I’ve got a new book coming out this week. It’s titled, The Enablers: How Team Trump Flunked the Pandemic and Failed America. It’s another refrain in a song I’ve been singing for years: Followers Matter.
Our reluctance to recognize the importance of followers is especially wrongheaded in the case of bad leadership. Fact is bad followers – especially the worst of the lot – make bad leaders possible. Bad followers are enablers who allow or even encourage their leaders to engage in, and then to persist in behaviors that are destructive.
To the rule that bad leaders have bad followers Cuomo was no exception. He was enabled in his tyrannical ways, and apparent pattern of sexual harassment by a range of players without whom he could never have been so bad for so long. Cuomo’s enablers were based mostly in Albany, so their names remained obscure. But this made them no less significant, no less responsible for what went wrong.
They included Alphonso David, the governor’s former counsel; Richard Azzopardi, the governor’s senior advisor; his own brother and CNN anchor (still!), Chris Cuomo; and the now somewhat notorious Melissa DeRosa, Cuomo’s top aide. DeRosa was described by one former underling as “the worst person I have ever worked for,” and by others as a “ruthless, heartless, evil human being.” More to the point, in the report issued by New York State Attorney General Letitia James, formally titled “Report of Investigation into Allegations of Sexual Harassment by Governor Andrew M Cuomo,” DeRosa was named no fewer than 187 times – just as often as the Governor. She was described as a fierce and tireless force in the attempts to protect her boss at all costs, meaning if he was guilty of anything, she was guilty of covering it up. (Like her former boss, DeRosa recently resigned.)
The state government and the city of Albany have their own culture, one largely unfamiliar to those at a remove. Unlike Washington, Albany is not a fishbowl. Instead, it’s a relatively insular city where secrets are kept. Cuomo (who will be out of office in a week) has been governor of New York since 2011, and in the public eye long before that. But especially in recent years, as his power consolidated, he was protected from scrutiny both by individuals and institutions. By enablers such as those already singled out, and by others who comprised the Executive Chamber, the governor’s inner sanctum.
James’s report pulled no punches. It identified the culture of the Executive Chamber for being impervious to outside influence, and for condoning a work environment that was “toxic” and “abusive.” Nor was its pernicious influence confined only to those who worked within. Those who worked outside the Executive Chamber were intimidated by it, concerned that if they strayed from the party line the Chamber’s habit of “intimidation and retribution” would be directed at them. James’s report ends by clearly stating that “the Governor sexually harassed a number of State employees….” But it goes on to add that Cuomo’s underlings were also culpable. The “Executive Chamber’s response to allegations of sexual harassment violated its internal policies and [its] response to one complainant’s allegations constituted unlawful retaliation.”
It is a depressing but by now familiar syndrome. We saw it in the case of President Donald Trump. Fact is he was enabled every minute of his every day in the White House. His enablers included members of his inner circle such as Ivanka Trump and the once indispensable Jared Kushner; members of his White House staff such as the slavishly loyal Stephen Miller and Kellyanne Conway; members of his Cabinet such as the scrupulously steadfast Mike Pompeo and Alex Azar; members of the media such as puppets Sean Hannity and Laura Ingraham; members of his party such as indefatigable stalwarts Senator Lindsay Graham and Governor Ron DeSantis; and even members of the medical establishment such as the subservient director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Dr. Robert Redfield, and the White House Coronavirus Advisor, Dr. Deborah Birx.
Letitia James did not make the usual mistake. She and her colleagues recognized that what happened in Albany was was not just about one bad leader but, equally, about his bad followers. About enablers who allowed or even encouraged New York’s governor to engage in, and to continue to engage in behaviors that were destructive.