Platt Perspective on Business and Technology

Donald Trump, Xi Jinping, and the contrasts of leadership in the 21st century 10: some thoughts concerning how Xi and Trump approach and seek to follow an authoritarian playbook 1

Posted in macroeconomics, social networking and business by Timothy Platt on February 21, 2019

I have recently offered three postings that discuss Donald Trump and his leadership, and Xi Jinping and his in this blog, that seek to lay a foundation for thinking about how they both seek to develop cults of personality around themselves. See this piece on Donald Trump’s cult of personality and this follow-up posting to that on Xi Jinping’s, and this more general discussion that I have offered here on cults of personality per se.

My goal for this posting is to at least begin a discussion of what I refer to as the authoritarian playbook, as that has been playing out in the context of these two historically significant figures – and both of them are that, regardless of what anyone might think of their decisions or actions, or how or why they have arrived at them. I will in fact very directly and specifically discuss this playbook and its issues in what follows, but I note in anticipation of doing so that I will delve into it in terms of what is still an ongoing discussion of cults of personality, and of how and why Trump and Xi have each sought to develop and shape their own. After all, as I noted in my more general discussion of that phenomenon,

• Cultivation of a true cult of personality is one of the key tools in the authoritarian playbook, as it forms the front that a would-be authoritarian builds as their organizing face to such an endeavor.

So I begin my discussion of the authoritarian playbook per se by continuing my discussion of cults of personality, and with a goal of completing that line of enquiry at least for purposes of this narrative and this stage of it, before discussing other aspects of this more general phenomenon. And I begin doing so by offering a general point of observation here, that serves as a continuation of my above-cited postings and as a lead-in to this one. And it is one that I will use as an organizing principle for what is to follow here. I have written in this discussion about how any real cult of personality has two distinct and essential faces: that of the person at its center and that of the crowd that would follow them. Going beyond that basic statement, I add here that:

• A cult of personality is a mutually constructed, shaped, reinforced and maintained effort that fundamentally requires the effort of both the person at its center and of their supportive followers to build it,
• But ultimately, both its maintenance and its stability ultimately rest and certainly long-term in the hands of its crowd of followers.

When the bubble bursts for that, and a cult of personality collapses around the leader at its center for their not being able to live up to its stereotypic dictates, the authoritarian rule of that person caught in its middle generally collapses too. For two historic examples of that, consider the fall of Benito Amilcare Andrea Mussolini, his corpse hung upside down for public ridicule by crowds of his by-then disenchanted former supporters. And consider the luckier if no less definitive fate of Idi Amin Dada Oumee, who was overthrown to widespread public cheers but who managed to find safe haven in Saudi Arabia for the rest of his days in what must have seemed at times, a gilded cage of “comfortable retirement.” He at least lived, where many of his fellow failed authoritarians have met more violent ends as their cults of personality and their reins of power have collapsed.

But I am getting ahead of myself, and ahead of the stories that I write of here, when I touch upon matters of how these approaches to leadership can end.

• Donald Trump is under intense scrutiny and real threat of impeachment and removal from office as the president of the United States right now. But he is still very much the sitting president there and he is likely to remain so and even through the rest of his current term of office. And I have to add that even if he were to be impeached and removed from office, through conviction in the US Senate on charges passed as a bill of impeachment by the US House, it is very likely that a newly sworn in president Mike Pence would offer him a full pardon.
• When a still just recently sworn in vice president Gerald Ford, turned newly sworn in US president, pardoned Richard Nixon, that ended Ford’s political career and just as thoroughly as Nixon’s had just ended. And Ford was not even caught up in any way in the crimes and scandals that led to Nixon’s downfall.
• Pence, on the other hand, in all probability would see an end to further formal investigations from his offering a full pardon to Trump: investigations that he might become caught up in too, as a good trade-off for him when that type of political loss would be his primary downside there. He, after all, has been an insider through all of Donald Trump’s presidential administration.
• Either way: Trump’s removal from office before the normal completion of his term of office, or when finishing that term of office and moving on, Trump is likely to face a more Idi Amin-like post-presidential future, retiring to his Mar-a-Lago resort and his other properties and without the travel restrictions that Amin faced in his exile.
• Xi Jinping, on the other hand, is still a rising star in his China. Yes, there are clouds and potential for more of them on his horizon, but his future looks fairly secure right now and he is still gaining strength in his efforts, at this time and for essentially any realistically emerging foreseeable future.

But let’s step back from that longer-term, end of tenure perspective to consider Trump’s and Xi’s heres and nows. And I begin that by at least briefly and selectively considering what drives them:

• I would argue that both of these man have what might perhaps best be seen as father issues.
• Fred Trump was ruthless and demanding, and he demanded both an unattainable perfection and a complete ruthlessness on the part of his son in achieving that too. Donald Trump is the man he is today, at least in part because of how he has sought to live up to his father’s ideals. And father figure mentors who he has picked up along the way, have only reinforced and fine tuned that basic birthright message. I cite by way of example, his relationship with Roy Cohn: Senator Joseph McCarthy’s former chief legal counsel from during his anti-communist witch hunt days and one of Donald Trump’s key formative years mentors (see for example: The Man Who Showed Donald Trump How to Exploit Power and Instill Fear.)
• Donald Trump, in a fundamental sense has at least seemingly always been trying to secure his father’s approval: his affirmation of worth and of worthiness. And his ongoing driving goal in this is to achieve victory at all cost, every time and on everything; even when he has been cornered into business bankruptcy, as has happened multiple times now, he has felt overwhelmingly compelled to declare victory even then! And his search for approval and for affirmation continues, and he declares victory after victory now too, and even as his presidency has collapsed into caricatured failure.
• I wrote in Some Thoughts Concerning Xi Jinping’s Cult of Personality, of Xi Zhongxun: Jinping’s father and of his downfall and humiliation at the hands of angry mobs, fired up by the excesses of Mao’s Cultural Revolution. A young Xi Jinping, raised from infancy into China’s new communist era elite, suddenly had to watch while screaming crowds threw trash and garbage as his father as he was led through them for abuse, while on his way into exile and reeducation.
• Jinping has sought since then to affirm and yes, vindicate his father. And I would argue that as ironic as this might seem, the architect of that Cultural Revolution: Mao Zedong himself has served as a role model and even as a virtual mentor for him – for how to gain and hold power and even supreme power in China’s turbulent society.
• Donald Trump presents himself, as a big part of his side of his cult of personality, as brashly self-confident and boastful. And that is a part of his image that resonates with his followers who gravitate toward him from their anger at being societally marginalized and left out. They seek out a leader who can and will take command and break things where necessary to get and keep his way, while proclaiming that he will restore what his followers have lost and unfairly so.
• I have written here in this series, and in its immediately preceding installment before now in particular, about how a cult of personality is a mask and even a hollow shell. Trump’s boastful bravado is too; I strongly suspect that at heart he is the most insecure and self-doubting person to have ever held the office of president in the United States, or he would be if he could consciously, actively, directly face his own feelings. But that might be an impossibility for him, given his father’s lessons that a Trump can never be weak, let alone show that and that a Trump can never lose, anything, ever.
• As for Xi Jinping, he has sought to build this cult of personality base of followers by presenting himself as a reformer who can and does and will pursue and prosecute wrongdoers in his nation’ one political party and government system – who have taken from the masses at their expense, leaving them left out and marginalized too.

What is Donald Trump’s self image at its core? I would argue that it is one of his knowing that he can never actually live up to his father’s expectations or demands. What is Xi’s at his core? It is probably at least in part shaped by the fact that he knows in his heart that as much as he can do and as far as he can go in achieving his goals, he can never really restore his father to what he knows should have been his life and his future. Both of these men are driven by what are ultimately their personal unattainables: their personally most desired unattainables. And both of them, each in their own way, has sought absolute power as a route to reaching their images of their ultimate goals in all of this.

And this brings me directly to the understandings and approaches that collectively comprise the authoritarian playbook, as Trump and Xi have both sought to follow its dictates in reaching their goals. A drive to achieve absolute power generally arises from a need for absolute acceptance and approval, and absolute affirmation of capability and of worthiness for it. But setting aside cult of personality issues for a moment, and consideration of that level of effort entered into in building a support base that such a would-be leader can build from, what else goes into the authoritarian playbook recipe here? Let’s start addressing that question by noting a key supportive element to the cult of personality, that enters into its formulation: a calculated distinction between insiders and the good, and outsiders and the bad:

• Authoritarians and would-be authoritarians seek to calculatingly mix charm where that would serve their self-perceived interests, with violence and even extreme violence when that would serve their purposes.

Fred Trump sent his young son to a military academy oriented boarding school because Donald got into so much trouble from physically assaulting a teacher who had found fault with him. A young Benito Mussolini got into trouble for stabbing people he did not like, who he saw as disrespecting him. At least Donald Trump didn’t have a knife on him at the time.

Authoritarians build their support in their bases by setting up shared enemies, and by presenting themselves as the only one who can lead their people through the crises that those enemies create.

• Hitler held up Jews and Gypsies, and more as his enemies and as enemies of the state and as enemies of the people, to cite one of many possible historic examples here.
• Xi holds up the Uighurs of northwest China and Tibetan separatists, and followers of disallowed religions such as members of the Falon Gong as fundamentally threatening enemies of the state and of the people, among others.
• And Donald Trump holds up Muslims, Mexicans and other Latin Americans, and of course anyone who he would view as being liberal or progressive in the United States as his existential threat enemies: anyone who in any way might question or challenge him. Trump has even publically branded these and other groups of his enemies as “enemies of the people” a specific label in direct translation of one that Stalin and others have used in branding their enemies: their evil outsiders.

I am going to continue this discussion in a next series installment, where I will both add to my outline as begun here of what goes into the authoritarian playbook, and address the questions of how Trump and Xi approach and use those tools as they seek to gain and hold absolute authoritarian power in their own hands.

In anticipation of that narrative continuation to come, I will among other things discuss how authoritarians seek to achieve greater power and authority, by systematically undercutting any possible voices of competition, and both societally and politically, and as challenge might arise against them in the press, and as it might exist in other government offices or agencies or from any other sources (e.g. from academia or the business sector.) This means their launching and carrying out campaigns to threaten and intimidate, to marginalize, and where possible and necessary to eliminate any possible alternative voices of authority or power.

• As a cautionary note, historical aside, I would pose and at least briefly answer a simple seeming question here.
• Why in this regard did Josip Broz Tito’s Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia fall apart as a unified nation and collapse into genocidal conflict, shattering into multiple smaller damaged nation states upon his death?
• He had very successfully, systematically and completely eliminated any possible successors to himself as a national leader there who might have either individually or collectively created a power transition that could have been more peaceful upon his demise. He died peacefully to end his authoritarian rule; chaos followed from how he had followed the dictates of the authoritarian playbook.

An authoritarian sets themselves up as the essential, absolutely required leader and as the only one who their people can trust to safeguard and lead them. Authoritarian figures do not always have the wherewithal to be able to reach that goal as a complete, absolute reality. But they do try to approach it as fully as they can, and even, as in Donald Trump’s case when that can never be achieved as long as his country: the United States, continues to function under its current constitution. Xi has a much freer hand in this, in his one political party nation state.

I will continue this narrative in a next installment to it, as promised above, adding in further details there to what I have begun. As a part of that I will offer more background perspective on Donald Trump and on Xi Jinping.

That said, I freely acknowledging that some of the historical examples that I can and will cite in all of this are quite extreme, as my just-cited Tito example was, and as my note on the downfall of Mussolini was. I include examples like that here to indicate where following this playbook can lead, when taken to its logical-conclusion extreme.

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.

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