Towards Solving the Trump Mystery

While is may sometimes be true that personality is more important than policy, it isn’t always so.


FullSizeRenderOn 12 February 1999, Bill Clinton survived his impeachment, despite having lied under oath and having committed “sexual acts” with a junior member of staff – things which would have resulted in the departure of most politicians.  In chapter 10 of his book, Lessons from the Top, Gavin Esler describes how, at the time, the Senate majority leader, the Republican Trent Lott was utterly bewildered:

There are only a couple of things in my career that I still have not been able to understand. One is the fact that the American people apparently continued to support Clinton through the whole thing, knowing what he did, knowing what he said, knowing how he demeaned the office … I still think history needs to try to  explain why the American people thought that was all okay.

I felt something of the same confusion over Trump’s election.  How could the American people elect someone with clear views and actions that were detrimental to women, people of different races and religions, and people with disabilities, who may have an identifiable personality disorder (narcissistic), and who is attacking a free press declaring that black is white, despite undisputable evidence the contrary?

Of course, there is no single, simple answer to such a conundrum.  There were clearly intelligent people who voted for him, and I gather that he also picked up a large proportion of the supposed “evangelical” vote.  How could intelligent, god-fearing people choose such a candidate?  I suspect it is likely that many loyal Republicans voted for him because in their minds, they wished to retain power, and others because they saw the liberal alternative as unpalatable.  (A bit like employing a flawed teacher who would guarantee to teach Creationism rather than giving the job to an exciting and competent one who might teach Evolution and Sex Education.)

I have read two things this week that have helped me begin to solve the problem.  The first  glimpse of part of an answer was when I saw an article in The New Statesman by Hugo Drochon (NS, 13-17 January, pp.29-33).  In his analysis Drochon uses a framework provided by the Economist and Sociologist, Pareto, to explain the election.

Drawing on his Italian predecessor Machiavelli, Pareto identified two types of elite rulers. The first, whom he called the “foxes”, are those who dominate mainly through combinazioni (“combination”): deceit, cunning, manipulation and co-optation. Their rule is characterised by decentralisation, plurality and scepticism, and they are uneasy with the use of force. “Lions”, on the other hand, are more conservative. They emphasise unity, homogeneity, established ways, the established faith, and rule through small, centralised and hierarchical bureaucracies, and they are far more at ease with the use of force than the devious foxes.

History is the slow swing of the pendulum from one type of elite to the other, from foxes to lions and back again. 

According to Drochon, Obama was a liberal fox who was to be almost inevitably followed by a lion who is very comfortable with the use of force.  It may be too simplistic, and you may have to stretch the categories to fit the data, but the apparent repeated patterns are interesting.

To my mind, a much more powerfully convincing analysis was provided by Gavin Esler’s book, Lessons from the Top.  In his excellent book, Esler uses his experience of interviewing many of top politicians, and business and cultural leaders, to provide an analysis of why leaders succeed or fail.  His hypothesis is that all leaders need to tell a story (a constructed version of reality) that they want people to hear, rather than allow others (especially opponents and a hostile press) to decide the story to tell about them.  According to Esler all leaders need to tell three stories, answering the three questions: 1) Who Am I? 2) Who Are We? 3) What Is Our Common Purpose?  Failure to keep answering these questions, in a way that is in tune with the public, is likely to result in a loss of power.

I think a mistaken belief that I had had was that the public is always more persuaded by personality (the Q1 story) than by policy (Q3 story).  Esler could provide several illustrations to partly support this belief.  He argues that the failure to address Q1 resulted in Gordon Brown’s defeat (despite his skill in keeping Britain out of the Euro and in helping avert a worse financial crisis in Europe – his Q3 story).  Despite his many personal qualities, Brown couldn’t bring himself to tell a warm, personal story (Q1) to counteract the story being told by his opponents that he was dour bully.  Elser also argues that Reagan survived the Iran-Contra scandal (Q3) because people liked him as a person (Q1) and were willing to forgive his policy mistakes.  Despite his falling asleep in meetings and his simplistic attitude to his brief (Q3), Reagans’ aides took trouble to present a calm, homely president (Q1) that the people would like.

However, while it may be true that the people sometimes prefer personality to policy, it isn’t always true.  On occasions the answer to Q3 is more important than the answer to Q1.  According to Esler, this is why Bill Clinton survived his impeachment.  The public didn’t like what he had done (Q1), but his answer to Q3 (his policies), and his delivery of those policies, meant that (together with his own public repentance and apologies – Q1) the public were willing to keep him in power.

Although Esler’s book was published in 1996, I couldn’t help but apply his template to the present situation as I read.  The story provided in answer to Trump’s Q1 may be appalling (though he, of course, thinks it is absolutely brilliant), yet he was still elected as President. I think a substantial part of the reason has to be that his answer to Q3 (his policies) have such a resonance that people are prepared to overlook the failings in the answer to Q1.

In his latest book, Speaking Out, Ed Balls argues that if you get the economics right, the right politics will follow.  The endless pictures of BBC reporters driving through the American “rust belt” during and after the election, and the many vox-pops of them talking to people in bars, presented a compelling (and sometimes moving) picture of economic failure.  Obama had a good personal story (Q1) and was skilled at telling it.  His apparent failure with Q3, and his successor’s difficulty in presenting a convincing and attractive answer to either Q1 or Q3, gave greater credibility to the Trump lion’s roar.  Trump has been able to blame the problems on others (especially outsiders) and declare that he will solve the economics.  If he delivers the answers he has provided in the Q3 story, he may survive.  If he fails, according to Esler, he will certainly fall.

What do you think?  Why did Donald J. Trump win the election?

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