Donald Trump Is Fundamentally Confused, and It’s Very Dangerous for the Rest of Us

By Larry McNeil, Executive Director, institute4change
August 14, 2017

He said it over and over during the 2016 Presidential campaign.  “I love the Hispanic people.”  “No one loves women more than me.”  “I love the (fill in the blank) and they love me.”

The confusion is this: love is a private-life term, appropriate for our personal relationships.  It is a concept totally inappropriate to describe our relationships in our public lives.  It’s public life counterpart is “respect”, which is also quite a powerful term, but it is a boundaried term. It means I acknowledge you.  I see you.  I know I need to consider you and your interests even though we may have severe differences.

Respect in our public life comes from power.  If individuals and organizations don’t have power in their public lives, they aren’t respected – period.  For example, US Presidents and State Department officials respect China even though they disagree with their officials on almost everything.  Chinese officials, similarly, respect the United States, even though the US to them is a decadent example of everything wrong in the world.

So let’s draw even sharper contrasts between our personal and public relationships.

The exalted pinnacle of our private relationships is love.  In our public relationships, it is respect.

Trump’s obsessive need for love in his public life, whether driven by narcissism, insecurity, false bravado, a sense of entitlement, greed, or something not yet psychologically understood, can only end up in one place – failure.

Yes … Trump is destined to be a big loser.  For he is looking for love in all the wrong places.

The healthiest (and luckiest) human beings are ensconced in loving private relationships where their needs for intimacy and love are constantly met – there, in their private lives.  Work and other forms of public life are the places for self-expression, performance, production, and accountability.  Good employers don’t keep people on the payroll because they like them or because they are loyal to them.  They keep them because they are performing at the level that is required to get the job done, making the organization stronger.

Leaders of healthy organizations, different in many ways — businesses, universities, unions, non-profits, change organizations, etc.  — know and have inculcated a few universal practices into their organizations that we wish this President knew:

Hire the best people for a job vs. hiring the people you know, or like, or who like you. 

When you are going into the operating room, do you really care if you like the doctor or if they like you?  What matters is his/her professional competence that enables him/her to perform at a high level, in a variety of situations, no matter who is the patient.

Don’t hire relatives.  President Bill Clinton should not have put Hillary Clinton into the role of Health Care Reform in his first term, not because of a lack of competence, but because she was his wife!  President Donald Trump should not put his son-in-law into the role as a Senior Advisor.  Nor should he ensconce his favorite daughter into the West Wing as his “eyes and ears”. De facto … hiring relatives creates a double inside group, weakens accountability, and negatively affects morale.

Fire people for a lack of ethical behavior, incompetence, non-performance, or nepotism.

Trump reluctantly fired National Security Adviser Lt. General Michael Flynn who took the job but lied about having contracts with Russia.  He praised Flynn on his way out, saying the criticism of him was unfair.  Mixed message?  Billionaire Vincent Viola withdrew from consideration as Army Secretary when he concluded he could not satisfactorily divest clear financial conflicts of interest.  Philip Bilden, Trump’s Navy Secretary pick also had to withdraw because of conflicts of interest.  Andrew Puzder, Trump’s nominee for Secretary of Labor was forced to withdraw for a litany of reasons including character flaws large enough to drive an 18-wheeler through.

However, Senior Advisor Jared (and most favored Son-In-Law) was not even verbally chastised for failing to report meetings with representatives of a Russian bank under US investigation during his confirmation hearings.  And most favored daughter Ivanka claimed that she had nothing to do with China awarding her company three very important brand patents that will result in tens of millions of additional sales of her products in China. Within the last year, sales of Ivanka Trump’s products has increased over 700%.  She claims lamely, like her father, that everything is in a blind (oxymoron) trust.  Blind?  When the Trump brand and logo shines brightly for all the world to see clearly so they can pay their tribute and curry favor with Papa Trump.

Lead by thoughtful calculation, taking in the contextual environment in which you are leading vs. leading by impulse, anger, embarrassment, predilection, or fear. 

Needing to be liked and loved, in Trump’s case, goes a long way toward explaining Trump’s obsession with appearing strong.  He can’t help himself.   He lives in fear of being exposed. He takes credit for a Yemen military action in his first week as President that leads to the killing of Chief Petty Officer Ryan Owens, then blames President Obama for the tragic death of Owens.  While gorging himself on chocolate cake during a dinner with President Xi of China, Trump orders the launch of 60 cruise missiles into Syria in response to the use of chemical weapons by Assad.  Several days later Trump drops a bomb neither President Bush 43 nor President Obama ever chose to use—a Massive Ordinance Air Bomb with 22,000 pounds of TNT in the payload—onto ISIS tunnels in Afghanistan.  Only today, Secretary of State Tillerson is rattling American sabers against the Iran deal on its nuclear activities.

In your public life, give up on getting loved, but insist on being respected.

Respect is earned.  It flows from a combination of integrity, competence, and consistency over time.   Instead of revealing any of those characteristics, the first 100 days of the Trump administration has created a trail of disrespect that is even troubling to Trump supporters.  Trump’s incessant lies and exaggerations and lack of financial transparency have eroded any sense of integrity.  The billionaire President cheerfully plays golf on the tax payers dime ($65 million for golf cart rentals alone in the first half year of his Presidency.)  Make no mistake.  He is overtly using the Presidency to make money for himself and his family members.  He insults the intelligence of the American people when he blathers about blind trusts that are impossible and non-existent given the ubiquitous presence of the Trump logo and name globally.

His inability to get anything done or even to fill key positions necessary to get anything done has eroded any sense of hoped for competence.  Worse, he doesn’t know what he doesn’t know.  “I didn’t know health care was so complicated.”

His impulsive decision-making has rendered consistency non-existent.  His Tweets are his daily whim.  His counsel is himself.  His pontifical edicts are his royal scepter.  One can be gloriously messy, non-linear, and contradictory in one’s private life.  (Think of a great, agendaless weekend!)  Such behavior in one’s public life is dangerous.  It is reckless when one is President of the United States. 

A public role comes attached to public responsibilities.

There are only a handful of things that can be done to help develop leaders.  Mentoring, coaching, training, etc.  Our experience leads us to say that “Role”, as my colleague Dr. Michael McGrath describes — “getting the right person in the right job at the right time” – is by far the most important.  No one comes fully prepared to become President of the United States.  No one could.  Thus, understanding the requirements of the role are fundamental.

Being an in-the-moment, pontifical, disrespectful, condescending Student Council-level President is a dangerous distortion of a role that has been shaped over the last 239 years.  Most importantly for any President to learn, we would argue, is understanding the future implications of present decisions on both the country and the world.  The American President cannot even perfunctorily perform his/her role without thinking about the whole – the whole planet, the whole country, the whole and diverse population.  “Make America Strong Again”, an old, losing strategy in the tradition of my former East Texas congressman, Martin Dies, Sr., Chair of the House of Un-American Activities Committee, who ran for President on a theme of “America First”, speaks to a kind of proud tribalism, like supporting your favorite football team.

It is totally inadequate for an interconnected world that requires American leadership to reduce the threat of war; save the environment; build an efficient, effective government that is fair and responsive to its citizens and fair to its non-citizens; create, sustain, and institutionalize complicated relationships with other world leaders; and provide equal opportunities for a good life for all Americans.

Not understanding the President’s required role leads us to Trump’s reckless needling of one of the most unstable leaders in the world – Kim Jung-un.  Why?  Why insult one of the best leaders,  Germany’s leader Angela Merkel?  Why verbally attack NATO?  Why insult Muslims, 1.25 billion of the world’s people almost all of them peaceful and necessary to slowing the expansion of ISIS?  Why attack Sen. Mitch McConnell whose Senate leadership Trump will need to get anything through Congress? 

Trump has privatized his public role.  In an attempt to make himself bigger, he has made America smaller.  Following this path of needing to be liked and loved in his public life, he has used the Oval Office for his own needs, not those of the United States.

What does this mean for the majority of Americans who want a different kind of country and a different kind of President?  What should we do?

  • Make no deals. Give him nothing.  You can’t make lasting deals with a leader whose strategy is his whims.  Dealing with him will only legitimize his reputation.
  • Move from resistance to power. Resistance has helped reveal the real Trump.  It has sharpened the picture of this tormented, love-obsessed liar, this master of self-promotion and self-aggrandizement.  But resistance is not power.  We could easily spend the next 3 ½ years responding to Trump’s craziness while as a progressive movement we got no stronger.  And then … we get Pence!
  • Build powerful organizations. Those who stand for a peacefully connected world and an America equally fair for all Americans have to build large, powerful organizations capable of winning and shaping the win into a country that works for everyone.  Individual actions are largely symbolic.
  • Keep our eye on the real enemy. As despicable and as dangerous as Trump is, he is not the real enemy.  He is only the temporary face of it.  The Venal .1% are the enemy.  They are the ones who already have most of the wealth and power, and they want the rest of it.  While we, not unsurprisingly, are reading the papers every day to discover the latest craziness from our would-be President, the Venal .1%, led primarily by the new KKK — Charles Koch, David Koch, and their K Street minions — are presenting their billion-dollar wish lists to a welcome Santa.   They are having a field day with their new permissions to pollute the rivers, remove worker safety regulations, remove financial institution regulations, reduce worker pay, create more part-time workers, etc.
  • The Off-Season is the Campaign Season: Organization and Talent. What we do this year in terms of expanding or merging progressive organizations and in recruiting and developing leaders and organizers will largely determine what happens the next decade.  The top 25 – 30 progressive organizations need to be bigger, stronger, strategically connected, and scarier, more like the NRA than the Lion’s Club.  Politicians need to run scared of our network of progressive organizations.

There are thousands of potential leaders and organizers who would love to be significant players, but they do not have the help they need to be successful.  Almost all would benefit from focused, rigorous attention on their development.  Organizers build powerful organizations that can fight and win over decades.  Leaders attract and develop other leaders, and they lead, doing what needs to be done.  Thousands of trained organizers and leaders could, over time, reclaim our country from the Venal .1% who stole it.

David and Goliath is an inspiring, mythical story.  It is being retold in modern times in graphic movie animations and games featuring the principled us vs. the evil them.  Progressives are comfortable with that story.  But progressive comfort I’m sick of.  Given what we are up against, we need a different story.  The story we need now is Goliath vs. Goliath.   We need to create a Progressive Goliath with an army of trained fighters and an arsenal of big weapons, not a sling shot we take off the shelf during election years.  If Trump doesn’t provide enough reason to change what we are doing, we are asleep, maybe dead.