Gilbert N. Kahn is a professor of Political Science at Kean University.
Monday night’s debate and its aftermath ought to have given even objective observers serious pause for concern, if they did have it previously, about Donald Trump’s qualifications to be president. After what most analysts have suggested was not a good performance for Trump, efforts to increase his preparation and modify his style and tone appear to be falling on deaf ears. Trump is into denial and appears to listen only to his own instincts.
Without stepping into the domain of professional psychologists or psychiatrists it seems fairly clear that Trump has such a soft skin that he can’t take criticism even from his own, presumably, trusted staff and advisers. He is so unable to accept the fact that he actually can be wrong, that he can err, or that he made a mistake. Trump responds to contrary advice by ignoring or denying it. In addition, it seems that he has so intimidated his staff that all they can do is perhaps try to guide him around the edges. The fact that they were able to bring Trump to accept a teleprompter—at least sometimes–, is itself actually remarkable.
While his style may have enabled him to succeed in the real estate business and to enrich himself financially, much of his business style approach is not appropriate to strong political leadership. While it could be suggested that maybe it will work, a few quick historical examples should provide evidence of how genuinely successful public figures and political leaders have worked.
- Abraham Lincoln surrounded himself with what Doris Kearns Goodwin referred to as a “Team of Rivals”. He hardly liked all of them, but he used them to guide the Republic through the Civil War.
- During the Cuban Missile Crisis, JFK created “ex-com” to force through and encourage a full and non-defensive, open discussion of as many ideas as possible. He this was able to consider a full range of options.
- Justice Antonin Scalia was reported to have consistently hired one law clerk on his Supreme Court staff every year whose judicial philosophy he knew was diametrically opposed to his own; just to keep the Justice honest.
- In FDR’s Cabinet Meetings, President Roosevelt consistently played off various Cabinet members against each other so as to enable him to maximize the alternative choices he should consider to solving a particular issue.
While there are countless of additional example, it seems clear already that strong political leaders have the self-confidence to accept the fact that they can be wrong; that they are able to hear and consider alternative views or narratives which differ from their own; that they recognize that there are people who might well know more than they do about a subject; and that they do not believe that changing one’s mind is evidence of weakness. Based on how Donald Trump responded during the debate, how he has conducted himself in the past few days, and how he, apparently, has frustrated those on his staff who would like to advise him to change, suggests that Trump is missing all of these traits.