Platt Perspective on Business and Technology

Donald Trump, Xi Jinping, and the contrasts of leadership in the 21st century 12: some thoughts concerning how Xi and Trump approach and seek to follow an authoritarian playbook 3

Posted in book recommendations, macroeconomics, social networking and business by Timothy Platt on March 17, 2019

This is my third posting to explicitly discuss and analyze an approach to leadership that I have come to refer to as the authoritarian playbook. See Part 1 and Part 2 of this progression of series installments, and a set of three closely related postings that I offered immediately prior to them that focus in on one of the foundational building blocks to the authoritarian playbook approach as a whole: the cult of personality, with its Part 1 focusing on Donald Trump and his cult-building efforts, Part 2 focusing on Xi Jinping’s efforts in that direction, and Part 3 stepping back to consider cults of personality in general.

I at least briefly outlined a set of tools and approaches to using them in my second installment on the authoritarian playbook itself as just cited above, that in effect mirrors how I stepped back from the specifics of Trump and Xi in my third posting on cults of personality, to put their stories into an at least hopefully clearer and fuller context. And I continue this now-six posting progression here with a goal of offering a still fuller discussion of this general approach to leadership, while also turning back to more fully consider Donald Trump and Xi Jinping themselves as at least would-be authoritarians.

I begin this posting’s discussion on that note by raising a detail that I said that I would turn to here, but that might at first appear to be at least somewhat inconsistent too, and certainly when measured up against my discussions of cults of personality and the authoritarian playbook as a largely unified and consistent vision and approach.

I have presented authoritarians and would-be authoritarians as striding forth in palpably visible self-confidence to proclaim their exceptionalism and their greatness, and to proclaim that they are the only ones who could possibly lead and save their followers: their people from the implacable, evil enemies that they face. This means these at least would-be leaders building their entire foundation for leadership on trust and on its being offered and on an ongoing basis: a leader’s trust that if they build their cults of personality effectively and if they take the right steps in the right ways in pursuing and wielding power, others: their followers, will trust and follow them. And this also arguably has to include their own trust that these, their followers will consistently remain true to them in their own beliefs too. Then I ended my second playbook-outlining posting by raising a crucial form of doubt that enters into and in fact informs all of this as it actually plays out:

• Trust, or rather the abnegation of even a possibility of holding trust in anyone or anything outside of self for a would-be authoritarian.

Ultimately, I would argue that an authoritarian’s trust in their followers, or in anyone else outside of themselves, rings as hollow as the cult of personality mask that they wear. And raising that point of observation, I turn to at least briefly reconsider the basic tools to this leadership playbook itself again.

I said at the end of my second playbook installment that I would turn back to reconsider Xi and Trump as specific case in point examples here and do so starting with Xi and his story in order to take what follows out of the abstract, leaving it imbued with a real, historically knowable face. And I begin that by returning to a crucially important point that I made when discussing Xi’s cult of personality and how he has sought to build one about himself: the trauma that befell his father and through that, himself and the rest of his immediate family too.

I began writing of Xi Jinping’s father, Xi Zhongxun in my discussion of the son’s effort to create a cult of personality around himself. Mao Zedong launched his Cultural Revolution out of fear that he was losing control of his revolution as other, competing voices sought to realize the promise of liberation from China’s nobility-led surf peasant society. He began this counteroffensive against what he saw as a challenge to his ultimate authority with his promise to listen and include: his let a hundred flowers bloom promise. But then he pulled back and all who did speak up, all who did offer their thoughts as to how and where the Communist revolution should go from there, were swept up as revisionists by the Cultural Revolution, declared by its zealot cadres to be enemies of the state and of the people.

Many were so caught up, with academics and members of China’s intelligentsia targeted in large numbers, as particular threats to Mao’s vision and to the revolution that he was leading through his cult of personality. And even people who had served Mao well and from early on in the revolution, form the long days of the Long March with all of its risks and uncertainties were caught up in this. Xi Zhongxun was a loyal follower of Mao and from the beginning. As such he was elevated into Chinese Communism’s new emerging proletarian nobility as Mao succeeded and took power. Xi Jinping, his son was raised as a member of China’s new Crown Prince Party and as an heir apparent to his father’s social and political stature there. And then Mao turned on them, just as he had turned on so many before them, and all fell into chaos with his father hauled up for public ridicule before screaming hoards in Cultural Revolution struggle sessions: public appearances in which the accused were beaten and ridiculed and forced to publically confess to whatever crimes they were being accused of at that moment.

Many who faced those gauntlets of ridicule and torture did not survive them and certainly when they were repeatedly subjected to these assaults. Zhongxun did survive, as he did confess and confess and confess. So he and his family, his young son Jinping included, were sent to a distant and isolated peasant community for reeducation.

One of the lessons that Jinping learned was that his survival meant his becoming more orthodox in his Communist purity than anyone else, and more actively ambitious in advancing through the Party ranks for his purity and reliability of thought and action. But a second, and more important lesson learned from all of this, and certainly for its long-term impact was that Xi learned to never trust anyone else and certainly in ways that might challenge his position and security, or his rising power and authority. I have written here in this progression of postings, of cults of personality as masks. Xi learned and both early on and well in this, to smile and to fit in and to strive to be the best and to succeed and with that expression of approval and agreement always there on his face. He learned to wear a mask, and to only trust himself. And his mask became the basis of his cult of personality as he advanced along the path of fulfilling his promise to himself and yes, to his father, and as he rose through the ranks in the Party system that had so irrevocably shaped his life and certainly starting with his father’s initial arrest.

How did this pattern arise and play out for a young Donald Trump? Turn to consider his father for his pivotal role in shaping his son too.

• What happens when only perfection is acceptable and when that is an always changing and never achievable goal, and when deception and duplicity can be the closest to achieving it that can actually be achievable?
• What happens to a young impressionable son when winning is the only acceptable outcome, ever, and when admitting weakness or defeat can only lead to dire humiliating consequences?
• Fear comes to rule all, and it is no accident that an adult Donald Trump sees fear and instilling it in others as his most powerful tool and both in his business and professional life, and apparently in his personal life too. (See:
• Woodword, B. (2018) Fear: Trump in the White House. Simon & Schuster, for a telling account of how Donald Trump uses this tool as his guiding principle when dealing with others.)
• And genuine trust in others, or trustworthiness towards others become impossible, with those who oppose The Donald on anything, considered as if existential treats and enemies, and those who support and enable him considered disposable pawns and gullible fools to be used and then discarded.

Cults of personality are masks and ultimately hollow ones for those who would pursue the autocratic playbook. And ultimately so is the promise of the autocrat and their offer of better for those who would follow them. And that is why they have to so carefully and assiduously grab and hold onto power, using the other tools of the playbook to do so.

I have focused in this posting on trust and on how it does and does not arise and flow forward towards others. Turning back to my initial comments on this, as offered here, a would-be authoritarian, a would-be tyrant or dictator calculatingly develops and promotes his cult of personality with a goal of gaining trust and support from as large and actively engaged a population of supporters as possible. So they calculatingly seek to develop and instill trust in themselves, in others. But ultimately they do not and in a fundamental sense cannot trust any of those others and certainly not as individuals. The closest they can come to achieving that is to develop a wary trust on the more amorphous face of their followers as nameless markers in larger demographics. And that, arguably just means their trusting themselves for their capability to keep those individually nameless and faceless members of the hoard in line.

I am going to continue this narrative in a next series installment where I will turn to consider legacies and the authoritarian’s need to build what amounts to monuments to their glory that they might never be forgotten. In anticipation of that discussion to come I will argue that while the underlying thought and motivation that would enter into this for any particular authoritarian might be complex, much if not most of that is shaped at least as a matter of general principles by two forces: fear, and a desire to build for permanence and with grandiosity driving both sides to that. And for working examples, I will discuss Trump’s southern border wall ambitions, and his more general claims to seek to rebuild the American infrastructure, and Xi’s imperially unlimited infrastructure and related ambitions too.

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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