Donald Trump has taught the American people so much about leadership – and followership – the question is, where to begin? How to select the top ten leadership lessons from among his countless memorable morsels?
Here a first crack.
Lesson # 1. The U. S. Constitution is fragile. Such moral and legal authority as it does have is elastic. The Constitution is at least as if not more heavily reliant on the vagaries of human nature as it is on the rigidities of rule of law.
Lesson # 2. The institutions that comprise the U. S. political system are insufficiently well-equipped and inadequately caught up. They are stuck in the past, unready in the 21st century effectively to function in a context in which, to take just a single example, technologies have changed not a little but a lot.
Lesson # 3. The power of the presidency is far greater than we generally understood. We knew that the president’s powers had expanded well beyond what the Framers had intended. We similarly knew that for reasons ranging from a bloated executive branch to a bloated military-industrial complex, the president’s powers continued to expand, even in the last half century. What we did not understand was how much.
Lesson # 4. The executive is far stronger and the legislature far weaker than we generally understood. The reasons for this are structural, contextual, and personal, professional. It is possible that after the November election this will change somewhat – that the imbalance will be rectified to an extent. But it is equally likely that the rebalancing between the two branches – which supposedly are co-equal – will be minor not major.
Lesson # 5. The powers of the presidency depend more than we care to think on the person who is president. When the incumbent broke past presidential patterns and shattered previous presidential norms, it did not much matter. For all the screaming and yelling, for all the stress on the system, the system stood. President Donald Trump remains still in place and so do the institutions of government – such as they are.
Lesson # 6. Presidential character seems no longer much to matter. We now know or think we do that George Washington never did cut down that fabled cherry tree. But the story was told for a reason. It taught children they should not lie, just as we presumed that parents should not lie, and that presidents should not lie. Yet by April of this year, after some 1,200 days in office, the number of Trump’s untruths ran to about 18,000. If a measure of character is truth telling, the importance of presidential character is out the window. Or, at least, it is out the window for the many Americans who constitute Trump’s base.
Lesson # 7. Follower power is in – but it is not in everywhere. It is in, for example, on the streets. It is in, for example, at Facebook. But as Donald Trump has taught us, it is not in in Washington. At least not among the political elite. At least not among the political elite who are Republicans. It has been as astonishing as demoralizing to see the degree to which, most strikingly, Senate Republicans have been the most craven of followers. No doubt some are true believers. Equally no doubt more cannot stand Trump but have chosen abjectly to follow where he leads because they are scared for their professional lives. They are scared his tweets will bring them down.
Lesson # 8. The American people have a limitless tolerance for dysfunction. In June 2020 we find ourselves caught, trapped, not in a single crisis, but in three crises simultaneously. A public health crisis. A financial crisis. A crisis of social – and political and economic – unrest. And yet, here we are, slogging along unsettled and unhappy and, in some cases, many cases, infuriated and outraged. But, still, we hang in, more together than not, hoping that tomorrow will be better than today.
Lesson # 9. Getting rid of bad leaders is hard, inordinately, almost insurmountably, hard. President Donald Trump is, in my view, a bad leader. He is incompetent and ineffective as well as immoral and unethical. But, moving him out of the White House, and moving another person in, so far has proved impossible. We did come close, or so it appeared. Trump was impeached. But he was never convicted. When push came to shove tribal loyalty trumped character and competence.
Lesson # 10. To select a political leader for a position of great responsibility who has no political, government, or military experience or expertise whatsoever, is a really rotten idea. Best to think of leadership as a profession, or even a vocation, for which a modicum of education and a measure of experience is mandatory. Anything less is to invite disaster. Especially but not exclusively if the position in question is president of the United States.
Americans are railing and America is roiling because police officer Derek Chauvin had his knee on George Floyd’s neck. Chauvin’s knee was on Floyd’s neck for a total of almost nine minutes, nearly three of which were after Floyd had become unresponsive. Floyd’s death was in direct consequence of the pressure put on his neck by Chauvin’s knee.
Several people witnessed what happened. Some did something – such as 17-year old Darnella Frazier, who decided in the moment to videotape the event. Others did nothing. Others stood around and did nothing during the entire nine-minute period, including when Floyd was gasping that he was unable to breathe.
Those who stood around and watched what was happening but chose to do nothing included the three other police officers involved in the incident. These three officers were in close and up close, right next to Chauvin and right next to Floyd. They saw everything that took place and heard everything that took place – but they chose not to act. They chose to stand by and do nothing.
These three men, these three former police officers (they have since been stripped of their status), are Bystanders. Followers who are Bystanders. At least on this occasion, Chauvin was their leader. They, meanwhile, were his followers, enabling him to do what he was doing without interference or interruption.
Bystander followers “observe, but they do not participate. They make a deliberate decision to stand aside, to disengage from their leaders and from whatever is the group dynamic. This withdrawal is, in effect, a declaration of neutrality, which amounts to tacit support for whoever and whatever constitutes the status quo.*
Imagine how differently this story would have turned out if just one of these three men had done something, instead of doing nothing. Imagine if just one of these three men had not followed where Chauvin led, but had instead intervened, yelled at Chauvin to stop, or even shoved his knee off Floyd’s neck.
Had one of these men done something similar he would have been a Follower who is other than a Bystander. He would have been a follower who refused to follow. He would have been a follower who instead of being toxic was tonic.
*From Barbara Kellerman, Followership: How Followers are Creating Change and Changing Leaders, (Harvard Business School Press, 2008, p. 97.)
Larry Kramer was that rare thing, the real thing, a leader. I suspect that in death he will be as he was in life – acknowledged, but underappreciated and undervalued.
These are four essays I posted about him, in succession in July 2015.
Years ago, I began posting pieces on the struggle over the future of Hong Kong. The struggle between Hong Kongers on the one side, and the Chinese authorities on the other.
This essay is, then, an update. A systemic update that posits leadership is a system consisting of three parts: 1) leaders; 2) followers; and 3) contexts. Each is of equal importance. Each is independent of the other. Each is dependent on the other. And each is necessary to understanding what is happening in Hong Kong and why.
Apart from a brief period of Japanese occupation, Hong Kong was a British colony for well over a century, from 1841 to 1997. Though it was situated in the East, the many decades during which Hong Kong was governed by the West left their mark. In part for this reason, when Britain returned Hong Kong to Chinese sovereignty in 1997, China’s top leader, at the time Deng Xiaoping, guaranteed that Hong Kong would remain essentially in tact, autonomous, separate from the mainland, for another fifty years. Deng was, in other words, the architect of what came to be known as “one country, two systems.” While Hong Kong would from then on belong to China, it would be permitted for the next half century to govern itself. This meant was that for the next half century Hong Kong would be more democratic than autocratic, and more capitalist than socialist, not to speak of communist.
This was not mere magnanimity on Deng’s part. While the people of Hong Kong would benefit from being allowed to self-determine, China had its own reasons for keeping hands off. Under British rule Hong Kong had achieved a high level not only of autonomy, but of prosperity. Thus, this bastion of capitalism on the doorstep of the communist mainland was regarded, rightly, as important to China’s future economic development. This during a time when China remained largely undeveloped and desperately poor.
But within approximately one year after Xi Jinping came to power – he became President of the People’s Republic of China in 2013 – China’s attitude toward Hong Kong became notably more assertive. China began gradually to erode the liberties that Hong Kong’s 7.5 million people had previously enjoyed, and so, in 2014, they started to protest under the banner, “Umbrella Revolution.” The Umbrella Revolution – so-called because the peaceful protesters carried umbrellas – consisted of large numbers of pro-democracy demonstrators taking to the streets to vent their growing suspicion of Beijing.
Between approximately 2014 and 2019 was something of a standoff between the people of Hong Kong and the government of China. But because of Xi’s increasingly heavy hand, in 2019 Hong Kong’s anti-government protests – anti the Chinese government and anti their proxies in Hong Kong – escalated. They increased greatly in size and in the level of their anger, hundreds of thousands of demonstrators taking repeatedly to the streets, sometimes in response to something specific, sometimes just to register their outrage at the eroding of their autonomy. Notwithstanding the constant provocations, during this entire time the authorities in China mostly kept their powder dry. While there were sporadic efforts at clamping down, Xi was not prepared, then, to provoke a showdown. During all of last year he mostly refrained from intervening in Hong Kong with a heavy hand.
But, in 2020, things changed. The context changed – the context now was a virus crisis. Unlike Americans, Hong Kongers were familiar with this sort of threat; in 2003 they went through the SARS epidemic. But Covid-19 required that they no longer hold the enormous mass gatherings that just a few months earlier had characterized their political protests.
Xi seized the day. Last month, Beijing effectively dismantled decades of legal precedence by declaring it had full authority to intervene in Hong Kong. Last month, Beijing’s Hong Kong proxies arrested 15 veteran leaders of the protest movements. And, last month, Hong Kong’s government – which is allied with China – issued a series of statements condemning every member of the opposition. As Mary Hui put it Quartz, in the month of April, “the rules of engagement between Beijing and Hong Kong – ostensibly a city with a high degree of autonomy over its own affairs – were completely rewritten.” In May the battle lines were drawn still further. Though their numbers now were significantly smaller, members of Hong Kong’s opposition movement again took to the streets. This time the police promptly clamped downed – their had less patience and used more increased force. Hong Kong’s government meantime made clear that it would move forward with promptly enacting and then rigidly enforcing laws intended to take aim at anyone in Hong Kong who dared to dissent.
Covid gave Xi cover. Turned out that in 2019 he was just biding his time. Once the time was right – the virus crisis was all-consuming, the ultimate distraction – he pounced.
Xi Jinping is not the only leader in this drama. There are leaders of the opposition within Hong Kong. There are political leaders within Hong Kong who reliably represent the Chinese authorities. There are business leaders in Hong Kong – corporate titans who, not incidentally, supported the protesters in the past, but in the present want nothing so much as peace in their streets to be restored. And there are leaders in China who are other than Xi. But he, Xi, is the supreme leader. The leader whose word is law. The leader with the power and authority to enforce the law. The leader who bridges no dissent. The leader who in recent years metamorphosed from authoritarian to totalitarian.
Todd Pittinsky and I wrote a book titled, Leaders Who Lust: Power, Money, Sex, Success, Legitimacy, Legacy. (The book is being published by Cambridge University Press; it will be available in September.) Xi is one of our exemplars: a leader who lusts – in his case for power.
Our definition of lust is simple. We define lust as a psychological drive that produces intense wanting, even desperately needing to obtain an object or to secure a circumstance. When the object has been obtained, or the circumstance secured, there is relief, but only briefly, temporarily. Xi is a leader who lusts by every measure. All the evidence supports the proposition that he has a desperate want, or need to accumulate power, and then to accumulate more power. There is no evidence to the contrary, or even to suggest that when he accrues more power than he had previously, he will be satisfied, satiated. As Churchill said of Hitler, Xi’s appetite grows with his eating.
Xi’s tenure as all-powerful leader has not been without incident. In fact, early this year, when the corona virus started to spread in Wuhan, rapidly to become a significant threat, Xi disappeared from the political stage, presumably to decipher what was happening and to determine what to do about it. But, overall, his trajectory from being successful politician to being supreme leader who I should add, has now been given constitutional permission to stay supreme leader for life, has been near seamless.
So far, Xi, who is leader not only of the Chinese government but also, importantly, of the Chinese Communist Party, has spent most of his time in office consolidating his power within his own country. However, in the last few of years this started to change. Xi is no longer satisfied to control only his own people. He now wants other domains to dominate. It is not that his expansionist impulse is entirely new. China’s Belt and Road Initiative – which invests heavily in 70 countries around the world – began soon after he came into power. But Xi’s drive for power drove him more recently to lust after other juicy morsels, Hong Kong among them. Hong Kong has, of course, beckoned all along. But Xi seems to believe that now, finally, is the time to grab what rightfully is his. Beijing’s use of force, especially by the military, violently to suppress dissent in Hong Kong could still become a major political, economic, or even military problem. But Xi seems to be calculating that a likely win is worth the risk. Among its other virtues, it raises this question: if Hong Kong ends in China’s tent, how far behind can be Taiwan?
I define followers by rank. Which in this case means followers are the many millions who comprise President Xi Jinping’s subordinates. Defining followers by rank – as opposed to behavior – has the virtue of signaling that while most followers follow most of the time, not all followers follow all of the time. Some followers, in other words, do not follow. Some, in fact, deliberately, willfully, refuse to follow.
Like most prominent, especially dominant leaders, Xi has so many followers that they best are grouped. Followers can be grouped in different ways, for example, by type, or style. Previously (especially in my earlier book, Followership) I divided followers by their level of engagement. “Isolates” were, then, at the one end of the continuum. They were the least engaged. “Diehards,” in contrast, were at the other end of the continuum, they were the most engaged.
For the purposes of this post the followers who have mattered most are the people of Hong Kong – in particular the enormous numbers of protesters, who ranged from being occasional Participants to being willing, if not even eager, to put their lives on the line for their cause. (I call these sorts of followers, “Diehards.”) Their cause is freedom. Freedom to govern themselves as they decide. Freedom above all from the iron fist that is the despot’s in Beijing.
In 2019 were times when over a million denizens of Hong Kong took to the streets to protest. While in the main the demonstrations were peaceful, as the year went on, they became increasingly vicious, clashes with the authorities growing both in their numbers and in their levels of violence. By early 2020, when Covid-19 became a real and present danger, they had already dwindled, the protesters as much disheartened as frightened.
But a poll of Hong Kongers conducted in March of this year showed that 58% of respondents remained still in favor of resistance, while only 28% came out against. Among other things, this signaled what seems to have become an indefinite schism between the majority of the people of Hong Kong and the government of Hong Kong, which is widely seen now as acting in the interests of Beijing, not in the interests of its own people. As I write, on May 27th, the tensions in Hong Kong are escalating still. Police brutality is one of the protesters’ biggest grievances. Nevertheless, not a single member of the police has at any point been charged for excessive use of force, from body-slamming to tear-gassing to pepper-spraying. In the last 24 hours alone some 360 people have been arrested for the approximate equivalent of disorderly conduct.
We cannot know, of course, how this will end. This though we do know. First, that Xi’s decision to brook no further dissent in Hong Kong likely is non-negotiable and non-retractable. Second, that from here on in those who violate his edicts likely are at significant personal risk. And third, that since in the last few hours Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced that the U. S. would no longer consider Hong Kong is autonomous from China, the implications for relations between the U. S. and Hong Kong, and between the U. S. and China, likely are considerable. Given these contexts, then, and these leaders, and these followers, while other outcomes are possible, they are not probable.
The tie between being a leader and being a role model is tight. The idea that leaders are, or at least they ought to be, role models, has a long history and steady trajectory.
Plutarch, born around 50 A.D., has often been called the first modern biographer. What was his purpose in penning his classic, Lives, his brief biographical sketches of some of the most famous and powerful figures of ancient Greece and Rome? It was to depict them as role models or, in some cases, as anti-role models.
By his own testimony, Plutarch’s primary purpose was to “arouse the spirit of emulation,” to paint pictures largely (though not entirely) of men who were heroes, exemplars of moral good who, he hoped, would inspire other men to follow. Of Coriolanus, who was young when his father died, Plutarch wrote, “His example shows us that the loss of a father, even though it may impose other disadvantages on a boy, does not prevent him from living a virtuous or distinguished life, and that it is only worthless men who seek to excuse the deterioration of their character by pleading neglect in their early years.”
Nor has the presumption of leaders as role models receded over the ages. Even now role models are part of the pedagogy. Leaders are taught to be exemplary figures who their followers would do well to emulate.
Go to any search engine, type in “leader as a role model,” and you will see what I mean. More than half a billion entries, nearly all in keeping with the idea that, ideally, leaders should be in some way so estimable – so admirable or attractive; so honorable or successful – that they are worthy of being mirrored. As an article in Psychology Today concluded, having role models “directly impacts not only how you perceive yourself but, just as importantly, how others perceive you.” For leaders to be a good role models, then, has an impact not only on them but on others, specifically their followers.
In their widely read book, The Leadership Challenge (originally published in 2007), James Kouzes and Barry Posner made the same point, though they used the phrase, “setting an example.” Leaders should, they wrote, “take every opportunity to show others by their own example that they’re deeply committed to the values and aspirations they espouse. No one will believe you are serious until they see you doing what you are asking of others. Leading by example is how leaders make visions and values tangible. It’s how they provide the evidence that they’re personally committed.”
This literature has come regularly to mind during Donald Trump’s time in the White House. In the old days, boys freely and frequently aspired to become just like the American president – if not president themselves. Now numberless American parents have come reluctantly if ineluctably to conclude that they would never want their sons, or for that matter their daughters, to grow up to be just like the sitting president. Trump a role model? For most Americans, not hardly.
I will not here delve into the president’s character or his behavior. There is, however, one decision he recently made that I cannot help but point to – it is that bluntly and blatantly anti-role model. It is his decision not to wear, so far never to wear, a mask – the pandemic notwithstanding.
- Notwithstanding that wearing a mask if not at least six feet distanced – especially in an enclosed space – is now recommended by virtually every medical expert.
- Notwithstanding that wearing a mask if not at least six feet distanced – especially in an enclosed space – is now recommended by virtually every inexpert, including most political, business, and military leaders.
- Notwithstanding that wearing a mask if not at least six feet distanced – especially in an enclosed space – is now recommended by the Center for Disease Control.
- Notwithstanding that wearing a mask is now mandated for all West Wing employees unless they are sitting directly at their desks – with two exceptions, the president and the vice president. .
- Notwithstanding that wearing a mask if not at least six feet distanced – especially in an enclosed space – has become a divisive issue. Democrats are significantly more likely than Republicans to report wearing a mask when they leave home. And there have been repeated reports of screaming and yelling, and even physical altercations, between those who wear masks and those who do not.
In recent weeks masks have become not just a way of protecting the self and the public against COVID 19, they have become symbols – symbols of the culture wars. Symbols of the culture wars stoked instead of snuffed by the American president.
So much for leaders as role models. Plutarch would turn in his grave.
The study of the American presidency is a mainstay of American political science – maybe the main mainstay. Nothing is as central to the discipline as the White House – the persona of the person who has been in it, how he has performed, and what exactly he has or has not accomplished. Notwithstanding the intent of the Founders – to decentralize the United States government – our preoccupation from the beginning of the Republic, including in the academy, has been with the man who more than any other single individual has dominated the national discourse.
Political scientists as well as historians have tended to divide the presidential office into different roles. In his 1956 classic, The American Presidency, the eminent scholar Clinton Rossiter proposed three: first, Chief of State; second, Chief Executive; third, Commander in Chief. Since then other roles have been proposed, such as Legislative Leader and Party Leader. But in the main the three to which Rossiter pointed have stuck – they are still considered the most central, and the most critical.
Which brings us to Donald J. Trump. Well into the fourth year of his first, perhaps his only presidential term, it has become clear how he has performed and where his passions lie, specifically as they pertain to being Chief of State, Chief Executive, and Commander in Chief.
The last of the three can be dismissed with dispatch. There is no evidence that President Trump is a warrior, lusting to play the part of leader of America’s armed forces. In fact, after early romances with several of the nation’s most prominent military men, the love is gone – as are they. Generals James Mattis, H. R. McMaster, and John Kelly did not last long in the Trump White House which, it turned out, was perfectly fine with the Commander in Chief. He never did want them for their military prowess, and he strained against their military manner.
What about Trump as Chief Executive? Is this the role most suited to his skill set, such as it is? Or, at least, is it the role most in line with what he likes to do, enjoys doing? Turns out the answers to these questions too are no. Rossiter says the Chief Executive is charged with running the government, quoting Alexander Hamilton writing in The Federalist, “The true test of a good government is its aptitude and tendency to produce a good administration.” Well, evidence is not only that Trump has no aptitude for running a government, but also that he has no interest. Not the slightest. Not the slightest interest in being an efficient manager or for that matter an effective leader.
We have known all along that before he became president, Trump had no political, military, or government experience or expertise whatsoever. We have also known all along that after he became president his interest in the specifics associated with being Chief Executive, and his level of curiosity about what it actually takes to run the government and to supervise the executive branch, have been low, very low.
If there was even a smidgeon of doubt about this in January 2020 there can be no doubt left in May 2020. Since the start of the pandemic Trump has sought at every turn to thrust the leadership and management of the pandemic into the hands of someone else – anyone else. The Vice President, members of his Cabinet, medical experts, chief executive officers of major American companies, and, most obviously, most strikingly, all 50 of the nation’s governors. President Trump has done the previously unthinkable. Rather than taking on the task himself, he has charged the 50 governors of the 50 states with running the show. With leading Americans out of the coronavirus crisis, and with taking care of business, literally, until the crisis has passed. Not for this Chief Executive the apparently tedious details associated with heading the executive branch.
Which brings us to the president as Chief of State. On this I quote Rossiter directly. The president “remains today, as he has always been, the ceremonial head of the government of the United States, and he must take part with real or apparent enthusiasm in a range of activities that would keep him running and posing from sunrise to bedtime …. Some of these activities are solemn or even priestly in nature; others … are flirtations with vulgarity.” It is this role – that of figurehead as opposed to working head – to which Trump has gravitated. It is this role to which the nation’s first television-star president is most naturally drawn, and it is this role that he prefers, to the exclusion of the others, to play.
Trump does not play the part of Chief of State with “apparent” enthusiasm. He plays it with “real” enthusiasm. He does not feign his pleasure at being president. His pleasure in being president, more precisely in playing the part of president, is genuine. This distinction – between being president and playing the part of president – is an important one. For Trump’s passion is not now, nor has it ever been, for exercising the actual tasks at hand. His passion is not, in other words, for power over policy. With a few exceptions – yes, such as The Wall – his investment in public policy is low, and his ideology is fluid as opposed to fixed. This Republican was, after all, a Democrat for most of his life. Instead, Trump’s passion is for performance. He does not actually want to be Chief Executive or Commander in Chief or for that matter Legislative Leader or Party Leader. What Trump wants instead, desperately wants instead, is to play the part of Chief of State, fancy trappings, and abject loyalties, included. It’s why he will do what he thinks it will take to remain Chief of State four more years.
Added note: My colleague, Todd Pittinsky and I, recently became interested in leaders with unbridled passions. To this end we wrote a book titled, Leaders Who Lust: Power, Money, Sex, Success, Legitimacy, Legacy. It will be published in September by Cambridge University Press.
In the old days, when I used to give talks live and in person, it was not uncommon during the Q and A for someone in the audience to ask me who I thought was the greatest leader in the world. I would often turn the question around, and ask them, members of the audience, who they thought the greatest living leader. For years, the answer I would generally get, after a bit of back and forth, was Nelson Mandela. However, since Mandela’s death has been no obvious candidate. People have had a hard time coming up with the name of a single individual they widely agreed was the greatest living leader of all.
In the last few years, when I was pushed to answer the question myself, I did come up with a candidate – Bill Gates. Through some of my own research I had come fully to appreciate the leading role played by him and his wife, Melinda Gates, in the world of philanthropy. And, of course, this had to be paired with Bill Gates’s genius in founding (along with Paul Allen), and then running Microsoft, one of the most impressive, successful American companies ever.
Now there is this – the pandemic. Now there is this most fraught, most daunting of global challenges and, again, there is Gates. Gates at the forefront. For as it happens, he not only foresaw the virus crisis (back in 2015), but he is as well-equipped as any lay person anywhere in the world to address it. Given his deep experience in global health, especially epidemiology, he is fully equipped to address it substantively. And, given his deep pockets, which are constantly being partly emptied only to be promptly replenished, he is fully equipped to address it financially.
The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation has an endowment of $40 billion. Recently it decided to devote all its enormous, various resources, including its extensive expertise, to taking on Covid-19. Similarly, it appears that Bill Gates himself has decided to step out from behind his usual scrim to go public, to put his own face on the fight against the disease. Last week he seemed to have made more public appearances than he usually does in a year. And he is writing constantly, prolifically, and invariably highly knowledgably, about where in the process of the pandemic we are now.
The coronavirus crisis seems to have got Gates’s competitive juices flowing. He is chomping at the bit to play his part in slaying this dragon – which means likely as not he will. Gates is great – a leader for the ages even now.
In mid-April, the Mayo Clinic issued a policy statement in response to the coronavirus crisis. The statement was clear. It read in part: “Beginning today (Monday April 13) Mayo Clinic is requiring all patients and visitors to wear a face covering or mask to help stop the spread of COVID-19.” Notice the policy states that “all” patients and visitors are required to cover their nose and mouth, not “some.”
Two days ago, though, when Vice President Mike Pence visited Mayo Clinic, he wore no face covering of any kind. Pictures reveal that everyone around him was wearing mask. And we know that in advance of his visit Pence was informed about Mayo’s mask policy. Still, he wore no face covering whatsoever when he came to visit, nor did his willful refusal to follow the house rule seem to intrude on his experience.
As soon as it became known that Pence had flagrantly flouted Mayo policy, he was slammed for what he did in the press and by the press. He was charged with acting “dangerously” and “disrespectfully,” and of setting a bad example. All of which is true – he did behave badly, and he did set a bad example for which he was roundly and soundly as well as properly pasted.
But… was the Vice President the only one who did anything wrong? Or was there someone else, at least one someone else, who could be charged with shirking, or maybe it was shrinking from, his or her duty?
Imagine that you are responsible for running one of the nation’s premier medical facilities during a public health crisis. In response to this crisis you set a policy intended to protect every single individual who crosses your threshold. The policy is assumed to be ironclad, no exceptions, for even a single exception would pose widespread risk.
Further imagine that one day an anonymous man comes to visit who is not wearing a mask. Would you tell, or have someone else tell, this man to put on a mask? Would you insist that before this man sets foot on the premises he must put on a mask because failure to do so would violate policy? If the answer to any of these questions is yes, why would you do any different if this man were Vice President of the United States? Is the Vice President above the law? Or did you – if you were responsible for running one of the nation’s premier medical facilities during a public health crisis – follow his lead rather than lead yourself?
This is the seventh in a series of posts that explore followers in a pandemic – this pandemic. During the coronavirus crisis leaders have been regularly, even relentlessly examined, explored, deciphered, and dissected. The American obsession with the American president, Donald Trump, has been especially virulent, as if he alone is solely responsible for everything bad that has happened, and for that matter everything good. In other words, as is typical, followers, in this case Trump’s followers, have been ignored. More precisely, they have been ignored not in individual instances – but as a group. They have been ignored as a group that was deeply involved in bringing us to this point – and now in our frantic effort to cure what ails us. Each of these posts is, then, intended as a corrective. A corrective to the misleading, mistaken idea that our fixation on Trump is warranted – as if he were not just the leading actor but the only actor. In brief, if there is blame, blame must be shared.
VII – The People
For all the different clusters that constitute the president’s followers, the followers that matter most even in these crazy times, are we the American people. For as I write it still holds that come November we the American electorate will get to decide if President Donald Trump should serve another four years as president of the United States or if, instead, he should be obliged next January to cede the Oval Office to someone else.
“We the People” has a great ring to it. “We the people” sounds so idealistic it’s almost romantic, as if we the American people were one, unified in what we believed, unified in who we trusted, unified in how we thought we should move from the present to the future. This idealization of the American body politic is even further exaggerated during a time of national crisis by what is called the “rally ‘round the flag effect.” The effect is felt when times are tough, when on account of war or another national trauma the American people come together. An example was how we were in the aftermath of 9/11, when Americans of every stripe joined, when the American flag was on proud display at home and in the workplace, on cars, on clothes, and on the tops of state capitols. In the three weeks immediately following the attacks on the Pentagon and World Trade Center, the nation’s oldest flag manufacturer went into overdrive, more than tripling its previous production. The nation was one.
That was then. Now though things are different. Times have changed. Prior to the pandemic Americans were famously divided: politically divided; economically divided; culturally divided; divided by race and class and gender and sexual orientation; divided by geography and demography; red states and blue states; Republicans and Democrats; conservatives and progressives; a miserably fractious Congress all too accurately reflecting a woefully fractious America.
Which raises this question. Given that times have changed yet again – the post-pandemic context is dramatically different from the pre-pandemic context – will we change in response? Will we the American people feel much differently, think much differently, act much differently next July than we did last January? Importantly, will we become a nation a little less divided, a little more unified? And, specifically, will we, we the American electorate, we followers, prefer in increasingly large numbers to have a leader in the White House who is other than Donald Trump?
As the first of this series of posts pointed out, Trump has been famously able to hold on to his base. Whether this base will remain in place until Election Day is, however, not certain, especially in light not only of the health crisis but, additionally, of the financial crisis. There are, however two measures that provide some indicators. The first of these is the high level of American fear. Trump’s numberless reassurances going back months that everything will soon be fine is having only limited effect. To be sure, some states and some regions of the country are, as the president puts it, “opening up.” But as of this writing the American people are failing to respond as he would wish. A bipartisan majority of Americans say they want to continue to protect themselves during the pandemic by sheltering in place rather than going out to eat or to shop. Moreover, it seems clear that we the people prefer to follow the lead of the experts – as opposed to that of the president. According to a recent Reuters poll, 72% of adults say that people should stay at home “until the doctors and public health officials say it is safe” to go out.
To be sure, this number obscures some of the familiar divides. Once again there was a considerable partisan difference: 88% of Democrats agreed with the majority about waiting to go out until the experts say it is safe, whereas only 55% of Republicans did the same. Nevertheless, on this issue voters who identify as Republicans are drifting toward voters who identify as Democrats: the numbers of Republicans who agreed with Democrats about staying at home at least for now nearly doubled in the two-week period between late March and mid-April.
Which returns us to what so far has been Trump’s unshakable base. Suffice for now to point out there is cognitive dissonance among Republicans: on the one hand most say they want to shelter in place no matter what Trump says; on the other hand fully 84% of Republicans say they approve the way the president is handling the virus crisis. (Notably only a puny 15 % of Democrats say the same.)
It is widely agreed that the new coronavirus is a moving target. We cannot now know how much damage it will ultimately inflict on the economy. More to the point, we cannot now know how much damage it will ultimately inflict on the nation’s health. Nor can we know when it will finally be vanquished by a vaccine, or effectively neutered by a remedy that will preclude our getting seriously sick and then still sicker.
What we can know though is this. That however dominant a figure during this pandemic is, inevitably, the American president, neither he nor any other leader can control the action. Moreover, as indicated at the start of each of these posts, Donald Trump has never, not for a moment, been the only player in this drama. As time passes, the critical role of his followers, including those in his close proximity such as Mike Pence and, yes, Anthony Fauci, will emerge more clearly. For leadership is never a person. Leadership is a system with three parts – leaders, followers, and contexts – each of which is of equal importance.