Followers of the Year – the Trump Edition

The word “follower” has always been problematic. Though it is the obvious antonym of “leader,” there are at least two reasons for the disdain in which the word, “follower,” continues to be held. First, followers are usually associated with weakness and passivity. “Leaders” suggest strength and success; “followers” the opposite. If not failure exactly, then certainly not achievement or accomplishment. Second, followers do not always follow. Sometimes they refuse to go along with what their leaders want and intend.

I have tried to get around both these problems by defining followers simply by rank. Followers are subordinates who have less power, authority, and influence than do their superiors and who therefore usually, but not invariably, fall into line. *

The list below is in keeping with this definition. The list is not composed of followers as they are usually conceived. But each of these people had far less power, authority, and influence than did their leader, in this case the president of the United States, Donald J. Trump.

Given that millions of Americans did and still do support Trump – on November 3rd he received more votes than any other presidential candidate in history except Joe Biden – and given that the Republican political elite followed the president effectively in lockstep, it has been inordinately difficult, especially obviously for Republicans, to stand up to his powerful persona. To resist saying and doing exacty what Trump wanted and intended. But, some people, not many people, hardly any people, but some people did. This then is a select list of followers, each a Republican, who had less power, influence, and authority than the chief executive, but who nevertheless had the guts to speak truth to power – even at personal, professional, and political risk.

  • Rick Bright – Bright is a physician and a whistleblower. It was Bright more than any other single scientist in the Trump administration who dared to defy not only his immediate superiors but the entire Trump administration. In a May 2020 formal whistleblower complaint Bright alleged that he was not only ignored but demoted for trying to call attention to the danger posed by the new coronavirus which, even by then, had morphed into a public health crisis. In a theatrical twist, Dr. Bright has since been named by President-elect Joe Biden to be a member of his coronavirus advisory board.
  • Brad Raffensberger – He is Georgia’s Republican secretary of state – the one who had the temerity publicly to insist that his state’s vote for Joe Biden was legal and binding because it was accurate and complete. For his troubles he was asked by his fellow Georgians, and his fellow Republicans, Senators Kelly Loeffler and David Perdue, to resign. And, for his troubles, he was accused by the administration of committing fraud, and threatened with death by some in his state who had been incited and inflamed by Trump’s baseless allegations.
  • Mitt Romney – He has all the blessings in the world, such as piles of money and a large, loving family. Moreover, his seat as senator from the state of Utah is secure. Still, Romney was the only Republican senator, the only one, who had the independence not to acquit President Donald Trump of both charges for which he was impeached. Romney said he broke with his party to vote to convict on the charge of abuse of power because he believed that Trump was guilty and that he should, therefore, be “removed from office.” Romney’s vote made him a unique figure in American history. Never previously in American history has a senator voted to remove from office a president from his own party.
  • Gabriel Sterling – Sterling is on the list not just for what he said but for how he said it. His oratory was brilliant, passionate, memorable. “This has all gone too far,” he said, his voice quaking with passion and emotion. “It has to stop.” Sterling is another Republican, and another election official from the state of Georgia. His anger and upset were at the violence that Trump had encouraged, if not explicitly then implicitly. All in the service of the president’s ego, an ego so fragile it cannot cope with humiliation or diminishment of any kind. “Mr. President,” said, Sterling, “Stop inspiring people to commit potential acts of violence. Someone is going to get hurt, someone is going to get shot, someone is going to get killed. And it’s not right.”
  • Aaron Van Langevelde – His is not a name etched in your memory? Really? Well, maybe it should be – for it is a name we should note. It belongs on this honor role of people with far less power, authority, and influence than the American president who nevertheless were brave and bold enough to take on him and his Republican toadies and lackies. Van Langveld works for Republicans in the Michigan statehouse. He is a young lawyer who is active on behalf of his party, but who defied his party by voting to certify the results of the presidential election in Michigan, in which Trump lost to Biden by more than 154,000 votes. This should not be regarded an act of exceptional political courage. But in this political climate it is. For example, the other Republican on the four-person board abstained on the final vote – demonstrating the sort of cowardice the president has come not only to demand but expect.

Sad. This list is sad – a sad reflection on the state of the nation.

But … today is December 12th. 2021 beckons!

*The definition is in my book, Followership: How Followers are Creating Change and Changing Leaders (Harvard Business School Press, 2008).

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