A friend of mine called me this past Tuesday morning, the morning of the Idaho primaries, where he lives. He and I have spent many hours discussing politics and the state of the country and the best way to save it, and so he called to get my thoughts on the presidential field and the merits and faults of the various candidates.
About Trump, he said, “I just haven’t found any reason, in either his statements or his history, to believe that he’s in this for anything other than his stated reason: to make America great again.”
This statement from this friend, whom I highly respect, haunted me a bit. Is Trump really in this just for that altruistic purpose? Is that his only goal? Even if it’s not altruistic – even if it’s to secure his own future business prospects after leaving office – will that mean good things for all of us, a rising tide raising all boats kind of thing?
And this train of thought led me to Simon Sinek. If you haven’t yet seen Sinek’s TED talk, “How Great Leaders Inspire Action”, it’s a must-see. (Interestingly, it was this same friend who turned me on to Sinek.) The basic thesis is this: if you start with a compelling “why”, people will follow you and endorse “what” you do. Sinek calls it the Golden Circle.
For example, Sinek talks about Dr. Martin Luther King:
“Now let me give you a successful example of the law of diffusion of innovation. In the summer of 1963, 250,000 people showed up on the mall in Washington to hear Dr. King speak. They sent out no invitations, and there was no website to check the date. How do you do that? Well, Dr. King wasn’t the only man in America who was a great orator. He wasn’t the only man in America who suffered in a pre-civil rights America. In fact, some of his ideas were bad. But he had a gift. He didn’t go around telling people what needed to change in America. He went around and told people what he believed. “I believe, I believe, I believe,” he told people. And people who believed what he believed took his cause, and they made it their own, and they told people. And some of those people created structures to get the word out to even more people. And lo and behold, 250,000 people showed up on the right day at the right time to hear him speak.
“How many of them showed up for him? Zero. They showed up for themselves. It’s what they believed about America that got them to travel in a bus for eight hours to stand in the sun in Washington in the middle of August. It’s what they believed, and it wasn’t about black versus white: 25% of the audience was white.
“Dr. King believed that there are two types of laws in this world: those that are made by a higher authority and those that are made by men. And not until all the laws that are made by men are consistent with the laws made by the higher authority will we live in a just world. It just so happened that the Civil Rights Movement was the perfect thing to help him bring his cause to life. We followed, not for him, but for ourselves. By the way, he gave the “I have a dream” speech, not the “I have a plan” speech.”
How many of them showed up for him? Zero. They showed up for themselves.
This is exactly what’s happening with Donald Trump. People aren’t showing up for him. He gives them his belief, and people who believe what he believes follow him.
But what is it, really, that Donald Trump believes? He clearly believes in the greatness of America – what billionaire wouldn’t? But does he believe in the core principles of our Founding Fathers? Does he believe those principles are the bedrock of our past and future success? Or does he believe that America is so great because a billionaire from New York can make a capital investment equal to one presidential campaign and then use the power of that office to do what he’s always done, only increased by orders of magnitude?
Here’s the danger of the Golden Circle – if it is presented deftly enough, people will believe your “why” is the same as their “why”, even if they differ greatly.
Every proud American wants to “Make America Great Again.” Every patriot, every activist, every conservative, every liberal. (Well, maybe not Michelle Obama. But then again, she’s not a proud American unless her husband has just been elected president.) All of us want that. And so we hear “Make America Great Again” and project our own movie of what that looks like onto Trump’s phrase, and we think we believe what he believes and we follow him.
We saw this same mechanism in action with Obama’s campaign. “Hope and Change.” We all want hope, right? We want things to get better, which is what we all assumed was meant by “Change.” Those who voted for Obama projected onto his “why” what they thought he meant. They believed what they thought he believed, and they followed him.
With Obama, a little less than half the country figured out that, based on Obama’s background, what he hoped for and the changes he wanted to see would not be something that they wanted, and voted against him.
With Trump, though, I am afraid we are seeing how quickly we forget our lessons about such things. What is his “why”? How can we know?
We can look at his history.
Trump is a deal-maker who has mastered the art of making money. He is not afraid to use whatever tool is at hand in order to do that – whether that tool is eminent domain or buying political favor from both Republicans and Democrats or becoming president of the United States. He has shown this over and over and over again.
But somehow, we are seeing multitudes of good, well-meaning conservatives more than willing to forget that simple fact, and to project onto Trump their own vision of what a great America would be. For me, that would be a return to originalist Constitutional thought and jurisprudence and a resurgence in our Constitutional Republic. For you, a great America might simply be lower taxes and a concerted effort to protect our borders. For someone else, a great America might be a place that’s “basically Republican, but minus the religion, minus the legislating of morality, and that cares about climate change/overpopulation”, as someone recently wrote to Camille Paglia at Salon.
Obviously, these can’t all be the same “great”. And that’s okay – we don’t have to have the same vision (and they are not mutually exclusive). But here’s my question: how do we know what Trump’s “great” is?
Thing is, we don’t.
We try to seek out tell-tale signs that will tell us that his vision of a great America coincides with ours. Many people have pointed to Trump’s children. Their success and good character speaks well of his good character, they say, and I do agree. A bad parent doesn’t often raise good kids, plural. Maybe one – but not all of them. My mother pointed out to me that he listens to reporters’ questions all the way through before answering. To her, that means he’ll listen to his advisors and follow what they say. Another has said to me that he’ll surround himself with the smartest people, as that’s what he’s had to do to be successful in business, and that alludes to one of Reagan’s greatest strengths – the people he surrounded himself with.
And I do get all of these things, and praise him for them. Huzzah that he has raised hardworking children. Huzzah that he has some interpersonal skills. And huzzah that he has created teams before to be successful.
But still, none of these point me to his “why”. His how, his what, yes, but not his why. His why is written in his background, and he’s given us all the clues. In last night’s debate, he stated that he’s “been in this business a long time.” He has. And he’s played both sides of the aisle and all sides of this game for maximum personal gain. We have absolutely no reason, except our inexhaustible capacity to look past the evidence in front of us, to believe his presidency would be any different.