Trumpian Leadership

The formula: promote an image until the jig is up.

“#USAxAUS” by White House is in the Public Domain

As James Joyner noted in a post this morning, revelations in Bob Woodward’s new book, and specifically in recorded interviews with Trump show that the president purposefully downplayed the threat of the coronavirus pandemic from the very beginning. This provides yet more proof of his unfitness for his current position and what happens when a person whose main skill set is self-promotion is put in a position of power.

Consider these quotes from yesterday’s press event.

Q    Mr. President, can you address the concerns from the Woodward book in regards to whether — did you mislead the public by saying that you downplayed the coronavirus and that you repeatedly did that in order to reduce panic?  Did you mislead the public?

THE PRESIDENT:  Well, I think if you said “in order to reduce panic,” perhaps that’s so.  The fact is, I’m a cheerleader for this country, I love our country, and I don’t want people to be frightened.  I don’t want to create panic, as you say.  And certainly, I’m not going to drive this country or the world into a frenzy.

We want to show confidence.  We want to show strength.  We want to show strength as a nation.  And that’s what I’ve done.  And we’ve done very well.  We’ve done well from any standard.  You look at our numbers, compared to other countries, other parts of the world.  It’s been an amazing job that we’ve done.

Later he said:

We have to show leadership. And leadership is all about confidence. And confidence is confidence in our country.

There is more here than I fully have to fully unpack, but let me focus on two aspects.

First, “I don’t want to create a panic,” is a remarkable and untrue thing for this president, who started his campaign for his office by talking about murders and rapists coming over the border. This is the individual who has constantly tried to scare us with visions of immigrant caravans and the ever-present specter of MS-13. This is the president who is currently telling us that his political opponent wants to take the suburbs away and who is asserting that cities will burn if Biden is elected president.

This is the president who described an “American carnage” in his inauguration that he had told us he alone could fix.

So, the notion that he likes to be calm and not cause panic is, well, absurd and the record demonstrates this quite plainly.

Second, these statements, provide further and deep evidence of what we already knew: Trump is a conman and charlatan, not a leader. He knows how to license his name for buildings and products and he was quite good at pretending to be a big boss and a mogul on television, but when it comes to actually having to lead in a crisis, he lied and tried to do what he has always done: promote an image until the jig is up.

To what should be no surprise to anyone (but plenty of folks will remain in denial), this is Trump Steaks, Trump Wine, Trump, Vodka, and Trump University on a grand scale. This is going bankrupt running a casino.

And I hate to tell him (well, I don’t, actually), but leadership is not just “show[ing] confidence [and] show[ing] strength.” Leadership requires doing. It requires hard work and hard choices. It includes making hard choices and trusting the right people. It isn’t just cheerleading and hoping for the best.

And when he was out in the public telling us how it was all going to go away, or when he asserting we had the whole thing under control (as he did repeatedly) he was trying to keep himself from panicking, because clearly all he knows how to do is spin yarns about himself and his prowess.

It is his brand, and it is laid bare (yet again) at this moment.

And, as has been true his whole life, others bare the brunt of his failures and inadequacies.

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FILED UNDER: COVID-19, Donald Trump, US Politics
Steven L. Taylor
About Steven L. Taylor
Steven L. Taylor is a Professor of Political Science and a College of Arts and Sciences Dean. His main areas of expertise include parties, elections, and the institutional design of democracies. His most recent book is the co-authored A Different Democracy: American Government in a 31-Country Perspective. He earned his Ph.D. from the University of Texas and his BA from the University of California, Irvine. He has been blogging since 2003 (originally at the now defunct Poliblog). Follow Steven on Twitter

Comments

  1. MarkedMan says:

    Leadership requires doing.

    This. Trump literally does not see the job of President as that of a Chief Executive (literally, the person in charge of executing the plans and actions developed jointly with Congress).

    But I take issue with the title of your post. While accurate, it is incomplete. This is Modern Republican leadership, with Trump just the leading example. Republicans want the positions but they don’t want the responsibility. From Mitch McConnell to the lowliest aide they are annoyed when people expect them to do something.

    Ask yourself: what has the Republicans in Congress, House or Senate, done to mitigate the effects of the virus? And I don’t count the relief packages. Mitch and his crew were not even subtle – the things that helped average Americans were the Democrat’s, and to get them they needed to concede on Republican demands to give un-monitored money to the wealthy.

    11
  2. Moosebreath says:

    @MarkedMan:

    “This is Modern Republican leadership, with Trump just the leading example. Republicans want the positions but they don’t want the responsibility. From Mitch McConnell to the lowliest aide they are annoyed when people expect them to do something.”

    This. It is a corollary of Murc’s Law (“Only Democrats have agency”).

    10
  3. Daryl and his brother Darryl says:

    “…leadership is not just “show[ing] confidence [and] show[ing] strength.” Leadership requires doing. It requires hard work and hard choices. It includes making hard choices and trusting the right people. It isn’t just cheerleading and hoping for the best.”

    Some version of this should be in a Biden ad ASAP.

    4
  4. Michael Reynolds says:

    The thing to understand about Trump is that he doesn’t know he did anything wrong. He’s not capable of understanding that, because he’s not capable of imagining that anyone but himself matters. If it’s good for him, it’s good, full stop. He’s a psychopath.

    That’s not name-calling, he is a genuine psychopath. He is not, never has been, never will be, capable of normal human reactions. It’s not that he doesn’t care, it’s that he can’t, and can’t even imagine a world where he would. In Trump’s mind there is nothing wrong with lies that cause the death of tens of thousands of Americans, those people don’t matter, they have no value, their lives are irrelevant. So what, people died?

    Been saying exactly this for four years. First people pooh-poohed it as inflammatory rhetoric. Then they quibbled over the proper terminology. Then they nodded along. But 90+% of people can never really understand because normal, decent people cannot help but care. Just as Trump can’t imagine anything beyond the confines of his own ego, so normal people can’t get their heads around the depravity of a psychopath.

    To really get Trump you have to stop thinking of him as a human being – that frame makes it hard to see what he is. Don’t think human, think shark. Tiny brain, murderous instincts. Not human, just an animal.

    15
  5. Kathy says:

    Republicans can’t respond to a crisis that can’t be solved by blaming someone and bombing the sh!t out of them.

    6
  6. Sleeping Dog says:

    When your governing philosophy is obstruction, by definition, you can’t show leadership.

    5
  7. OzarkHillbilly says:

    @Kathy: You forgot tax cuts.

    4
  8. CSK says:

    What did anyone expect from an individual whose idea of a great leader is Duterte, Erdogan, Kim, or Putin?

    6
  9. Joe says:

    Trump is a conman

    And let’s all remember that “conman” in this case is short for “confidence man.” He is literally ripping people off by building their confidence.

    3
  10. gVOR08 says:

    what happens when a person whose main skill set is self-promotion is put in a position of power.

    Kind of an underlying flaw in democracy, that.

    5
  11. Kathy says:

    Leadership also means setting a good example early and consistently.

    Few things guarantee discontent and non-compliance than the people who set a policy they routinely violate telling you “Do as I say, not as I do!”

    Contrast Cuomo’s briefings with both officials and reporters maintaining distancing, to Trump crowding people together because he thinks it looks better. he can then ask people to social distance until he turns blue, they won’t take him seriously.

    5
  12. gVOR08 says:

    I said through the primaries that Trump was the perfect candidate for people who didn’t know what the president does, as he didn’t know either. Three years in he still saw it as being Prom Queen, a nice honor, some perks, and no responsibilities.

    6
  13. CSK says:

    @gVOR08:
    I do believe I shall start referring to Trump as The Prom Queen. Thanks.

    6
  14. @Joe:

    And let’s all remember that “conman” in this case is short for “confidence man.” He is literally ripping people off by building their confidence.

    Indeed. The thought occurred to me when I wrote that subhead but didn’t have time to elaborate on it.

    1
  15. @gVOR08:

    Kind of an underlying flaw in democracy, that.

    Indeed–and a flaw enhanced by presidentialism, which personalizes the electoral choice (as opposed to parliamentary systems which elevate party over individuals–although certainly, individuals play a part).

    4
  16. Just nutha ignint cracker says:

    I just curious, but does anybody else in the thread have links to edit/request deletion for both of gVOR08’s posts showing at the bottoms of the posts?

    ETA: Never mind. They left after I posted my question.

  17. Scott F. says:

    @MarkedMan:

    Republicans want the positions but they don’t want the responsibility. From Mitch McConnell to the lowliest aide they are annoyed when people expect them to do something.

    Well, the something they do is claw back regulations and taxes for the sake of their donors and themselves. Their go-to responsibilities don’t have much place when faced with national and international scale problems like social unrest, pandemic and climate change, but there is a market for what they do.

    2
  18. Kylopod says:

    @Michael Reynolds:

    The thing to understand about Trump is that he doesn’t know he did anything wrong. He’s not capable of understanding that, because he’s not capable of imagining that anyone but himself matters. If it’s good for him, it’s good, full stop. He’s a psychopath.

    I don’t disagree with any of this, but I think it’s important to realize that most psychopaths aren’t like this. Most psychopaths can understand right and wrong in the conventional moral sense; they just don’t value it. When a typical psychopath steals from you, he knows he’s violating a moral precept as society sees it. He just doesn’t care.

    What stands out about Trump is that I don’t think he even understands conventional morality. He does have a concept of right and wrong, good and bad, and he defines it as what’s good for Donald Trump–or perhaps I should say what feels good for Donald Trump (since he does show a marked capacity for working against his own interests). He isn’t self-consciously rejecting conventional morality, he’s completely oblivious to it. He’s the TV Tropes category of “Evil Cannot Comprehend Good.”

    7
  19. Hal_10000 says:

    He knows how to license his name for buildings and products and he was quite good at pretending to be a big boss and a mogul on television, but when it comes to actually having to lead in a crisis, he lied and tried to do what he has always done: promote an image until the jig is up.

    I think Andrew Sullivan put it best: in COVID, Trump finally ran into a problem he couldn’t BS his way out of.

    1
  20. Michael Reynolds says:

    @Kylopod:
    Yeah, I think that’s true. Stupidity sets Trump apart from your better class of psychopath.

    2
  21. CSK says:

    @Hal_10000:
    But how successfully has Trump b.s.ed his way out of anything in the past 3+ years? Set aside Cult45; they’ll swallow anything he says. Have the rest of us bought his idiotic evasions and outright lies? No.

    If you mean that he’s managed to stay in office without being booted, yes, I agree that he’s shown a remarkable talent for eluding the consequences of his own actions. But even there he’s had help.

    6
  22. ptfe says:

    @Michael Reynolds: “Stupidity sets Trump apart from your better class of psychopath.”

    And we’re fortunate for it.

    A competent psychopath backed by such a majority partisan bloc would be difficult – if not impossible – to eradicate. Trump fortunately shows his stupidity and incompetence regularly, so the 10% of Americans who were on the fence in ’16 thinking maybe Trump would be “no worse than any other politician” haven’t been able to ignore the fact that he’s a terrible human being who’s in way over his head. Trump appeals to Trumpists and nobody else.

    I try to imagine a Pence presidency, and it’s hard to say which is worse. Pence wouldn’t have surrounded himself with fawning sycophants in every capacity, but he would have quietly transformed the shape of the federal government in mostly the same ways. We would still have FedSoc judges at every post, awful carryovers from previous Republican administrations making 1955-based decisions about foreign policy, and environmental policy disasters, but we wouldn’t have daily rage-tweet sessions that remind us this guy is less competent than a 3rd grader.

    2
  23. Scott F. says:

    @CSK:

    If you mean that he’s managed to stay in office without being booted, yes, I agree that he’s shown a remarkable talent for eluding the consequences of his own actions. But even there he’s had help.

    That “help” has been everything. Without expansive GOP complicity, Trump doesn’t stay in office and he’d be facing criminal charges by now.

    3
  24. Gustopher says:

    “Fake it ’til you make it” is generally good advice for an individual.

    Typically we try to get Presidents who have enough relevant experience that they have passed through the “fake it” portion, and who actually want to get through that portion.

    I’m not sure Trump can understand the difference between faking it and making it. He fancies himself as a salesman.

  25. Michael Reynolds says:

    @ptfe:

    A competent psychopath backed by such a majority partisan bloc would be difficult – if not impossible – to eradicate.

    No question. This is why people talking about letting Trump walk on his crimes are dead wrong. This is a disease we need to stamp out before it evolves a brain.

    3
  26. Lounsbury says:

    @Michael Reynolds: That is a complete error.

    Prosecuting Trump does nothing really to solve the problem, it is magical thinking. The problem you have is weak and easily over-ridden control mechanisms if you have a corrupt or a Manchurian candidate President. Prosecuting Trump is merely a feel good reaction.

    Rather you need some fundamental reforms that can establish mechanisms that are non-partisan that can prosecute Presidential wrong-doing. Of the special prosecutor nature but with guard rails against the idiotic abuses of Mr Starr – and reso

    In addition the obvious abuses of discretion – such as the subversion of the parliamentary oversight and confirmation process.

    Without these prosecution of Trump and his cohort is worse than useless, it is merely degrading your system further and setting precedent for future abuse without having resolved any of the institutional weaknesses Trump as exposed (but poorly exploited thanks to his laziness and incompetence).

    As to the subject of prosecution at the Federal level, that is something that opens all kinds of future problems – particularly if you mistakenly think in your superficial way you have solved a problem by doing so. Should he and his collaborators be prosecuted, it should need to be in a careful manner, with significant anti-Trump Republican support. (now on the State level as in New York that’s quite another matter)

    But solving the institutional issues is far more important

    2
  27. Gustopher says:

    @Lounsbury:

    Prosecuting Trump does nothing really to solve the problem, it is magical thinking. The problem you have is weak and easily over-ridden control mechanisms if you have a corrupt or a Manchurian candidate President. Prosecuting Trump is merely a feel good reaction.

    What good are reforms without prosecutions?

    We had a lot of post-Watergate reforms, but let the actors off the hook. Many of the actors went on to fill Republican administrations for decades, and Others are Republican Party hangers-on to this day.

    Prosecution removes them from consideration, and has a deterrent effect.

    If a Truth and Reconciliation Commission would work, with prosecutions going on the drive people to the TARC, I would support that. We don’t know that it wouldn’t work, so it might be worth trying.

    What doesn’t work is reform that is rendered toothless.

    2
  28. Hal_10000 says:

    @CSK:

    I think he has BS’d his way through the last three years quite effectively given that (a) he was not impeached; (b) the GOP is still standing by him; and (c) up until the COVID crisis and the racial unrest, he was still the odd-on favorite for re-election and might still get re-elected.

    Trump is a con man. Con man succeed because enough people want to be conned. He’s still good at the con. The problem is that he ran into a virus, which doesn’t care.

    1
  29. dazedandconfused says:

    @ptfe:

    What has kept Trump from becoming a Hitler or a Mussolini…or even a Woodrow Wilson…is his utter lack of care about anything apart from money.

    In one way I’ve been more worried about a President Pence than a President Trump for a long time now. The difference is Pence’s immoderate religious devotion makes him a lot like GW Bush: vulnerable to developing a messianic complex. This was Bush’s down-fall in Iraq. That “Gog and Magog” crap. The Neo cons played that born-again dry-drunk like a fiddle.

    Trump is utterly self-absorbed and judges his own value by how rich he is perceived to be. This renders him somewhat immune to a messianic complex. He looks at things like Syria and Iran and asks “What’s in it for me?” Answer: “Nothing!”.
    That ledger where a heart should be cares nothing about “saving” or transforming the world. This has frustrated the hell out of the Neo-cons. Good, as far as it goes.

    Pence? I judge him even of softer clay than George was. Child’s play for the Neo cons. A strong possibility exists that within a month of a Pence administration it would be “Onward Christian Soldiers” and the bombing of Iran would commence.

    2
  30. Michael Reynolds says:

    @Lounsbury:
    I did not make myself clear: I don’t want to go after Trump for being a shitty president, I want to go after him for money laundering, financial fraud and tax fraud. Those are apolitical. He’ll likely get Pence to pardon him, or attempt to pardon himself, but New York can still go after him under state law. And he’ll be eyeballs deep in civil suits ranging from fraud to rape.

    As for reform, you’re preaching to the choir. We need to turn a whole bunch of behaviors that fell under the category of, ‘things which no decent person would do,’ and turn them into black letter law. Trump’s done us one service: he’s showed just how vulnerable we are to a psychopath and how little we can rely on standard practice or even basic morality. And I can’t think of anything as important, long term.

    But I do want the NY AG and any other states that can make a case, to get this POS into a nice orange jumpsuit to match his skin. He deserves prison for many things, but I’ll be content with money laundering etc…, and years of court cases exposing him as the fraud he’s always been. I want him arrested, charged, indicted, tried and convicted. And then I want him bankrupted, him and his whole poisonous brood.

    You know how in every horror movie ever the victims manage to knock the killer down or out and, then surprise, up he pops in the next scene with a chainsaw? When a bad guy’s down you kill him right then, no futzing around. Of course that would make for a shorter horror film.

    2
  31. Kathy says:

    @Lounsbury:

    Prosecuting Trump is merely a feel good reaction.

    In the second place, are we not entitled to feel good?

    But in the first place, what @Gustopher said: “What good are reforms without prosecutions?”

    2
  32. Michael Reynolds says:

    @dazedandconfused:

    Pence? I judge him even of softer clay than George was. Child’s play for the Neo cons. A strong possibility exists that within a month of a Pence administration it would be “Onward Christian Soldiers” and the bombing of Iran would commence.

    We can’t do much to Iran without the KSA and its mini-mes giving us use of their bases at which point we’d effectively be MBS’s mercenaries. But I suppose we could appreciate the irony of a born-again Christian jumping into a sectarian war between Muslims.

  33. Lounsbury says:

    @Kathy: There’s no relationship at all between reforms and prosecutions so that is quite the stupid question. As the history of governance in developing countries has shown again and again.

  34. Lounsbury says:

    @Michael Reynolds:

    I want to go after him for money laundering, financial fraud and tax fraud. Those are apolitical. He’ll likely get Pence to pardon him, or attempt to pardon himself, but New York can still go after him under state law. And he’ll be eyeballs deep in civil suits ranging from fraud to rape.

    Well as I said, the NY State prosecutions are quite another matter than federal. Allez-y.

    The non political should prove rich territory.

    For the Federal level, the institutional reforms are the critical or this will happen again, but it will be exploited better.

  35. @Michael Reynolds:

    I want to go after him for money laundering, financial fraud and tax fraud.

    I do have some hope that those areas will be adderessed, yes.

    1
  36. Just nutha ignint cracker says:

    @Michael Reynolds:

    the category of, ‘things which no decent person would do,’

    The problem is not with the category; it’s that we’ve stopped electing decent people. I doubt that decent people even run for office anymore.