Note: The image to the right is not real. It is fake. It is not a dead parrot, but it is not a real parrot either.
Reading and listening to the mainstream media, it has been suggested that this new president is willing to distort reality openly and brazenly with essentially no subtlety or grace mostly for his own self-aggrandizement and to protect his brand. The Trump brand has been his bread and butter for over forty years. Should we be surprised? We’ve known this guy since at least 1973. But is brand protection really an excuse for a president?
When I started writing this essay we’d just witnessed the pissing match between Trump and the media over how many people had attended his inauguration. During a very weird scene at CIA headquarters in Langley, VA, Trump said in the middle of a harangue about crowd numbers: “I have a running war with the media. They are among the most dishonest human beings on Earth.”
He had also sent out his two main mouthpieces, Sean Spicer and Kellyanne Conway to stir things up. Spicer, in his first ever White House lectern performance with the media, berated them for concocting lies and misinformation. The next day Kellyanne Conway introduced the idea of “alternative facts” to an incredulous Chuck Todd on Meet the Press. Everything’s been going downhill since that first weekend in the communication department for this administration.
We have to hope that they’re just fumbling around because they don’t know any better. It’s hard to be sure, though. How hard would it have been for Trump to just note in his CIA speech that he didn’t care what the numbers were, he knew people all over America had tuned in to see history being made. And the obvious statement by Spicer could have been, “We think that a lot more people were there than you can see. And we’re also pretty sure a huge number of media viewers weren’t counted because they were watching on various connections to the internet.”
I spent thirty years working with public and private sector executives and administrators trying to get them to change how their organizations do things. I also worked intimately with everyone from custodians to secretaries to teachers, students, mid-level managers, security guards, contractors, and IT personnel. One thing I know works wonders in bringing people over to your side is a little bit of humility and gentle humor. I’m guessing most people in America know these basic social graces in their professional lives. Certainly other presidents we’ve had — from Johnson and Carter and Reagan to Clinton, the Bushes and Obama — knew a thing or two about getting along with the American people. Even Richard Nixon could be a soft touch sometimes.
But the new gracelessness continued over the week and into the next weekend. President Trump’s attack dog, asshole supreme, Steve Bannon, said in a phone call with the press, among other things:
“The media should be embarrassed and humiliated and keep its mouth shut and just listen for a while…I want you to quote this…The media here is the opposition party. They don’t understand this country. They still do not understand why Donald Trump is the president of the United States…The elite media got it dead wrong, 100 percent dead wrong…[the media suffered] a humiliating defeat that they will never wash away, that will always be there….That’s why you have no power. You were humiliated.”
Now, never mind the fact (and it is a real fact that he told us on national television) that Trump himself assumed he was going to lose on election night, Bannon didn’t need to say all of that. What’s the point? Trying to put the press in their place? Are you serious? They are “the opposition party?” Did the new White House team have a discussion about the flatlining Democratic Party and realize that the only thing holding them back was America’s journalists? Are real life reporters that threatening? Or perhaps this rant of Bannon’s was a form of domestic terrorism, looking to force the media into rabid, frenzied attack mode? Or was this simply a way of expressing the Trump cabal’s frustration that they just can’t control all of mainstream media, and that they’re stuck with only Fox and the screaming meanies on the radio and internet?
Who knows? But a few days after that unnecessary and silly tirade by America’s new snowflake — dark as he is, the President and his cabal issued the absurd decree that: “aliens from countries referred to in section 217(a)(12) of the INA, 8 U.S.C. 1187(a)(12), would be detrimental to the interests of the United States, and I hereby suspend entry into the United States, as immigrants and nonimmigrants, of such persons for 90 days…”
Very little planning seems to have gone into this executive order. I assume a great deal of strategizing did, but planning means you have everyone on board, and you know how to deal with contingencies, and there’s a minimum amount of muddle to your model. The result? All hell broke loose across the country — especially in our hallowed, highly secure airports. And it’s very clear that is just the beginning.
I’m summarizing so much folderol from the past two weeks, so please forgive me. My point is not that anyone has been lying, distorting reality, or being incompetent from a policy implementation perspective. That is all obvious. There seems to be a good amount of schoolyard bully built into this new administration, too — again quite obvious. My point is that like any good salesperson, Donald Trump spins things to his benefit no matter what the issue. Is he a liar? Maybe. But then again, maybe not. Maybe he truly believed what he was saying and what he had Spicer and Conway reiterate over that first weekend. Maybe he thinks that it’s okay for his attack dog asshole supreme to tell the press they’re the enemy. Perhaps he figures if he says it enough, someone will present him with evidence that millions of illegal votes were cast against him in November’s election. And maybe he thinks the way you implement policy is by dropping pianos on the country to see what happens when they land. You can always clean up the mess later, right? Besides, hopefully people get used to things and forget completely after you drop another piano somewhere else for some other reason (trust me, the next one is coming soon).
We’re dealing with a very odd beast here. Donald Trump isn’t exactly a business man or a real estate tycoon, he’s always been a huckster and a conman, possibly even a bit of a wiseguy salesman. I don’t mean to denigrate this most American set of professional traits. All of us have done sales work at some time or other in our lives. Most of us have failed miserably. But, in truth, some of our greatest heroes used these same traits. Ray Kroc, Henry Ford, Oprah Winfrey, Sam Walton, Martha Stewart, Phil Knight, and, perhaps our greatest (in my opinion), Steve Jobs. Yes, they may have had other talents, but their principle abilities in life were always understanding how to sell things to people — from curtains, to cars, to burgers, to trends, to shoes, to computers. Salespersonship is a topflight American pastime. Some do it quite well. And, yes, part of a politician’s job is to sell ideas and policies, but it’s a small part if you want to make a difference. Too heavy a sales orientation for a politician and he or she can lose track of all the other skills they need — they can also lose track of what really matters.
So, we seem to have Trump the sales guy. The first rule of sales is that you have to believe what you’re saying, and if you don’t, you have to find multiple reasons for pretending you believe. It is essential to be as passionate as possible about your fake beliefs. And if there are people in the room making noises about how you’re distorting the truth, you need to figure out how to shut them up. This is why things are weird with this dude (and his “team” in general). Good salespeople are hustlers, plain and simple, and they know that they need to stay positive and make potential customers happy. But that doesn’t work well outside of the store, in real life — especially in government. So what we’re watching unfold is the development of the worst kind of hustler — the angry, frustrated salesman.
This is what we’re in for over the next four years …. The problem, of course, is that it’s just not acceptable for a president — or any of his people — to act like an angry salesperson. You can’t shove a pair of blue jeans down someone’s throat then drag them to the cash register and make them pay — especially when the jeans don’t fit. What’s worse, though, is that this guy isn’t just an angry salesman, he’s an angry, frustrated self-important salesman. So when he tries to get you to buy a pair of jeans by telling you how great he is and that you should be happy to buy jeans from him, it really upsets him if you laugh in his face or come back with a bunch of friends wearing funny hats and quoting him at his worst, chanting and rapping and cursing, etc.
Trump’s legitimately pissed off, too. The media is making mincemeat out of him, calling him on his lies, twisting up his mistakes, turning him into the butt of literally thousands of jokes every week, and then when he tries to plan his inauguration no one who is anybody will come and perform for him. You’d be pissed, too.
The choice is clear for Trump: 1) Learn from you mistakes, try to do a better job telling the truth, and get on with the business of Making America Great Again — you won’t make everyone happy, but at least you’ll be doing your job; or 2) Stay caught up in the do-loop of the angry, frustrated self-important salesman — get angrier, accuse everyone of being liars while you yourself stretch the truth further and further, because deep down inside, in a place you don’t even know exists, you’re hurting something fierce, and you desperately need to hurt other people so that you don’t feel so alone and picked on all the time.
I don’t think you can Make America great again with that second option. You can’t even make America white again. Shoot, how can you even figure out what you mean talking about America and greatness when you’re so busy worrying about whether you’re popular or respected?
I know this essay sounds like a bit of a rant against Donald Trump and those holding onto his coattails. It’s supposed to be. But I have a good reason. I’ve worked with some amazing and gifted public servants in my life. I’ve also worked with some very incompetent and self-centered jerks. Generally, though, near the top what you find is people who can be amazing and self-centered — gifted and jerkish, all at once. The common denominator for these people is that they understand that to be a leader in government you need to focus on what matters, and you can’t lose sight of the fact that you serve all the people all the time, whether you like it or not. That means the trash needs to get picked up on time; there’s enough cops on the street to protect people at night everywhere; roads are cleared when it snows; economic development creates jobs, profits, and tax revenues; clean air and water are a given; and children everywhere are happy, well-fed, and feel protected. No one cares how many people voted for you once you’re elected. And they don’t even care what the papers say about you. They just want to live their lives and not feel inconvenienced or threatened or that you’re failing their kids. And they have enough sense, mostly, to understand their friends, neighbors, and co-workers need the same basic guarantees.
It’s not about having tough skin. I think we can all agree that Donald Trump has tough skin. But it is about Trump understanding that he’s not there in that house of houses to be respected or cool or bowed down to. He’s there to do the people’s work and to keep America great.
There’s a difference between having tough skin and being tough as a leader. Leaders have to be as honest and open as they can be. They get to call it like they see it, but they also can’t ever take the American people for granted or — and this is the key to everything — insult the intelligence of the American people. So far, as far as I can tell, Donald Trump and his ilk haven’t figured this out yet. And that’s why they’re running into so much trouble. They think because they won they get to take us for granted. And they think because they got away with distorting reality as the focal strategy of their campaign they can continue to insult the intelligence of each one of us regularly. Do they really think we’re that stupid?
There are many things I despised about Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan and both Bushes. There are things I didn’t like that Bill Clinton did as our President. And while I loved Barack Obama as much as I used to love Michael Jordan and Martin Luther King, Jr., there are things Obama did that really pissed me off.
But I honestly do not think for a minute that any of the presidents in my lifetime have taken the American people for granted — nor have they willingly assumed we’re stupid (even Nixon). Trump needs to figure this out if he wants to last his four years. So far, I think Las Vegas is giving him better than even odds on not making it to the end of his term. That’s pretty sad.
Also published on Medium.