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.