I don’t think anyone, whichever candidate we support, could say that Sunday’s debate showed America at its best. Both candidates, true to the discourse of the whole campaign, were on the defensive and the attack. Although Clinton did raise real issues about America today, Trump’s repeated accusations were like an old LP stuck on the same scratched track. In terms of leadership behavior, it was a solid demonstration of bully leadership vs. Clinton’s more mainstream issue-based leadership.
Trump perfectly modeled the bully, stalking Clinton in words and action, pacing and pointing and grimacing, doing his best to be intimidating. It’s a persona that his most loyal followers love, so for his core support, he’s demonstrating the kind of leadership they want — the leader who overcomes differences by imposing his viewpoint, and controlling a situation by exercising power-over personal dynamics.
Like Reagan, he forcefully argues for law and order, even to the point of threatening to put Clinton in prison for the email security issues. Unlike Reagan, who was charming and personable as well as stern, Trump has only one face, the enforcer.
If his glass house were not so full of indictments and taped celebrations of sexual assault, it would make more sense to me that some Americans admire his forceful assertion of law and order. We are in a difficult time, and many people are afraid and angry. But it has surprised me that his bullying and insults have been welcomed as “telling it like it is,” and a sign of leadership.
But I suppose it is a bad leadership practice made into a leadership persona, designed to silence the people who disagree with him, and celebrate those who agree. So those who agree will, like their hero, shrug off any criticism as they cheer.
When Trump shrugs over mis-quoted facts and figures, and makes sound-byte statements that seem to answer global problems, he is preaching to the choir, not an unusual use of candidate airtime. That kind of noise is normal for presidential debates and political battles.
But there are troublesome patterns in his patter, as when he dismisses his indictments for RICO fraud, tax exploitation, non-payment for services, and racist housing practices as “just good business.” He even moves into macho braggadocio when he calls the recent tapes praising assaultive treatment of women as “locker room talk.” Perhaps that’s why he needs to override, interrupt and sloganize so much. Any deeper, and the debate shows his bullying as a strategy for hiding his bad personal and business practices, with little real “law and order” message.
Maybe loyal supporters see him as being strong, authentic even, because he “fights back,” whatever he’s fighting about. Maybe they don’t see it as bullying at all. But I can’t help but think if Clinton behaved that way, if Obama had, or if supporters’ close friends or bosses groped wives or daughters, they wouldn’t feel the same way.
In last Sunday’s debate, he was nothing if not consistently defensive, in a forceful way, turning every question to a chance to attack Clinton, insisting he was right, pounding out his slogans, interrupting, and shouting in order to protect his power and gain supporters, through fear and force. That’s the bully leader. This particular celebrity’s bullying is considered as much entertainment (read “not real”) as it is forcefulness.
Because this kind of leadership seems very limited to me, as a strategy and in this campaign, I hate to say that this is part of his celebrity charisma. But it is, and since charisma is easily used to manipulate and control, I suppose it’s an accurate term for Trump’s posturing. I didn’t mind it so much in The Apprentice, because that was scripted “live” entertainment. But in this presidential race, it has closed down discussion of real issues and opened up a place for dogma and doctrine.
And that may be the biggest problem of the bully leader. He has to keep center stage in order to keep power. He has to silence real discussion to control any opposition. And he has to mask himself in forcefulness to prevent being unmasked as a person with weaknesses he’s hiding with all his might. For all its noise, it’s a weak kind of leadership, perhaps growing out of a woundedness that becomes a practice of wounding others as a form of self-protection and external control.
I prefer leadership that comes from self-control and discipline. And the polls indicate that most of the American people agree. But there are still voters who believe that bullying and silencing othes will create a space for them to get their due. For them, he is persuasive, or at least, entertaining enough to be celebrated, for now. The bully emperor may have no clothes, but through fear and favors, he bullies on as long as he can.