It’s early on a cloudy morning, and I spent my breakfast reading the transcript of President Trump’s April 5 interview with the New York Times. The thunder’s rumbling and the rain is starting, big heavy drops that promise to get heavier. It’s hard to get excited about a day like this, like it’s hard to get excited about Trump’s plans, because despite reading and rereading, searching for something concrete about what my government is going to do, and how much it’s going to spend, he hasn’t been able to articulate much beyond an enthusiastic but vague vision for a more privatized America.
It’s a problem, because I want to believe that business leaders whose decisions affect my life know how to make effective business plans, which is what Trump supporters keep saying about why Trump is qualified. But as in business, as in government, education, or any field, leaders have to give followers facts and figures that are meaningful in order for us to believe not only that they mean well, but their plans have real-world meaning beyond being a self-interested smokescreen.
A fact-free plan allows a leader to always say he’s accomplished his goals, simply because those goals were never stated, supported or detailed. It’s more than a credibility problem. If a leader’s statements are meaningless, then leadership becomes a hollow performance, like thunder and clouds without rain in a time of drought.
Here’s an example, not one of the hot buttons of his administration, but important nonetheless: Trump’s conversation about infrastructure, with reporters trying to get a sense of the balance of public and private financial commitment and administrative oversight Trump is hoping to achieve. True to his pattern, Trump talks about the problem in vague terms, emphasizes how great his solution will be, and avoids answering the question. Ultimately, he gives a number so much higher than the proposal being discussed that it’s obviously speculation, but doesn’t address the public/private question at all. When he tries to call on one specific example, he can’t remember the actual system he’s claiming doesn’t work, and needs a staffer to remind him of its name. (Shades of the late Reagan years, when Nancy was heard seemingly prompting the ailing president when he appeared confused answering a question.)
“THRUSH: We’ve heard some outlines in the press — how much public money versus tax credits are we talking about?
TRUMP: We may go public/private on some deals. We’re going to do a very big — you know, the money that was squandered by the past administrations. Squandered on airplane routing systems that don’t work. That, you know — what would you call the actual system itself? What would you say just so they know?
UNIDENTIFIED AIDE: The current system? Land-based radar.
TRUMP: It is so bad. It’s so out of whack. They had all of these different companies hired. Tremendous amounts of money was spent. And they don’t hook up. They didn’t hire one company. They don’t hook up.
THRUSH: Well, how much money in total, there are numbers that have been floating around. It’s two to three hundred billion over 10 years of federal aid.
TRUMP: No. More than that. Much more than that.
THRUSH: How much more?
TRUMP: We’re talking about a trillion-dollar infrastructure.
THRUSH: But I mean, in terms of actual —
TRUMP: We may take that trillion, and we may also in addition use public/private. But we’re talking about an investment of a trillion dollars. (Note: here he refers to the total budget imagined, not for the air traffic control issue, sticking to the big picture of dollars, not discussing privatization or a collaborative allocation of responsibility as asked.)
Give him a chance, Trump’s most avid supporters say, so I am — a chance for him to convince me that he can take on the issues at hand in a meaningful way. Here’s what I found out when I researched the multi-leveled issue he struggled to describe:
The Air Traffic Control systems we use have been criticized as outdated for quite a while, with a lively debate about how to fix them, including strategies of public/private collaboration and whether public or private control would be more beneficial and safe for consumers. Trump’s team has argued in the past that privatization of Air Traffic Control would benefit the country, despite conflicting reports from industry leaders who praise the idea or argue that privatization might cost air travelers more, rejecting the idea of a non-profit solution that might be a middle ground. A quick Google search shows many private companies and think tanks eager to offer solutions, with more debate on levels of public/private collaboration than the problems with systems themselves, although an upgrade is necessary. This conversation, highlighted by the administration already, was the heart of the question, and Trump and his administration, even since the campaign, have well-rehearsed and multiple talking points about it.
In the Times interview, Trump could not call up enough facts to make meaning out of his answer, and depended on an aide to remind him of the most basic information. Those with the inclination to make excuses — he’s tired, he’s not used to the complexity of government, it’s hard to remember everything, at least he brought along aides who could help him — might not be so understanding if they perceived the stakes were higher, say if the speaker were their boss, or if they disagreed with the speaker’s perceived positions in the first place. (Our human tendency is to skim over evidence that shows what we believe isn’t true, and look for confirmation for what we think is true. The most immediate remedy is research into the facts behind the spin. That’s the best way to test our leaders, wherever we might find them.)
Absence of verifiable facts that connect to an ongoing conversation about issues that affect followers is a common sense definition of ungrounded leadership. Sure, all leaders put spin into their speech, trying to convince stakeholders to support policies they suggest. However, spin without corroborating, informed support makes for an unevenly entertaining, dizzying carnival ride, more a recipe for confusion than an effective strategy for change.