with an eagerness and an enthusiasm, indeed with an unmitigated joy, that to all appearances is boundless. There is scant sense during these early days of the Third Reich that Hitler’s followers – including close disciples, rank and file foot soldiers, wealthy industrialists, Christian clergy, hard-working farmers and day laborers, mothers and babies; all coming to crowd the streets and hang from the windows to catch even a brief glimpse of the Great Man – had even the slightest reservation, the slightest doubt about who they would follow to the end of their lives, no matter what.

Riefenstahl’s film is propaganda. So, naturally, she confined her cast nearly completely to those who were rabid enthusiasts. But, even now, more than three quarters of a century later, there is no mistaking her message. The leader’s, the Fuehrer’s, Hitler’s, capacity to control depended absolutely on his followers, the German people. They followed him willing, gladly, with a passion that rivaled their pleasure.

“Triumph of the Will” came recently to mind. In fact, the movie has come to mind several times in the last few years, but there are some moments when the similarities between past and present frankly frighten.

Two examples. The first when during a rally in Mississippi Trump mocked, ridiculed, Dr. Christine Blasey Ford, who, the preceding week, had painfully and painstakingly testified that as a 15-year old girl she had been sexually assaulted by the Supreme Court’s newest justice, Brett Kavanaugh. What was so scary was not so much Trump as the crowd behind him, consisting of fervid, fervent followers, who, the more outrageous and offensive their leader’s behavior, the more they hooted and hollered their approval.

The second example was just a couple of days ago, at another campaign rally, this one in Montana. Trump had come to extol the virtues of Representative Greg Gianforte, who a year earlier was sentenced for having assaulted a reporter. Trump warned the gleeful crowd behind him to “never wrestle” Gianforte, and then added, “Anybody that can do a body-slam, That’s my kind of guy.” This in the immediate wake of the disappearance of another journalist, Jamal Khashoggi, the Saudi Arabian columnist for the Washington Post. Need I add that Trump’s followers ate it up, cheering with great gusto the president’s suggestion that violence against a member of the press is not to be condemned but condoned?!

Our obsession with the president is as understandable as inevitable. But more clearly and completely to understand what the hell is happening in this country at this moment do what Riefenstahl did. Pay close attention, pay equal attention, to the rest of the cast. From acolytes and activists, to bystanders and isolates, it is, after all, followers who make Fuehrers possible.

 

A White House Named Desire

Ironically, Donald Trump’s passion is not for power, which would seem the reason for his wanting to be president. Nor is it for sex, which would seem the appetite for which he once sought to be best known. Rather it is for money. Trump’s insatiable appetite, his unquenchable thirst, his relentless drive is for money, and more money. No amount of money in the world will ever, can ever, satisfy him.

To his credit, he is not without insight. He once described himself, before becoming president, as “greedy, greedy, greedy.” The remarkable thing is that after becoming president he remains the same. Greed – increasing his and his family’s already enormous personal wealth – remains his driving force.

On one level this comes as no surprise. Why should a man, especially perhaps a man of a certain age, change when he comes to Washington? Change just because he went, overnight, from being a carnival barker and real estate developer to being chief executive? We know, or we should, that in matters of character, past is prologue. If we thought once Trump became president he would morph into someone different from what he was lifelong, we were fools.

But, on another level, his inability to change even a little bit, to adopt even a smidgen the standards associated with the presidential office, never fails to shock. Never fails to discourage and dismay.

Trump ran for president without thinking he would win. He ran not because he wanted to acquire more power, but because he wanted to accrue more money. He viewed the presidential campaign as a means to an end. The end in his case being not the White House, but the greater gain associated with greater fame.

Small wonder that when Trump became president his quest for cash continued rather than ceased. Small wonder that he is being sued by Maryland and the District of Columbia, which charged that he violated the Constitution’s emoluments clause, which is intended to “prevent the least possibility of undue influence and corruption being exerted upon the President by foreign governments.” It is intended to hold a president like Trump accountable for maintaining ownership of his far-flung business operations, and for continuing to reap the benefits, foreign and domestic, that are in consequence of his presidency.

Yesterday Trump responded to a question about the near certain murder of Saudi journalist and activist Jamal Khashoggi not with outrage but with appeasement. He described the relationship between Saudi Arabia – a country to which he has always, for mercenary reasons, been inordinately well-disposed – and the U. S. as “excellent.” And he responded to questions about Khashoggi by asserting that he would not support halting the sale of arms to Saudi Arabia because of the “massive amounts of money” the Saudi’s “pour” into our country and, he might have added, into his, and his son-in-law’s, personal coffers. In other words, even the gruesome assassination of a well-known, highly respected, Washington-based journalist did not stop Trump from seeing everyone and everything through the prism of cold cash. It bespeaks his cold heart – and his chronic obsession with being richer than God.

 

Leaders and Followers – Miserable Monday

  • In Brazil, a far-right candidate, leader of the once insignificant Social Liberal Party, Jair Bolsonaro, just won the first round of Brazil’s presidential election. Bolsonaro, until recently on the fringes of power, has stirred controversy by making remarks variously described as misogynistic, racist, and homophobic. This in a country that is mostly nonwhite.
  • Saudi Arabia yesterday dismissed as “baseless” any accusations or implications that it was involved in the disappearance and apparent murder in Turkey of prominent Saudi journalist, Jamal Khashoggi. Khashoggi, who was described by Washington Post editorial editor as “committed and courageous,” had written critically about Saudi’s leader, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.
  • About China at this moment in its history, political scientist Stein Ringen has in no uncertain terms concluded that,  “The People’s Republic of China is … not ‘an authoritarian system,’ it is a ‘totalitarian state.’” Ringen named four characteristics of totalitarianism, each of which he said applied: 1) government upheld by terror; 2) government reach from public life into private lives; 3) government rule through an extensive bureaucracy; and 4) government under the authority of a commanding ideology.
  • On the question of whether the current situation in the United States bears any resemblance to Europe during the interwar years, when fascism was on the rise, Holocaust historian Christopher Browning writes that there are “several troubling similarities and one important but equally troubling difference.” He concludes his disturbing article in the October 25 New York Review as follows: “Trump is not Hitler and Trumpism is not Nazism, but regardless of how the Trump presidency concludes, this is a story unlikely to have a happy ending.”
  • The United Nations today issued another dire report on the coming consequences of climate change. This one is, if anything, grimmer even than its predecessors, if only because the time frame is shorter than previously was estimated. But, for those who wonder if anything can be done to stop what literally is the rising tide, there is this: my recent blog (see below) on why leaders find it so difficult to stave off what all but the densest among us recognize is a deadly threat to life on this earth as we know it.

To Save the Planet – Leadership

 

French Followers Eat their Young

Not much over a year ago he was France’s Boy Wonder. Young and good looking; well-educated and highly accomplished; remarkably bold and equally bright; Emmanuel Macron was strikingly successful in business and, subsequently, in politics. He came out of nearly nowhere to sweep into the Elysee Palace, France’s preternaturally splendid equivalent of the White House, at the tender age of 39.

Since then it’s been straight downhill. On the international stage Macron still manages to cut a bit of a dashing figure. But at home things are different. The French have given him nearly no time to prove himself, deciding instead early in his presidential term that they don’t like him. In December 2017 some 50 % of French people still supported Macron. Some nine months later, this figure had dropped to 19 %. Moreover, fully 60% of those polled found his achievements “negative,” almost double the figure of a half year ago. In other words, fewer than one in five French followers now approve of the leader they relatively recently voted into the nation’s highest office.

There is no single reason for Macron’s dramatic decline in popularity. Yes, his tenure has been tarnished by some scandals, but none have been serious. Yes, he pushed through, perhaps precipitously, some pro-market reforms that made him seem somewhat oblivious to the needs of France’s working class. And yes, he has a manner that many see as off-putting, arrogant, maybe even authoritarian. But these supposed sins are minor, not major. He has worked hard to kick France into higher gear – the country has languished in recent years, especially in comparison with its generally far more prosperous and powerful neighbor, Germany – and it’s far too early to tell if his efforts will pay off.

No, the problem Macron has is more fundamental. His problem is his followers, the people, the French people. Like other peoples across Europe, and for that matter in the United States, today’s voters are exceedingly easily bored and exceedingly easily angered. They, we, have little tolerance and nearly no patience. Not a good recipe for a liberal democracy which requires a modicum of both.