Platt Perspective on Business and Technology

Donald Trump, Xi Jinping, and the contrasts of leadership in the 21st century 8: some thoughts concerning Donald Trump’s cult of personality

Posted in macroeconomics, social networking and business by Timothy Platt on February 4, 2019

I have written on numerous occasions now, about Donald Trump and his rise to power in the United States and about Xi Jinping and his rise to power in China. This is also my 8th installment to a compare-and-contrast subseries that fits into both of those ongoing narratives. And more specifically, this posting serves as a relatively direct continuation of my most recent installment in this leading up to now as can be found at Donald Trump, Xi Jinping, and the contrasts of leadership in the 21st century – 7.

I focused in that Part 7 installment on how Xi is outmaneuvering Trump on so many crucially important issues: a point that I could make regarding virtually all of Donald Trump’s dealings with other national leaders too. And I ended that by noting that I would turn next, to consider the cults of personality that Donald Trump and Xi Jinping have assembled around themselves, as they variously attempt to secure and hold authoritarian control over their respective nations: the United States of America and the People’s Republic of China.

Both Trump and Xi have made mistakes and publically visible ones. And both seek to dominate and lead societies that have come to be defined in the minds of many, by both their sources of real strength and by their profound weaknesses and challenges too. Mistakes, misjudgments, set-backs and all aside, both of these leaders have developed implacably devoted, large groups of core followers and in genuinely significant numbers, and regardless of even the most at-least potentially damning of those self-created problems that they have made for themselves – and even at times seemingly because of them where a “them versus us” mentality protectively arises for both, from their core supporter bases.

My original intention for this posting was to offer a discussion of both of these leaders in a single, compare-and-contrast format and as a single posting. I have reconsidered that for the complexity of issues involved and have decided to split that would-be single posting into two separate ones: two separate but perhaps parallel narratives that would discuss these two historic figures more individually through that. Trump and Xi do, after all behave in the ways that they do, in very large part for reasons and in ways that do not involve or connect with each other and certainly as a central point of concern for them. Both in fact seek to develop and promote their own particular cults of personality, among their other driving goals, for reasons that center on how they relate to and seek to relate to their own nation’s citizenries: the people of their own countries, and with more international spill-over from that taking on a more incidental role in their thinking, much of the time.

So I begin here with Donald Trump and his endeavors to achieve at least publically perceived greatness, and certainly as that view might be held by his core followers who he sees as having put him in office as president and as keeping him there. And I begin addressing that by citing a recent news story that has simply piled itself onto the Trump administration’s already massive accumulation of scandal and challenge, with the Mueller investigation that might lead to impeachment hearings against him serving as only one part of that larger story. The news story that I would begin this with, is that of the still just recently concluded partial US federal government shutdown that president Trump brought about and boastfully claimed ownership of, in his effort to force Congress to provide funding for his boarder wall to further separate Mexico from the United States.

This ill conceived coercive effort on Trump’s part to gain his way in fulfilling a promise to his base ultimately failed, leaving him forced to accept defeat on all of the points that he has claimed to be important in him there. And that was after this effort on his part had the effect of furloughing some 800,000 government employees without pay for more than a month: many if not most of whom were forced to work without pay during that period, as well as challenging and stressing the public as a whole as even some essential government services that his base relies upon were forced to shut down for the duration. See, for a brief and selective accounting of this:

Trump Storms Out of White House Meeting With Democrats on Shutdown. President Trump does not know how to negotiate except when confronted by absolute and complete surrender to whatever he seeks to do; so when challenged with refusals to bend let alone give in to him on his key demand here, he got up and left the room, unable to handle that type of challenge.
Trump Pulls Back From Declaring a National Emergency to Fund a Wall. Then in follow-up to that, president Trump threatened to bypass Congress by funding his boarder wall to keep Mexico out, by declaring a national emergency and by issuing an executive order to that effect. (As an aside here, it is likely that any effort on his part to actually do this would be blocked by the courts and with that going all the way up to his losing a Supreme Court decision. Conservative judges, after all, tend to support the enforcement separation of powers as set out in the United States constitution when they see that core principle challenged this way.)
Trump Signs Bill Reopening Government for 3 Weeks in Surprise Retreat From Wall. Trump finally gave in and capitulated after this government shutdown had lasted 35 days, and with nothing to show for it in the way of his having achieved any of his goals in the negotiations that did finally take place, or in his having any real say for how the government would be restarted again.
For a President Consumed with Winning, a Stinging Defeat. And turning back to reconsider this presidents mistakes and missteps and the impact they have on his base and on his support from that core group, I cite this newspaper opinion piece too, and both for what it says and for what it assumes, and particularly with regard to his base.

This shutdown, I stress here, specifically served to break several of the key promises that Trump has made to his core supporters, and certainly with regard to his Mexicans as enemies promises to stop immigration from the South and into the United States by building a wall. That is a point of detail that would be hard to deny. But what has this done to his popularity and particularly as far as his base is concerned? What have any of his actions in fact done, to affect his approval rating numbers there, or his numbers in general when Americans as a whole are polled on the Trump presidency and on how he is doing in office?

This shutdown proceeded on and on and seemingly with no end in sight to it for most of its duration, breaking into entirely new territory as the longest lasting government shutdown in US history. And widely followed news pundits and commentators and from both the left and the right began saying that this time he had gone too far, declaring that this time even his core supporters would start deserting him. Some of them, looking at the shifts in those numbers around the edges, even began to proclaim that this was already starting to happen. But any realistic response to that would have to be a resounding No!

If you look to a polling aggregator site such as fivethirtyeight.com, that draws data from as wide a range of primary sources as possible, and from all across the political spectrum for the organizations that gather in such data, it immediately becomes clear that Donald Trump settled into a roughly 40% positive approval rating nation-wide, early in his administration – very, early in it. And setting aside the up to 2 point shifts up and down that we keep seeing in his numbers, that would best qualify as sampling errors and related background noise in this type of analysis if anything, that roughly 40% rating has held essentially rock steady and for over two years now as of this writing. Donald Trump once famously (infamously) said in public, on-camera and knowingly so that he could walk out on 5th Avenue in the heart of New York City and shoot someone – presumably anyone, and that would not do anything to weaken or reduce his support from his base. Subsequent events have shown that this is one thing that Donald Trump has said and certainly since his first running for political office, that has proven to be absolutely true. His government shutdown, to stress that point here, did essentially nothing to move the needle for his approvals ratings in any statistically significant way, and even when his actions there did create very real and specific problems for a significant proportion of his base and when he was forced to concede defeat from it, without being able to claim success in gaining anything of what he wanted from it. His core supporter base was still not affected for how fervently they support him, or for their numbers in doing so.

What drives this support and what sustains it? Where does it come from? I write here of Trump cultivating and in fact actively building a cult of personality around himself in this posting, and that is very genuinely a reflection of real skills and abilities that he has. But what does that mean and what are its implications for the United States as a whole, and certainly when that undeniable reality is coupled with what charitably might be deemed his bungling, narcissistic incompetence in office when actually attempting to serve as president?

Let’s begin addressing those issues by looking back to before The Donald first looked towards politics as a forum for advancing his own personal cause: himself, and his own personal wealth.

• Donald Trump, like his father before him (Fred Trump) has always sought to market himself as a brilliantly capable self-made man, who has successfully maneuvered from one huge success to another, and throughout his life.
• Realistically, his has built a succession of business failures with six bankruptcies to his name and even when his family has bankrolled those ventures and otherwise sought to offer him positive support.
• And as a child he was given an “allowance” of several hundred thousand dollars a year – starting when he was a toddler!
• His father gave him in total, several hundred million dollars to help jumpstart and support his business empire.
• His Art of the Deal: the book that he claimed as his, as proof of his qualifications as a businessman and negotiator and certainly when seeking public office, was actually ghost written by a professional writer named Tony Schwartz and was not written by him.
• And one of his most powerful tools for presenting himself as a capable leader in the eyes of his base supporters was his reality television show: The Apprentice, in which he showed his leadership skills by giving apprentice candidates often-silly challenges to meet, coupled with bombastic commentary – before telling the losers on his show “you’re fired!”
• But he has effectively marketed himself as a great businessman, a genius, a true conservative, a patriot and a self-made man of the people, and regardless of all of the above seemingly contradictory facts and more, with accusations of his sexually predatory behavior as made against him by several women constituting just one more element of that contending story.

The above bullet-pointed summary of a few of the more-negative details to the Trump story that I could cite here, coupled with my point as to how he is viewed by his base, highlights what should at least appear to be an irreconcilable contradiction and a source of cognitive dissonance, for anyone who would seek to accept Donald Trump for what he claims to be while even just considering the possible validity of details publically known about his actual life story. But his core supporters: his base remain fiercely loyal to him and its members become more so when challenged by any narrative that would seem to contradict their faith in him.

I began what rapidly became an ongoing succession of Trump-related postings to this blog during the race for the nomination as the Republican Party’s anointed presidential candidate, leading up to the 2016 US presidential elections. And my first posting of that still-ongoing succession of installments addressed one part of the seeming conundrum that I write of here, with: Thinking Through the Words We Use in Our Political Monologs. My focus there was on epistemic bubbles: the echo chamber bubbles that so much of our political “dialog” now takes place in where we only hear from those who start out echoing and validating our pre-established assumptions, presumptions and fears, and where no dissenting opinion or evidence thereof can be allowed in. I still contend that that is one of the key driving forces for both creating and maintaining the stark polarization that we see in the United States today, and beyond and on a lot more than just political issues. But this can only be considered one piece to a larger puzzle that has to be understood as a whole if we are to understand the how and why of president Trump’s core supporter base, even if it is an important one.

Donald Trump: our Twitter president with his ongoing torrent of short, easy to read, understand and share base-oriented messages, and his larger public rallies for his supporters, benefits from his particular epistemic bubbles. And he in fact contributes a great deal of the momentum as well as a significant share of the content to those echo chambers and their take on reality as that reflects back and forth within them until it becomes his core base’s received wisdom. But this phenomenon represents only one side: one aspect to his base-supported cult of personality success.

At least as significantly as that for him, Trump effectively reaches out to and connects with the disaffected, the left-out and the angry who in fact delight in Trump’s breaking things and particularly where they see that as causing harm to those who they see as having gained greatly at their expense. This is why Trump, and first as a candidate and would-be candidate, and now as president, has so assiduously spoken out in support of now-obsolete technologies and industries, and the people and communities who used to succeed and even thrive in them – when they were still economically viable and relevant. Consider the coal mining industry as it used to be and as it is now in rural West Virginia, as a steady and reliable source of examples for that. And that example is virtually perfect for purposes of this discussion, for how it raises a key question that could be asked regarding any of Trump’s significant outreach and connect efforts with the members of his base, and certainly when that effort on his part is not largely driven by shared mutually recognized and appreciated bias and prejudice. Why hasn’t president Trump put his effort into supporting and promoting retraining and other efforts that would help to create new opportunities for these people and others like them, and for their communities?

I began this posting with questions and end it with new questions and in fact more of them than I started with. So I am going to follow this posting with a next installment that I expect to have go live just over a week from now, focusing there on Xi Jinping and his story. Then I will continue my discussion of both of these men, for how they have come to follow what might perhaps best be considered the authoritarian playbook. My goal in that will be to expand on what I offer here and on what I will offer in parallel to this concerning Xi, as they seek to gain, redefine and hold onto power.

Meanwhile, you can find my Trump-related postings at Social Networking and Business 2. And you can find my China writings as appear in this blog at Macroeconomics and Business and its Page 2 continuation, and at Ubiquitous Computing and Communications – everywhere all the time and Social Networking and Business 2.

As a final thought here, returning back to consider the Donald Trump that I began this posting with, and the government shutdown that I have highlighted here, I cite one more news story coming out of it:

Trump, in Interview, Calls Wall Talks ‘Waste of Time’ and Dismisses Investigations.

And this is from the self-proclaimed greatest of all negotiators, when bluster and threat cannot work for him on their own and when he would have to actually reach a bargained agreement on something that he has boxed himself into have to see as important, for his image and reputation and for his agenda. I add this updating detail here to highlight the conundrum nature of what I have been writing of here.

2 Responses

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  1. Alan Singer said, on February 4, 2019 at 7:07 am

    One of these leaders isn’t an idiot!

  2. Timothy Platt said, on February 4, 2019 at 12:08 pm

    Hi Alan,
    I am not sure whether I should respond to your comment by asking which one you have in mind, or by pointing out that the view you express is a trap that is all too easy to fall into, and a non sequitur. Neither Trump nor Xi is stupid, and certainly if you only judge them on the basis of their likely test score IQs. Both are purblind and certainly to the fuller consequences of their here-and-now decisions and actions – and that is even true for Xi when he does in fact think longer-term and in terms of creating a form of China-led global greatness as his lasting legacy. Mostly, both are very dangerous and even as they both in their own ways, promote and carry out policies and practices that can only create long-term problems.

    Trump is tremendously ineffectual, except at one thing – except at one skill that he genuinely excels at: self-marketing and his capabilities for building a significantly large core group of even fanatically loyal followers and supporters. His otherwise ineffectualness is probably his saving grace insofar as it limits the level of damage that he can achieve and certainly in any immediate here and now. But he has and will continue to do great harm, and damage that in aggregate will take a generation and more to unwind from and correct from to the extent that we can. He is bombastic and ineffectual, and to add to the challenges that he faces in fulfilling his self-identified destiny, he does live in a country that is governed by constitutional law that is grounded in largely democratic principles and he does have to contend with a still largely free press at that, that is quite willing to call him out and challenge his lies. All of this: his more internal limitations and the limitations and constrains imposed upon him from the outside, limit the harm he can do. But his presidency has still been what amounts to a cancer on our body politic and on our society as a whole, and it is a cancer that continues to cause harm on a more global scale too.

    As for Xi, he lives in a nation that is wholly owned by and controlled by one political party that he personally controls and with an iron hand. If I were in a position to offer him one piece of advice, as I think through his overtly stated plans to reshape his country and all that it might come to control, it would be to remind him of the failings of Mao and Stalin. In particular, I would remind him of how both of them, his predecessors in supreme power in communist systems, took actions that led to the starvation of literally millions of their fellow citizens and just from how they tried rebuilding their countries’ agricultural systems in their own images and for Mao through his Cultural Revolution and Great Leap Forward! Is he an idiot? Are they idiots: Trump and Xi? No, not really. They are both however dangerous and harmful, each in their own way.

    Xi is certainly the more thoughtful, more in control of himself, more organized and more capable of the two. But both have blinders on and we will all pay for that and both more immediate and longer term, and certainly as Xi takes advantage in the East, of the power vacuum that Trump has created globally, just as Putin is attempting to do in the West for his Russia.

    I expect to more fully address the How of what I discuss in this reply, when I turn to consider how Trump and Xi approach and seek to follow the authoritarian playbook, as I will do in at least one upcoming installment to this series. And I will flesh out more fully in that, more precisely how and why they are both so dangerous then too.

    Thanks for your comment, Tim


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