In business, there are many versions of the virtuous circle. Amazon, for example, gains customer insights on a real-time basis and then puts it to use in acquiring, pricing, selling and distributing inventory. Each element of its business opens a window to improving the other elements.
Virtuous circles in public affairs turn on success, or at least the appearance of success. When a public figure initiates both an effective and popular move, he/she stands a better chance of being given the benefit of the doubt on future ones. Of course, performance in politics is enhanced when there are attractive personal attributes. Presidents John F. Kennedy, Ronald Reagan and Barack Obama in my lifetime enjoyed halo effects because of intangible assets.
But, when some combination of tangibles and intangibles cause a loss of popularity, a negative circle of consequences develops and is very difficult to reverse. Presidents Lyndon B. Johnson, Richard Nixon and Jimmy Carter, in particular, were defeated by the physics of destruction, an irreversible momentum. President Donald Trump has joined these leaders and at a very unfortunate time for the nation — issues press, division intensifies, and Trump is only in his fourth month.
I was raised to respect presidents. They were elected — democracy in action. And, they were the most meaningful expression of our nation’s day-to-day strength or weakness. We didn’t have to agree with everything our president did, but we had to always keep in mind that if he was weak, our collective strength was hurt — weak president, weakened nation.
I didn’t vote for Trump but have tried to keep my essays dispassionate — time has weighed on me, though.
Trump deserves much of his unpopularity. He began his presidency as if he had spent a lifetime preparing for the burdens. The reality is that he is an amateur — plenty of bluster but little else. Most unfortunately, he has let down his supporters who looked at all of the Republican and Democrat regulars and judged them unacceptable.
Rarely does a news cycle end without Trump attacking the media. The media, an imperfect bunch to be sure, is nonetheless the connectivity between the governed and its leaders. Reagan’s sparring with Sam Donaldson should be studied. Donaldson’s critical coverage was masterfully disarmed by Reagan. Attempting to destroy the media is destructive on both a personal and collective level.
In my view, Trump has made some good choices in assembling his national security and foreign policy team, but then he gets out ahead of them. Surely he learned in running a hotel company that he needed to avoid undermining his managers. It makes no sense.
The problem is he seems incapable of understanding his problems. He seeks out enablers. When you are president, this is the single most egregious mistake. Being a successful president is a really difficult job, and enablers, and let me add apologists, are inevitably ill-informed and often obsequious.
So where does the nation go from here? It now seems clear that Trump will not become a controlled and stable leader in a position for which he received no preparation. I hope to be surprised.
We have been here before. President Nixon resigned to forestall impeachment. President Bill Clinton was impeached but not convicted. Both sagas were long, drawn-out and debilitating.
When a president is failing, America’s most important institutions and their leaders must recalibrate their roles. They will need to fill vacuums. They will need to cushion chaos. They will need to provide a measure of strength and stability.
The loyal opposition should be measured and careful with their prerogatives. The Republican leadership should lower the decibels of partisanship and be prepared to speak truth to power.
The Fourth Estate has a particularly vital role to play. The knives are out, and separating fact from fiction requires capable journalists who go well beyond a crossfire version of the news.
Finally, Trump has appointed some capable people to head the Departments of State, Defense and Treasury. Their exercise of power and advice to the president will be important.
Let me close with repetition. I hope I am wrong. America needs encouragement — proponents and opponents alike. The appointment of Judge Merrick Garland or a similarly well-regarded FBI head would be a big step in the right direction.
Al Sikes’ leadership helped shape the arc of 21st century communication technologies from positions as Chairman of the Federal Communications Commission and then President of Hearst New Media. In 2004, the Manhattan Institute chose Sikes as one of eight winners of the Social Entrepreneurship Award for having founded READ ALLIANCE, which trains teenagers to tutor children with reading deficiencies. Sikes second book, Culture Leads Leaders Follow was recently published by Koehler Books.