No president in my lifetime has made me think as much about leadership as Donald Trump has. That’s because no president in my lifetime has embodied the ideal of leadership as completely as he embodies its antonym.
A leader articulates a clear vision and set of principles, which become a well-lighted path that well-intentioned people can tread. Trump bellows, babbles and contradicts himself, achieving an incoherence that no level-headed person can follow.
His expectorations this week about the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program are a baffling case in point. He blamed and shamed Democrats for the absence of any deal to preserve DACA while renouncing the program as a misbegotten magnet for swarms of unauthorized immigrants.
Hello? If DACA is a travesty, its assassins are heroes. But then, little about Trump’s DACA gyrations makes sense or respects facts. Democrats have indeed tried, imperfectly, for progress on DACA. Trump and other Republicans have thwarted them.
What’s more, the immigrant swarms that Trump evokes – and that he’s now apparently prepared to deploy the military to stop – don’t really exist, not in comparison with periods past. If they did, DACA wouldn’t be the reason. It protects newcomers who arrived as children before 2007. Trump is being intentionally disingenuous or unintentionally daft.
Is his America a country with a heart or only a spleen? Depends on the hour and audience. Let us not forget how, a short while back, he went from calling for an immigration “bill of love” when the television cameras were rolling to ranting about “shithole countries” when they weren’t. This was the opposite of leadership. It was the quintessence of Trump.
A leader takes some share of responsibility. Trump can’t cycle through scapegoats fast enough. The country is going to hell because of Amazon, the “Justice” department (his quote marks, not mine), the “fake news” media in general, CNN and NBC in particular, Mitch McConnell and Mexico. All of these have been directly or indirectly assailed over the past few days by a president who swerves from epic self-pity to operatic self-aggrandizement, sometimes within one tweet. A leader steers clear of both.
A leader attracts top talent. Trump repels even rank mediocrity. A leader models the behavior that he or she should want from his or her lieutenants. Trump is “legitimately excellent at cultivating an inner circle unburdened by legal or moral scruples,” writes Jonathan Chait in the latest issue of New York magazine.
The cover imagines the president with a snout instead of a nose. How apt. He presides over an administration of piggies gorging at the federal trough. Michael Flynn’s consulting deals. Tom Price’s private flights. Steve Mnuchin’s romantic eclipse viewing. David Shulkin’s grand European adventure. Ben Carson’s dining set. Scott Pruitt’s bargain condo.
“What’s truly shocking is how much petty graft has sprung up,” Chait notes, but not all of it is petty and none of it is shocking. The tone is set at the top, by a boss who maintains serious conflicts of interest, glories in nepotism and treats the presidency as a gilded marketing opportunity. Trump’s example is a green light for corruption.
A leader knows whose counsel to seek and whose to be wary of. Trump knows only the siren’s song of sycophants saying what he wants to hear. He’s not interested in a diversity of input and information. One obsequious, affirming channel will do.
As the Daily Beast just reported, he has let Fox Business host Lou Dobbs participate by speakerphone in White House meetings. He golfed with a Fox News host, Sean Hannity, over the weekend. And he raptly follows the Fox News show “Fox & Friends.”
He doesn’t do what a leader should and challenge himself – and the rest of us – to be bigger. He exploits his privilege to be as small as possible. With all the world watching and potentially taking cues from him, he crassly insults just about anyone who crosses him. It’s equal parts pathology and sport.
A leader tells the truth. I needn’t extend that thought by so much as a syllable.
Other presidents had their fictions. Their flaws. Trump is hardly soiling some pristine tradition. To suggest so is to validate his belief that he’s persecuted.
But to pretend that he’s an unremarkable link in the chain is crazier, and that’s not merely because of his unconventional résumé and attachment to Twitter. He lacks the flashes of valor and moments of inspiration that immediate predecessors had.
Remember Barack Obama in Charleston, South Carolina, singing “Amazing Grace”? His voice is still with me. Or George W. Bush telling Americans after Sept. 11 not to vilify Muslims? Those words live on.
Will there be anything like that with Trump? Some memory of dignity or grace? The question, I fear, is rhetorical. While those presidents sometimes failed to lead, he doesn’t even try.