Trump is about to test our theory of when leaders actually matter

by Gautam Mukunda – the Harvard Business Review

I will not pretend that this is an easy piece for me to write.

I was absolutely certain that Hillary Clinton would not just win but win handily, and equally certain that Donald Trump, were he to be elected, would be a disaster as president, both because I disagreed with his policies and because I felt that his combination of erratic decision making and ignorance about the basics of government spelled nearly certain catastrophe. I can only hope I will be proven as wrong about the second as I was about the first.

For me, this mistake is particularly stinging. My book, Indispensable: When Leaders Really Matter, is about outsider and inexperienced leaders (I call them unfiltered leaders) and how and when they take power. Most of it is a study of outsider presidents; one of its central arguments is that the United States is far more prone to electing such leaders than any other developed country. Donald Trump could have stepped from its pages as the ultimate example of an unfiltered leader. That should have made me able to foresee his victory. Instead, my fear of the damage he might do, ranging from the destruction of the global trading system to legislated discrimination against minorities, made complete my denial of even the possibility of him winning. That’s my only explanation, and it is neither an excuse nor a consolation.

Having been so wrong about this election, I hesitate to make many predictions. Compounding that problem, of course, is the enormous degree of uncertainty surrounding what Trump actually wants to do as president and how much he will defer to Congress on the details, and even the broad strokes, of his policy agenda. But thinking about leadership and politics is what I do, particularly about surprising victors like Trump, so for whatever they’re worth, here are my initial thoughts.

Leaders like Trump — outsiders who are not supported by the established elites — generally have high variance in their performance. They do things that no one else would do, and because of that, they do either very well or very poorly. Their impact is maximized when the constraints on their freedom of action are minimized, and that’s the situation Trump will be in until at least the 2018 midterm elections. Republican control of the House and Senate, presumably soon to be followed by the immediate appointment of a conservative Supreme Court justice, will give a radicalized Republican Party the unified control of the government that it has not had since 2007. Thus we should expect the Trump administration to initially have an almost entirely free hand in shaping government policy. This worries me deeply, but it also creates an opportunity for the country, if Trump chooses to capitalize on it.

Although Trump did not win the popular vote, the precedent set by George W. Bush’s administration in 2000 strongly suggests that this will not significantly restrain Trump or his party, although it may decrease his legitimacy in the eyes of some. That he was endorsed by many major office-holding Republicans during the campaign suggests that, now that he is backed by the full power of the presidency, there is likely to be little Republican opposition to his agenda. Even if Republican leaders wanted to stand up to him, Trump has just worked the greatest political miracle in American history. What Republican politician who values his or her career would be willing to face that?

Let’s begin with the challenges for the Trump administration and then move on to the opportunities. The immediate crisis that President-elect Trump may have to deal with, as President Obama did, is financial market volatility. If the turmoil is only momentary, then the situation may stabilize by the time Obama leaves office. It’s worrying, however, that the global economy and financial system still have not fully recovered from the 2008 financial crisis, so we have to at least think about the possibility of a much longer-lasting downturn.

Compounding this, Trump ran on a fiscal policy that combines very large tax cuts primarily for the wealthiest Americans and very large cuts in spending, particularly social spending, directed at the poorest taxpayers — a position Republicans in Congress have similarly advocated. He seems likely to match this with protectionist measures that may substantially decrease global trade. Depending on the size of the infrastructure spending Trump is planning (including his proposed wall along the U.S.-Mexico border), there may be a significant negative impact on both U.S. and international growth prospects.

Economic forecasting is as much a fool’s game as political forecasting just proved to be, but the risk that we will see a major global recession is higher today than it was yesterday, possibly exacerbated by uncertainty surrounding the capabilities and intentions of the American government. This risk would be further heightened if Trump follows through on his musings about defaulting on the U.S.’s debt.

In terms of foreign policy, we may see immediate reevaluations of their situation from Japan, South Korea, and other U.S. allies protected by American security guarantees. Japan and Korea may reconsider their reliance on the American nuclear deterrent and contemplate withdrawing from the Non-Proliferation Treaty and acquiring nuclear weapons of their own. It’s far too soon to know whether they will do that, but we can be sure that serious discussions of this possibility have already begun in Tokyo and Seoul, among other world capitals. The NATO alliance is in jeopardy too. It seems likely that Russia, perhaps the most extraordinary victor of yesterday’s events, will test NATO soon.

But questions of economic and foreign policy feel sterile today. On a deeper level, we will have to wrestle with the question of what America’s identity is and what the country stands for. As a presidential candidate, Trump suggested that he wants the American armed forces to adopt policies including the use of torture and the deliberate killing of civilians.

Will Trump pursue these plans as president?

If he does, I have no doubt that members of the military will obey the law. But the law can be changed, and with Republican control of Congress, it might well be. Members of the American military may soon have to face ethical tests unlike any they have ever contemplated — not how to disobey an illegal order but whether to obey an immoral one. Members of Homeland Security will have to ask themselves if they are willing to deport Syrian refugees who have already been admitted to the country. These are the first two challenges that come to mind. There may be others.

All of these are, of course, a worst-case scenario. If I believe my own research — and I suppose I should — President-elect Trump also has great potential.

I will admit that it is hard for me to visualize a successful Trump presidency, given his history of failures and scams in business and his vague and often self-contradictory agenda. But surely a successful presidency is at least possible, and I pray that’s what we see. What would it look like? What opportunities are open to Trump that would not be open to a conventional president? Unfiltered leaders succeed when they utilize the skills and knowledge of their experienced rivals and when they have insights and take approaches to which conventional leaders are blind.

Trump’s victory speech was, in that sense, encouraging. He reached out to Hillary Clinton and her supporters in tones entirely different from those he used in the campaign. He did not use the speech to stump for policies that seemed to single out particular ethnicities and religions. In fact, the major policy proposal he seemed to support was a public works initiative — something that most Democrats would support, and, in fact, might support more than most Republicans.

Trump’s campaign clearly spoke to a segment of the American population that felt profoundly abandoned by the way American society has changed. Some of that had to do with issues of race and gender, but much of it did not. The levels of anger and disaffection must be addressed. If Trump can find ways to do so that do not sacrifice core American values, then I (and, I’m sure, most Americans) will applaud him. I won’t pretend that I’m optimistic. But the possibility exists, and I hope that he and his party pursue it.

At the very least, Trump’s presidency will break the increasingly bitter deadlock that has paralyzed American government for the last six years. For at least the next two years, the Republican Party owns it. They control the government. Having blocked the nomination of Merrick Garland to the Supreme Court, they threw out more than two centuries of tradition about how the government functions in a wager to gain complete control of the American government — and they won. The scale of that achievement, both its potential and its risks, cannot be overstated. Whatever happens next, for good or for ill, is their responsibility. Seize it, and Republican dominance of American politics for a generation is likely all but assured. Fail, and the fall from so great a height will be terrible.

In the face of this catastrophic defeat, Democrats have a number of obligations. The Democratic Party is in the weakest institutional position it has ever held in the history of the United States. If Trump succeeds as president, Democrats have no chance at a near-term comeback. But if he fails, what should Democrats do? The party should certainly run better candidates. It should certainly try to position itself better to counteract its Electoral College disadvantage. Far beyond that, though, it needs to commit to making a play for every American, not just trying to assemble a minimal winning demographic coalition.

The Democratic Party should commit to running credible candidates in every single one of the 435 Congressional districts and supporting every one of them with field offices that can report in on the real state of affairs on the ground. Just as important, it needs to learn how to speak in ways that address problems of racial justice without alienating white voters. This is certainly a difficult task, but President Obama’s 54% approval rating testifies that it is not impossible.

I can’t tell you what the future will bring. Countries are not what they espouse; they are what they do. The American creed has inspired billions of people around the world. Even if we have not always lived up to it ourselves, I have never doubted that it is real and powerful and that it can carry us through the darkest of times. We don’t know what will happen next. No one does. But if you had asked me yesterday morning what I believe, I would have told you that I believe in God, I believe in my parents, and I believe in the United States of America. However stunned I am by what happened last night, I still believe.