People of a certain age will understand the reference about the elephant who rebelled against the circus hierarchy and left the circus to find freedom in the matriarchy of wild elephants (see here).
The focus on freedom and the end of the chorus, a rhythmic pounding of ‘trump’, connect well to the phenomenon which is Donald Trump. Right now in the US (it could all have changed when you read this) we have the remarkable mixture of a man who is apparently trusted by an increasing number of people who believe him to be man of real integrity. At the same time as he is accused by the media and the establishment of being a ‘con-man’, a ‘failure’ and so on, he is trusted by his supporters all the more. As one supporter said “We’re tired of being lied to. We’re tired of being cheated. The more they try to attack him, the more we love him”.
The people they do not trust are ‘them’, and what characterizes ‘them’ is that they are alien and powerful; intellectuals who look down from a different world of power; different ethnic groups who wield the power of terrorism; politicians who keep power to themselves
and so on. Mr. Trump’s brand of rhetoric simply reinforces the polarized perception and the self-identity of powerlessness. And perception is all important. Mr. Trump is not an alien, and he stands up for the powerless. Even the Pope at this moment is powerless to respond to this. In a sense he should have known, because the Pope is one the biggest establishment figures in the world. So Trump won.
This offers several lessons for leadership. First, if you don’t listen to people don’t expect them to follow. Whatever we may feel about Trump and his followers they do not feel ‘heard’. Secondly, leadership is always responsible for the future (see especially Hans Jonas The Imperative of Responsibility 1984). The GOP leadership in the States decided to polarize issues before and after Obama came to power. He was in many different ways cast as the ‘alien’. The logical deficiencies of the Tea Party gradually became apparent, but the adversarial tone stayed- opposing the President at all costs, and always moving away from consensus. By doing that, they have set the tone for this election. Trump has skillfully
built on that and the Republican Establishment have themselves become alien. You reap what you sow, in this case a whirlwind (Hosea 8:7). The biblically literate GOP now have an existential example all of their own. Third, leadership which focuses on polarization is
very powerful. It was there with Hitler, with Enron and with all of the negative religious cults. But in the end it will lead to fragmentation, corruption and conflict. Some of this was seen prior to the cancellation of the Chicago rally. Trump is now attempting to show that the conflict itself is a result of anger on both sides against the establishment. His initial response was to stoke the conflict, accusing Sanders of fomenting the protests. I have no doubt he will shortly cast himself as the healer of wounds, who only wants peace.
But you cannot heal wounds if all you see is the alien, and all you feel is fear. Difference, grasping the different narratives together, and holding each other to account, is critical to effective leadership, both in peace building and enterprise. Without that leadership sees less than half the world, and it will get smaller. As the CEO of Unilever writes, ‘We must find and create tensions—force people into different space for thinking…This is not just a performance issue but a survival issue, because managing paradox helps foster creativity and high performance’ (Quoted in Lewis et al ‘Paradoxical Leadership to Enable Strategic Agility’, California Management Review Vol. 56, No. 3, 2014, p.1).
Director of the Centre for Governance, Leadership, and Global Responsibility