The Trump Experiment Is Over: A Cautionary Tale of Leadership and Character

The Trump Experiment has come to an end. 

This is not a political post, although I am sure it will be perceived as such. I make this statement from a broad perspective of “leadership theory.” I am a student of leadership theory. I study leadership. I teach leadership. In my own life, I try to follow and implement principles of leadership. 

Great leaders, the one who shake our world to the core for good, exist with the following traits and ideals: (1) Charisma, (2) Authenticity, (3) Principles, (4) Vision, (5) Consistency and (6) Decency

Before I go further, I need to say the following: On a personal level, I like Donald Trump. And so did many of you, right up until the time he declared his candidacy for the US Presidency. As a person fascinated with the world of business, I was glued to the Apprentice for the first 2-3 seasons. I read “The Art of the Deal” (several times, actually). I watched videos where Trump talks frankly about how to achieve success in the cutthroat world of business and finance. He was raw and uncouth, bombastic even. He would point his finger and declare “You’re fired” in that gravelly New York accent. And we cheered him on. On a personal level, I was equally impressed and interested in this man – The Donald. 

He raised great kids. Politics aside, those are three impressive specimens. Every parent secretly knows this. 

He never smoked cigarettes or drank alcoholic beverages. While I cannot say the same for myself, I thought, “Good for him.” 

Sure, he has been married three times. But who really cares about this? Not me. 

He was the image of American success, even if his success was shadowed by shady business deals, lack of payment to contractors, bankruptcy after bankruptcy and the building of a brand over the creation an actual product. 

He got in the wrestling ring and took on Vince McMahon… and we loved him for it. 

It was the moment he entered into the political ring to take on Mexicans, Blacks, Muslims, China, foreign trade and globalism, the world took a collective gasp. 

Many of us watched in horror as he gave his first speech as a presidential candidate. 

In time, our shock turned into dismay and then to disgust. But, collectively, many nationally and globally, held to a foundational internal belief: Trump would never be the Republican nominee. 

So, we calmed down, pulled up a seat to the table and watched this showman put on outrageous rallies, spewing angry words and inciting violence against any protester who spoke out against him. He watched him bully his way through debate after debate, belittling one political celebrity after another: Jeb Bush (“Low Energy Jeb”), Marco Rubio (“Liddle Marco”), Ted Cruz (“Lyin’ Ted”), Nancy Pelosi (“Nervous Nancy”), Bernie Sanders (“Crazy Bernie”), Adam Schiff (“Shifty Schiff”), Chuck Schumer (“Cryin’ Chuck”) and many others. Many laughed when he took on Rose O’Donnell (… “only Rose O’Donnell” he said, to the cheers of many). 

Why did we laugh? Why did we cheer? Why did we simply roll our eyes? Because we believed Trump would never be the Republican nominee. 

“But what about his rallies?,” you ask. “There were so many people in attendance!” Well, we believed, the crowds were only coming for the show. Much like we take our families and children to visit the circus or the occasional amusement park. The Trump rally was the circus. It was fun. It gave voice to a group of people who believed they had lost their voice. These rallies filled massive arenas where American “patriots” could rail against globalism and the onslaught of foreigners deluging the USA. Racism was allowed, even encouraged. The slogan was “Make America Great Again,” right out of the Reagan playbook. A campaign designed to stoke the flames of those who believed America should be moving backwards towards a period of exclusion as opposed to forward towards diversity and inclusion. 

These rallies were the outliers, we believed. Hillary Clinton later coined Trump’s followers as a “basket of deplorables.” She believed, as many did, this group of diehard Trump supporters was simply a certain segment of society. They did not represent a larger group within the vast United States of America. 

We believed Trump would not win the Republican nomination. This was a fluke. A backlash against establishment and career politicians. 

We believed all of this… 

Until Trump won the Republican nomination. 

Once again, we were shocked, dismayed and disgusted.

Yet, there was hope for Democratic voters. While appalled Trump could make it this far in the electoral process, certainty fell over the Clinton campaign and her vast sea of followers. “It’s in the bag.” On the heels of America’s first black president, a man who garnered the presidency by keeping Clinton from “shattering the glass ceiling,” America was now ready for the first female president. 

We were cautiously optimistic. This would be a victory of the highest order. Sexism would be denied. 

For sure, Clinton’s emails made the Left nervous. 

Until the story was released of Trump’s comments eleven years earlier on the back of a bus in a studio parking lot. The nation was horrified. Parents were scrambling to explain to their young children adult terms. 

“It’s in the bag.”

Comey and the FBI? Who cares. 

Anthony Weiner’s computer? It does not matter. 

“It’s in the bag.” 

And then came Wednesday morning, November 9, 2016, a date that, for many of us, will live in history. The nation sat quiet, stunned. Many Americans were dazed and confused. Even those who had voted for Trump were taken back on their heels. Few people could believe what the country had just witnessed. The next thirty days were a whirlwind of emotion, tears and pain. 

And yet, this emotion had little to do with Trump and more to do with the state of our country. A mere eight years after we elected the nation’s first African American president, it seemed we were being pulled against our will back to the times of American imperialism and exclusiveness. Those who were given a voice, the crowd referred to as “the deplorables,” once the shock wore off, reveled in their newfound influence. White evangelicals were transported to the 1980’s where they once again held power – albeit perceived power – with the ruling class. “God,” they exclaimed, “was on the side of Trump. America would once again return to its exclusive, Christian roots.” (This God who, of course, was the white Evangelical God with the white baby Jesus, but that is for another post.) 

And for 3 years, Trump reigned unchecked. 

And, if we are to be honest and liberal in our assessment, his reign provided much good to the nation and the national economy. After all, no person is simply all bad or all good. And no person’s deeds are simply “all bad” or “all good.” Even the Washington Post, no friend of the Trump presidency, reported on Trump’s accomplishments at the end of 2019: Unemployment at a record low, NATO Allies increased their spending by $130 billion since 2016, Trump stood on the side of the people of Hong Kong, his “maximum pressure” strategy had caused the largest populist revolt in Iran since 1979, Mexico began enforcing its own immigration laws and, for better or worse, Trump stacked the federal courts with over 50 judges. (Depending on your political leanings, you will or will not resonate with Trump’s court appointments.)  

The point I am trying to make is this: Trump did not simply sit in the Oval Office tweeting all day as some would have you believe. 

No, he worked. He worked for business. He worked for the forgotten class. He worked for USA brand. And few people are better at branding then Trump. 

And his base loved him for it. Trump continued the Make America Great campaign as be blazed across the country holding rally after rally with his frenzied fans, the “deplorables.” They loved him. They cheered him on. They screamed his praise. And he loved them back. He promised four more years of the same. 

Trump was cruising towards re-election as of December 31, 2019. By all accounts, he and his family and small group of aides had every reason to celebrate entering the new year.

A new year, a new decade and a final monster victory by the Trump brand. 

But then 2020 happened. A year that would leave no one unscathed.

This was the year that brought the entire world to its knees. Powerful and poor countries alike sat helpless and weakened as the Coronavirus wrapped its fingers around our global neck, halting economies, destroying livelihoods, infecting nearly 50 million people and taking the lives of 1.25 million people worldwide. 

To make matters worse, on the domestic front, the United States faced a racial reckoning and nationwide unrest compounded by thousands of Americans forced out of their jobs and into quarantine. 

Ahmaud Arbery. George Floyd. Breonna Taylor. Rayshard Brooks. Daniel Prude.

Names that have come to define 2020.  

Protestors across the world united to support the Black Lives Movement. 

COVID-19. Racial reckoning. Lack of national leadership. 

COVID-19. Racial reckoning. Lack of national leadership. 

COVID-19. Racial reckoning. Lack of national leadership. 

In the middle of one of the most painful seasons in United States history, where was President Donald J. Trump? 

I cannot tell you where Trump was or what he was doing, but I can tell you where Trump was not and what he was not doing. 

Donald J. Trump was not comforting COVID-19 victims. Instead, he was calling COVID-19 the “China virus” and railing against state governors as they sought to put the safety of their citizens first by implementing “stay at home” orders. 

Donald J. Trump was not huddling with congressional leaders in a bipartisan fashion to help bring relief to millions of workers who lost their wages. When European countries were paying their citizens up to 75% of their salaries, the US sent out one check for $1,200 to the American public. 

Donald J. Trump was not calling for racial unity, holding dirty cops accountable, meeting with the victims of racial injustice or calling for townhalls to discuss racism and police reforms. Sure, he made a phone call to the family of George Floyd. Yet, even in this call, he failed to give the family a chance to speak or share their own heartbreak. 

Donald J. Trump was not calling for caution and social distancing in a time of a global pandemic. When states were calling for people to stay home and keep their distance, Trump and his campaign were holding large super spreader events all across the country, even causing the death of one former U.S. presidential candidate. 

Fast forward to October 2020 and the largest October surprise yet when President Donald J. Trump contracted COVID-19 himself. 

I digress. 

This is a leadership post. It is not intended to be a political post. 

Let’s come back to the purpose of these words today… why The Trump Experiment ultimately failed. It all comes back to leadership. If it is true that we expect the following from our American leaders – Charisma, Authenticity, Principles, Vision, Consistency and Decency – Donald J. Trump rated 3 out of 6. Or 50%. Or an F. 

Let’s examine these six principles and see where President Donald J. Trump succeeded…and failed. 

First, CHARISMA.

Great leaders must have an element of Charisma. Donald J. Trump had charisma in spades. Casinos, airlines, planes, helicopters, skyscrapers, beauty pageants, wrestling matches, television shows and documentaries. Trump had it all. He was the embodiment of American capitalistic success. 

Trump’s Grade for Charisma: A+ (100%)

Second, AUTHENTICITY. 

Great leaders must be Authentic to who they are. Leadership comes from living a life of full expression. This ideal of authenticity speaks to the idea of integrity: I am who I am and whatever success I achieve is based on the authentic expression of my inner world. Trump was anything, if not authentic. What you see is what you got. If Trump thinks it, you hear it (or see it). Prime example: The Trump Twitter account. 

Trump’s Grade for Authenticity: A+ (100%) 

Third, PRINCIPLES. 

Great leaders must have a set of Principles that drive their actions. While values are fluid, principles are timeless and help to guide every aspect of our lives for as long as we live. An example of a principle is something akin to the Golden Rule: “Treat others as you would like to be treated.” It does not matter what the principle is, but great leaders are principled leaders. Think of the greatest leaders you know – personally, globally and historically. My guess is that you can decipher what their principles were and are based on listening to them or reading about them. Their principles were clear. 

It is unclear what Trump’s principles were or if he had any.

A while back I had lunch with a San Diego-based non-profit executive whom I have come to respect deeply. She has led her organization for over 30 years from a budget of 30k to a present annual budget in the $40 million range. She is successful, driven and decent. She said something to me that made a deep impact on me: “The problem with Trump is not his principles; the problem is that he does not seem to have any.” I may disagree. Based on observation, I would say Trump’s primary principle is winning and winning at all costs. And, I believe, this principle makes him dangerous. At the very least, the ownership of this one principle – and this one principle only – is not good for political leadership. 

Outside of this one principle, and not a great principle at that, I would agree with the aforementioned non-profit executive: Trump lacks principles. 

Trump’s Grade for Principles: F- (30%) 

Fourth, VISION.

All great leaders must have a vision for what the future could be. Trump had a vision, but it was a vision of reclaiming the past – Make America Great… Again. No talk of the future and where we could go as a country; only a call to take America back to its glory days, whatever those were. 

I teach leadership for master’s students at Point Loma Nazarene University. In a recent class we discussed the leadership of President Donald J. Trump in a segment we called, “President Trump: Innovative Leader or National Embarrassment.” I asked the question, “Why was Trump elected?” One of the students responded: “The American people were tired of our political system and wanted someone to come in and blow it up.” To which another student responded, “If you are going to blow something up, you have to have something to replace it with.” That’s pretty deep. 

Trump blew up the system as we knew it. He failed to drain the swamp but he certainly shook up the Washington establishment. No one can argue against this. The political arena will forever be changed due to four years of a Trump presidency. Yet, what has really changed? What vision did he share for where a UNITED States of America could be? 

Trump’s Grade for Vision: F- (25%) 

Fifth, CONSISTENCY.

Great leaders need to be consistent. When people discuss the idea “trusting” a leader, what they are referring to is consistency. Will they always be who they have always been (of course, allowing for personal evolutions over time)? Will they consistently show up? Will they make the right decisions time and time again? 

For better or worse, Trump has been consistent through the years. Consistent to what? That is another question. However, he has always shown up. And, rest assured, after a time of hiding away angry, maybe even despondent, Trump will return in one form or another. He will start a network. He will run for president again. He will carry on with his rallies. He will fire up his base. He will be a Kingmaker for the conservative movement. Trump will continue to show up. 

Trump’s Grade for Consistency: B- (80%) 

Sixth, DECENCY. 

All great leaders are decent people. Notice I did not say “perfect.” No great leader is perfect. In fact, many are deeply flawed human beings. However, they are decent. Meaning, they are humble, they want what is best for the greater community and they present themselves as a calming force for good. 

Trump lacked decorum. Take away his #MAGA rallies, Twitter feed and press conferences and Trump has the ability to present himself as a decent leader. Yet, because he believed he had a large mandate from the “silent majority” he seemed to pride himself on his bombastic personality and speaking his mind. 

Fake news. Taking on Jim Acosta. The China Virus or Hong Kong Flu. Treating opponents as enemies of the State and actual enemies of the State as friends. Failure to build a relationship with the press. At times, Trump – and members of his team – came across as petulant children as opposed to leaders of the free world. 

Leaders, must be decent human beings always. At the very least, in the public arena. 

Say what you want about Obama’s policies, he was a decent man. Say what you want about Bush 43’s policies, he was a decent man. Say what you want about Bill Clinton’s policies… he was…. Well, actually, we can move on now.

You get the idea. Leaders must be decent human beings. Decent Trump was not. 

Trump’s Grade for Decency: F- (0%) 

Let’s tally up the final grade: 55%

Trump receives a failing grade for leadership. 

Here’s the deal, Trump could have been re-elected. Handily. While he passed the political test in 2016, the subsequent four years have showed his failing to pass the leadership test. Worse, he failed to evolve. 

Marshall Goldsmith, executive coach to the world’s preeminent business leaders, recently wrote a book entitled, “What Got You Here Won’t Get You There.” This is the case with Trump. The bombastic Trump personality helped him attain the highest office in the world. This same bombastic personality is what caused him to lose the job in the highest office in the world. Understand this: Trump failed to evolve. On this idea of evolution, Trump should have taken a lesson from the aforementioned Bill Clinton. His personal life may have been a mess, but, politically, Bill Clinton was an absolute genius. (And, if Hillary Clinton would have heeded Bill’s advice, she would have won her second term as America’s first female president. I digress.) Bill Clinton was a centrist. A true liberal, he worked hard to bridge the political right and political left, including many sit-downs with then-House Speaker Newt Gingrich and Senate Majority Leaders Bob Dole and Trent Lott. While these were tense meeting, a sense of decorum remained present. What happened when Trump sat with Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer in late 2018? Absolute chaos. And while all parties were to blame in this, Trump was the senior leader in the room. 

I digress again. 

Trump lost the election because of a lack of real leadership.  

There is a great saying: “Talent and skill will get you the position; character will keep you there.” Trump revealed his true character and showed an unwillingness to evolve and the nation revolted against it. 

The American people are willing to overlook almost anything when the economy is working for everyone. Enter COVID and the resulting poor economy and voters saw Trump naked. A lack of principles. A lack of vision. A lack of common decency. 

The absence of these traits forced the American public to look at Trump, point our fingers and say the words, “You’re fired.” 

For now, the Trump Experiment is over. We tried Teflon Don and found him wanting. 

The questions remain: What will happen in the future? Will Teflon Don rise again? Will Don Jr. rise to take his place? Will we see a Trump dynasty in the vein of the Bush Dynasty? Will Don Jr. rise to avenge his father and the Trump family name? 

It’s anybody’s guess. 

But, most importantly, there are lessons for you – and for me – today. I want to touch on these briefly. 

First, if you desire to be a great leader you must master the fields of Charisma, Authenticity, Principles, Vision, Consistency and Decency. You must have all six. No questions. A loss of one will jeopardize your leadership influence. 

Second, you must evolve. What brought you initial success, will not guarantee you continued success. President Trump tried to bring CEO Trump to the White House and it failed him time after time. He needed to evolve. And so do you. And so do I. At every level of elevation in life and profession, there must exist the same level of evolution. 

Third, you must understand this important truth: Crisis does not create leadership; it reveals leadership. For those deficits you currently have, work on yourself and your leadership. If you fail to work on your leadership deficits, whatever they may be, when the crisis comes you, too, will be found wanting. You, too, will lose the confidence of the people who have made the decision to follow you. 

Trump lost an election that was his to lose. He alone shoulders the responsibility for it.     

And he lost for one reason and one reason alone: He lacked the leadership and the character to shoulder the awesome weight of the presidency of the United States. Nothing more. Nothing less. 

Leadership matters. 

Character matters. 

Decency matters. 

The King dead. Long live the King. 

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