Leadership and Followership in Trump’s White House

In ordinary times we want and expect the president to lead. And we want and expect others – at least most others most of the time – to follow. But, these are not ordinary times.  These times are so extraordinary that many Americans want nothing so much as for the president not to lead, but to follow.

President Donald Trump has regularly been compared to a child who needs to be managed, controlled, harnessed, reined in. Who needs above all to have adult supervision. Whether Trump is akin to a “malevolent toddler” – a term invoked by some of his staff – is open to debate. Still, few would quarrel with the claim that the nation’s chief executive does not regularly or reliably act like a grown-up. As James Mann points out, he “lies, taunts, insults, bullies, rages, seeks vengeance, exalts violence, boasts, refuses to accept criticism” – all in ways that most parents seek to prevent in their children.*

In consequence of the president’s emotional immaturity and, or, temperamental instability, many Americans have consoled themselves with the thought that there are, after all, adults in the room.  Adults who can and should do what good parents do: manage, control, harness, and rein in their children, especially if their children are errant. To put it in my parlance, Mom and Dad are expected to be leaders and toddlers to be followers.

The adults in this case are presumed James Mattis, Secretary of Defense; Rex Tillerson, Secretary of State; H. R. McMaster, National Security Advisor; and John Kelly, White House Chief of Staff. Which raises the question of what happens when these four men fail to be able to lead their man-child. When they fail to be able to execute the role reversal on which most of the nation has come to depend. When they fail to be able, that is, to exercise leadership. And when they fail equally to be able to get Trump to follow, to conform to the parameters of the presidential office.

For those of us with an interest in taming and tempering our volatile president, it’s been a bad week.

  • Mattis publicly stated his view that the US should continue to adhere to its nuclear deal with Iran. No dice. The president made clear he would support an alternate strategy, one that will deviate  at least somewhat from the agreement reached by his predecessor.  So much for Mattis’s sway.
  • Tillerson, though given the chance, chose not to deny that he had called the president a bleeping “moron.” Most superiors are not fond of being called bleeping “morons” by their subordinates. So, we might reasonably presume that Tillerson is not long for his post. No big deal though, as the president was undercutting his Secretary of State well before the moron mess. Remember Trump declaring that Tillerson was “wasting his time” trying to negotiate with the North Koreans?
  • McMaster has survived internecine battles with, among others, hand-to-hand combatant Steve Bannon (since gone from the White House). Still, McMaster remains a favorite target of right-wingers, obliged to keep his head down while the president hurls high-risk insults at Little Rocket Man.
  • Kelly tries his damnedest to keep his charge in line. But, it’s hard. Come to think of it, it’s impossible. This is not to question Kelly’s competence, or to suggest that this still relatively new chief of staff has made no difference at all. It’s become clear though that Kelly has been unable to prevent the president from saying stupid stuff, from behaving idiotically at inopportune moments, or even from inciting anger and divisiveness when what’s called for is comity and community.

It pains me to write this, but whatever our hopes for the adults in the room, they have been, not wholly, but largely, dashed. For now, the emotionally immature and temperamentally unstable American president continues mostly to lead, while the grown-ups continue mostly to follow.



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