Trumpism, the Recent Riots, and the Way Back to a Healthy Society

January 7, 2021, Written by MLARI Research Director, Karen E. Linkletter

The old orders have broken down, and no new order can be contrived from the old foundations. The alternative is chaos; and in despair the masses turn to the magician who promises to make the impossible possible…For if you are caught between the flood of the past, through which you cannot retrace your steps, and an apparently unscalable blank wall in front of you, it is only by magic and miracles that you can hope to escape. – Peter F. Drucker, The End of Economic Man

On January 6, as Congress convened to recognize the results of the November election, Americans watched in horror as a mob of Trump supporters stormed the Capitol. During the “Save America” rally in Washington D.C., Trump encouraged the crowd to march to the Capitol, telling them that “We will never give up. We will never concede. It will never happen. You don’t concede when there’s theft involved. Our country has had enough. We will not take it anymore.” After the subsequent riot, 83 were arrested, five people were killed, including a police officer, and 50 police officers were injured. Images of people in MAGA gear breaking windows, trashing congressional offices, and stealing podiums from the senate floor engendered a collective response of disgust, shame, and disbelief. Is this what America has become?

Trump_supporters_in_the_Save_America_March(web).jpg

Trump supporters rally at the Save America March on January 6, 2021.
Source: Whoisjohngalt; Wikimedia Commons

In the days and weeks that follow, the nation will have to come to terms with what this paroxysm truly represents. Yes, there will be questions about events and details. Why was law enforcement so overwhelmed, when they knew about the “Save America” rally well in advance? Why was the police response to those violating the Capitol perimeter so mild, particularly when compared with the law enforcement response to the June 2020 Black Lives Matter protest in Lafayette Park, where police used batons, tear gas, horses, a helicopter, and well over 5000 National Guard troops to disperse the peaceful protestors.  How complicit are Facebook, Twitter, and other social media platforms in promoting conspiracy theories that have fueled the deep divisions in this country?

But more importantly, we come to the question of leadership.  Drucker’s management theories derive from his concept of a functioning society. In times of great change, particularly social upheaval, people need to hold on to some stability, retaining some institutions in which they can have faith, while others are experiencing rapid change. This balance between continuity and discontinuity drove much of Drucker’s work – both his writing on business and his social analyses. Innovation within an organization needs to be systematic, not haphazard and overly disruptive. Social and economic change is inevitable, but institutions cannot simply be thrown out wholesale. Leaders, therefore, are responsible for helping people through inevitable times of change, whether they lead companies or countries. As Drucker said, “Leadership is a foul-weather job.” 

Which leads us to Drucker’s quote from his 1939 book, The End of Economic Man. Drucker, like many who escaped Nazi Germany, was attempting to come to grips with the reality of totalitarianism and its origins. What happened, and why? Drucker’s thesis is sophisticated, but one of the key components he identifies is a complete lack of hope combined by a failure of all social institutions. If there is nothing left of the past, the foundation of your society, you have nothing left to hold on to. If there is no hope in the future – merely an “unscalable blank wall in front of you” – then you have nowhere to go. Given this scenario, Drucker posits, people will look for “magic and miracles.” In Germany and Italy of the 1930s, that was fascism.

In the United States, Trumpism has become the “magic and miracles” that disaffected America has turned to.  The post-mortems of the 2016 election are too many to count, but it is clear that much of what drove Trump’s support was a deep distrust of elites, particularly political elites, in American society. Trump’s promise to “drain the swamp” was aimed directly at this distrust. As increasingly educated women and minorities gained ground in the late 20th and early 21st centuries, uneducated American workers began to fall farther and farther behind. Rapid technological change and economic recession accelerated the job losses in manufacturing that had begun earlier, so the economic future for those without a college education was bleak indeed. Barack Obama modeled the achievement of a Harvard education and sharp legal mind, and an eye towards the future and progress. Trump’s appeal was not policy, but his promise to “make the impossible possible.” He would turn back the clock and bring back an America that no longer existed. However, this didn’t mean returning America to its values and shoring up its beloved institutions. That meant breaking down all of the norms and inherited history. Of course this wouldn’t bring back jobs in coal mines. But it made people feel good because it gave them a way out of an impossible situation. One that made them feel really, really bad about themselves. By making enemies of the educated elite, of minorities, of the very democratic institutions this country was founded on, those alienated by a rapidly changing world could hold on to some chance to escape. Even if that meant burning down the house on the way out.

All this is to say that Drucker, as a social ecologist, would have seen this all coming. Trump repeatedly, on social media and during his rallies, undermined the 2020 election (even before the election itself, claiming that the only way he would lose would be if the election was rigged). After all, Trump is a charismatic leader, and Drucker greatly feared that leadership style. He said that leadership has very little to do with charisma. Rather, “It is mundane, unromantic, and boring. Its essence is performance.” Leadership, in the Drucker sense, would have prevented this entire situation. A true leader would never have exhorted his followers in Washington D.C. to “show strength” and “fight” when they marched to the Capitol, which was filled with elected officials doing the people’s business. A true leader would have told the truth. We lost. We fought hard, but now is the time to respect the institutions of democracy. But this leader has repeatedly undermined those very institutions. So, it is not surprising to see this ultimate trashing of the buildings that epitomize our representative democracy.

We have other leadership to hold accountable for this. The Republican leadership who has looked the other way – until now. Mitch McConnell, Lindsay Graham and others seem to have finally decided that this is not the kind of leadership they want to be associated with. 140 Republicans in the House of Representatives still chose not to recognize the results of the election, even after the melee in the Capitol on January 6. The business community supported this administration – until now. The National Association of Manufacturers, Business Roundtable, and U.S. Chamber of Commerce are backpedaling away from Trump. If, as Drucker says, leadership is about trust, ethics, and modeling right behavior, then these “leaders” should long ago have distanced themselves from a charismatic leader who failed to truly lead. Instead, these Republican and business leaders chose to close their eyes to the true nature of Trumpism, and instead only looked at policy (or their fear of losing their jobs). But Trumpism isn’t about policy. It’s about a magician making promises.

How do we move forward? First and foremost, we must restore faith in our institutions of democracy. Drucker’s functioning society can only work if we have that. The Biden administration has an unfathomable amount of work ahead of it. If we have a significant percentage of our population who really believes that our democratic institutions and processes are broken, we cannot function as a society. It does not matter if businesses thrive. It does not matter if kids are in school. The first thing we must do is make sure that we still have a functioning democratic society. We somehow must work to convince those who believe in the magician that they are still part of a society that includes them. And that is a real challenge, given what we saw this week.

Yes, America. This is what we have become. But we can change it. Together.

 

About The Author

KAREN E. LINKLETTER, PH.D. - MLARI ACTING RESEARCH DIRECTOR

Dr. Karen Linkletter is a researcher with the Joseph A. Maciariello Management as a Liberal Art Research Institute (MLARI), where she develops curriculum for CiAM and conducts research to advance the work of Peter F. Drucker. She and Dr. Maciariello co-authored the book Drucker’s Lost Art of Management: Peter Drucker’s Timeless Vision for Building Effective Organizations

Dr. Linkletter has published over 20 articles and essays on a variety of historical topics. She has an M.B.A. and a PhD in History from Claremont Graduate University and received her A.B. from U.C. Berkeley.  Dr. Linkletter taught in the American Studies Department at Cal State University, Fullerton for fifteen years. She is also a professional cellist, performing throughout southern California and teaching private students. She is an avid horseback rider and enjoys time with her horses, Spencer and Chance.

 

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