Politics

Does Trump’s Leadership Actually Matter?

In his recent book, Gautam Mukunda says yes—and hopes he’s wrong.

Donald Trump holds his hands up while in front of a bunch of microphones.
President Donald Trump speaks to members of the media prior to his departure from the White House on Friday. Alex Wong/Getty Images

Filtered or unfiltered? We’re not talking about coffee or cigarettes, but world leaders. Gautam Mukunda is a research fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School. In his 2012 book, Indispensable: When Leaders Really Matter, he argues that American presidents who enter the White House without first being brought up in the halls of power end up being either great or terrible.

On Thursday’s Gist, Mike Pesca talked with Mukunda about the ultimate unfiltered president. They discussed Donald Trump’s faux luxury brands, his narcissistic rage, and how the damage he’s done to the United States is both real and hard to measure.

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Read an edited version of their conversation below, or stream or download the full discussion via iTunesStitcherSpotify, the Google Play store, or wherever you get your podcasts.

Mike Pesca: In your book you looked at presidents who are—what’s the phrase you used, filtered or unfiltered?

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Gautam Mukunda: That’s exactly right. Filtration is a different way of looking at experience. When someone has experience, we often ask them, “What have you learned from that experience?” But we forget there’s a second half of experience, which is experience as a revelatory process. As you undergo these experiences, other people who are watching you learn about you. They learn what you’re capable of and what you really believe. Trump is as unfiltered as it is possible to be in every sense of that word.

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When you have someone who is filtered, what’s happened is they have a lot of these experiences that have revealed to other people in politics who they really are. The unfiltered leader is the person who doesn’t have these kinds of experiences, so we don’t know a lot about them, or they do have the experiences, but something gets them into power over the objections of the political elites, who know who they are. They are very, very different from the filtered leaders who normally would have the job. They can do things that are different and have a huge impact. You’re either a genius or a fool, right? There’s no middle. These people are never boring.

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Are there some sorts of unfiltered experiences that correlate more to success?

What I’d say is there are unfiltered characteristics that correlate directly to failure, actually. My classic example—and this is why the first book was weirdly descriptive of Trump—is personality and psychological disorders. Many of them have something in common, which is they create an enormously positive first impression but generate very large long-term cost.

Ah, this is brilliant.

The classic example of this is narcissism, right? If you put a bunch of people in a room together and ask them to vote on who should lead the group, weirdly, they will tend to vote for the most narcissistic person in the group. Because narcissists think they’re great, and you believe that when you first meet them.

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It’s probably why so many CEOs are also sociopaths.

It is supposedly the profession in which that character trait is most overrepresented. Over time, what we find out is that narcissists are really awful leaders. The experience of being led by a narcissist is nightmarish, and we hate it. But it takes a long time for that to penetrate through the narcissistic fog of “I am the greatest thing who’s ever lived.”

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What about depressives as leaders? LBJ was a depressive. He did some really great things.

I actually think depressives are maybe a little bit more likely to succeed. Psychologists have a term for people who are able to accurately assess their life prospects and odds for success, and it’s called depressive realism.

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Lincoln had it too. And he was right! We were living in terribly bloody times, and his sons—all but one of them died.

Yeah, he was right. In fact, British prime ministers have an astonishingly high frequency of depression. Here’s another one for you: inherited wealth. Think about experience again as a revelatory process. If somebody comes from a wealthy and powerful family, and they have this amazing résumé, that résumé tells us less about their real underlying capabilities because every item on it was earned in part by the assistance of that wealthy and powerful family. So we know less about someone from that kind of a family than we would if they didn’t come from that kind of a family.

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I want to bring it to Trump, because there are some aspects to Trump’s personality that I think are really interesting.

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Essentially, his supporters were saying a version of what you’re saying: that he comes to it without the baggage and a fresh set of eyes and a new way of doing things. But the experience that he had was sold as a businessman’s experience, a real estate developer’s experience. They got it wrong. That’s not really what his business is. His business is personal branding and being a television personality.

I can make the case that someone with Trump’s supposed résumé would be well-suited to the presidency. I have a much harder case making the case that someone with Trump’s actual résumé (and I’m not even talking about the bankruptcies and Trump University)—that seems very poorly suited to the presidency.

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I think that’s exactly right. I think a very successful businessperson—a Bill Gates, Michael Bloomberg type—would probably be a better president than a random person. We don’t traditionally pick random people for the presidency, right? But would they be a better president than a governor or a senator or a member of the Cabinet? I’m a lot more skeptical of that, but Trump is not that.

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He’s a brand manager who was gifted his brand by his father, which is a nice leg up when you’re in the brand management business. The argument that “I know how to generate PR, and all press is good press, and I am the master of being on the front page of the New York tabloids” translates to skilled nuclear brinkmanship. I’m a little skeptical on that one.

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And what was the Trump brand image exactly? Trump Water, Trump Steaks, Trump Ice, Trump Vodka. To me, the Trump brand image was he would proclaim that it was really high-level luxury, but it wasn’t. Trump himself never wore Donald Trump suits. He wore Brioni or something like that. He was basically selling luxury to people who didn’t have the experience to know what real luxury looks like. That’s a pretty niche market, but if you are appealing to 15 percent of the American population, for most companies, you are fantastically successful. If you’re a politician, you’re a disaster.

Is there any common-folk explanation of Trump’s motivations that you think we get wrong?

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There are two parts to this. One is that I’m sympathetic to the argument that he went into this not expecting to win. That doesn’t seem implausible to me.

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If that was his goal, to extend his brand, that actually is a smart move.

Right. The second half of that is he is clearly a narcissist. I’m not clinically trained, but it is not possible to be more narcissistic than Donald Trump. And if you are a narcissist who either doesn’t really care that much about doing the job really well or who lives in your own world to such an extent that it is impossible for you to imagine that you could not do the job really well … if you are that person, then being president of the United States has got to be the greatest gig on Earth.

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The presidency is a huge burden if you are someone like just about every previous president—certainly Barack Obama or even George W. Bush, whatever your differences with him—who deeply feels the responsibility that the entire world depends on your actions. But if you don’t feel that burden, and what you do feel is: “Every time I see my name on the front page of the newspapers, it’s awesome,” then can you imagine a better job than president?

So his narcissism means that he breaks the presidency, but it also means that the presidency will never break him.

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Yeah. Every time I hear people say, “I think he’s just going to get tired and quit,” I’m like, “Have you ever met a narcissist?” This is the greatest boost to his ego anyone has ever known.

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What about the anger and constant fury? I guess non-narcissists look at that and say, “Well, that’ll take its toll.” Why would a narcissist who thinks everything he does is awesome also be so furious all the time?

Narcissistic rage is actually a hallmark of narcissists. Anything that challenges their self-concept of “I am the greatest at everything” is one that they react to with extraordinary fury. Challenges to identity provoke anger in most people. But with a narcissist, because that sense of them as the greatest ever is so core to their identity, it’s massively magnified.

What about the explanation that his strategy has always been to pit his underlings against each other? We saw that on the TV show, and we definitely see that in the White House. Is that a good strategy, or is that just the thing that you say post hoc after your underlings stab each other in the back?

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There are presidents who certainly had that tendency. Franklin Roosevelt famously had all these people, and nobody really knew what he wanted. He was this sphinxlike figure. To some extent, it worked for him. And Doris Kearns Goodwin wrote a famous book, Team of Rivals, about the Lincoln Cabinet. Of course, we need to remember that the “team of rivals” strategy worked because the person at the center of it was Abraham Lincoln.

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And look at the qualifications of the rivals. [Secretary of War] Edwin Stanton was the real deal.

Yes. And Secretary of State William Seward was the person who actually should have been president of the United States, right? In today’s Cabinet, other than Jim Mattis, none of these guys is in the same league as that group. There are strategies that can work if you are Abraham Lincoln. Even Donald Trump says he’s no Abraham Lincoln, so think about how large the gap is if even Donald Trump is willing to acknowledge that.

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So what does all this tell you? We both agree he’s probably not going to quit, but what’s it going to lead him and America to do?

Whatever special counsel Robert Mueller reports or does not report (whether Trump is able to stop the investigation or not), there’s a lot of other stuff to find, and Democrats are going to find it. My prediction for the (hopefully) last two years of Trump’s presidency is this: We’re going to have this constant stream of more of this stuff, but it won’t be innuendos and maybes and “gee, this looks sketchy.” It will be: “Oh no, we actually know what happened, and it looks really, really bad.”

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The book is Indispensable: When Leaders Really Matter, and often they don’t. That seems impossible right now. Trump dominates the ether! Society is riven! You can’t think of anything without thinking of the president. But I think it’s quite possible he’ll be one of those leaders who didn’t matter.

That’s the best case for the country, but the worst case for my theory. My theory says this guy is maximally unfiltered, and he should matter a whole lot. I would happily be wrong in this instance, for the good of the country. But no, I think the odds are he’s going to matter a lot. A lot of the damage that he’s doing is stuff that we’re going to pay for, for a generation.

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The underlying basis of the global system, both political and financial, has been the belief that at the end of the day, the American government knows what it’s doing and will do the right thing. When the financial crisis happened, at the end of the day, the U.S. government was able to intervene and actually recover from the crisis more effectively than any other developed country. People just had that as an underlying basis of trust, which was worth an untold amount to the United States.

After four years of Trump, I think that will be gone. Nobody will believe that anymore, and the long-term cost will be measured in the opportunities foregone, the resources wasted, and those immigrants who will look at the United States and say, “Is that really a place I want to be, if they might elect a person like this?” We may never be able to draw the line and say, “Oh, gee, this disaster was clearly because of Trump,” and I hope that’s true. If that’s what we get out of these four years, and we haven’t gone to war with someone for insane reason or something like that, we’ll all be very lucky. We should be very grateful, and we should all thank God and Jim Mattis, probably in that order.

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