The daily firestorms of our national debate this month have produced clatter in the halls and offices, and clutter in the minds as we duly attend the onboarding of our nation’s new leaders. Salvos have been fired from both left and right over the heads of the huddled masses here in the middle, and many of us are feeling lost and confused. If you overhear someone saying ‘Guess what he said today?’ you have no doubt who they’re talking about – Donald Trump. But regardless of their position on the political spectrum, I’d wager most Americans would attend the conversation with some mixture of curiosity, hope and dread. If nothing else has been accomplished in the first 40 days of the Trump administration, it is heightened attention to the direction of our national politics.
Parsing what that direction is from our President’s actions leaves us guessing. Trump zigs and then he zags, confusing our efforts to discern with confidence his true intentions. What has become clear from his regular bouts with the press is that he mostly wants to zing. It makes for better headlines and keeps everyone coming back for more. The Trump opposers’ most effective way of combatting him would probably be to just ignore him. Nothing galls a spotlight chaser like a yawn.
He is the President of the United States, however, the POTUS. Ignoring him is impossible. I suggest we listen closely and with discernment, but regard his presidential pronouncements for what they are: political theater. It’s a drama that will be continuing for some time: let’s see what happens in the next act.
Signs are visible that his Cabinet and administration are viewing each day’s Trumpeting similarly. This past Sunday’s Boston Globe featured a front-page article entitled ‘Trump speaks, and his Cabinet explains’ that gives a rundown of the past month’s point / counterpoint between the President and his senior management team. February saw Vice President Pence trying to reassure Europeans of the US’s commitment to NATO, UN Ambassador Nikki Haley assuring sovereign nations of our commitment to a two-state solution in Israel-Palestine, and Secretary of State Tillerson visiting Mexico for private talks, after President Juan Pena Nieto cancelled his visit to Washington in pique over the border wall – all in response to presidential statements that created doubt and concern. It’s a grand exercise in revolutionary agitprop: the POTUS agitates in front of the cameras, and his minions work the phones, hallways and talk shows afterwards, propagandizing any and all to clarify what he really meant about our country’s intentions.
What remains hidden behind this show and largely unaddressed by President Trump is the number one expectation we followers should have of our leaders – a compelling vision of the future he envisions for our country, and a clear description of his game plan for reaching it. In fairness, such articulation is clearly beyond our sitting President’s personal capability. Search everywhere in the public domain for his repertoire on this matter and you won’t find much beyond ‘Make America Great Again.’ If it’s not in the public domain, you can surely bet it’s not in his thoughts. His complete preoccupation with image, headlines, and 140-character Twitter transmissions of his most immediate thoughts obviates any ruminative consideration of the longer term.
Okay, what then? Everyone points in the same direction on this. If Trump’s job is to keep everyone off balance, whose job is it in the administration to have a balanced point of view on strategy? What about his senior counselor, the secretive Steve Bannon? Beyond the controversy he stirs and the headlines that accompany it, as the chief strategist for the administration, surely he has something to offer on this point.
The conservative Weekly Standard’s Christopher Caldwell went directly at this question on Sunday with ‘What Does Steve Bannon Want?’ in the New York Times. Caldwell screened movies Bannon produced, watched media appearances he found online, and interviewed former Bannon associates in an attempt to answer the question of his title. In the end, his examination found much of the worry about Bannon’s personal extremism overblown, and surprisingly little to worry about in his ideology. [Read the full article here.] However, Bannon subscribes to a conservative view, championed by two writers – William Strauss and Neil Howe – in the 1990s, about large repeating cycles of history, and this gives Caldwell pause. These conservatives see us at the concluding crisis of an 80-year cycle – ‘history is seasonal, and winter is coming’ to quote Mr. Howe. Caldwell’s principal concern is having someone in power who ‘while he does not embrace any of the discredited ideologies of the last century, he is attached to a theory of history’s cycles that is, to put it politely, untested.’
My caution about the Caldwell judgment – a polite dismissal from a safe position on the sidelines – comes from my work with leaders of large-scale change efforts. I tuned in to Bannon’s appearance with Reince Priebus at the Conservative Political Action Conference this month. In their 25-minute interview with host Matt Schlapp, Bannon the strategist lays out the three logical streams of work that compose the administration’s leadership agenda (national security and sovereignty; economic nationalism; and deconstruction of the administrative state), and convincingly displays with Priebus the sort of control-room collaboration one hopes is adjacent to the Oval Office – the men behind the curtain of the great and mighty Trump.
The game plan is sketchy on purpose, as Bannon is clearly following an important principle of large-scale change: embrace improvisation as the best path to both performance and change. I came away with some evidence at least that there is a well-considered destination for this voyage and the ship is not without a navigator. [For an insightful study of large-scale change, see Taking Charge of Change by Doug Smith.]
I’m still trying to figure out what I think about it, and it may not work; but it’s not stupidly conceived. Don’t get me wrong: I don’t think we should relent for a moment in fighting Trump’s assault on the truth-seeking press, nor shrink from our ever more important civic responsibilities (see ‘how-to’ from Nicholas Kristof), nor let the investigation of pre-election ties to Russia get lost in the shuffle – i.e. what did Trump know and when. As for Bannon, I think we all need to dig deeper behind the headlines and extend the dialogue on this man behind the curtain, if we’re to take the true measure of the Trump administration. (Click here and here for more Bannon on Bannon.) But as Stephen Colbert said memorably about Trump just after the election, ‘I’m all for giving him a chance, but don’t give him an inch.’
Working the same territory, David Brooks offered a deep concern earlier this month about the Make America Great Again objective. In ‘A Return to National Greatness,’ he argued that we need to ‘restore and revive the meaning of America’ before we can make America great again. He believes we face an either / or decision about our national identity: ‘are we still the purpose-driven experiment Lincoln described …assigned by providence to spread democracy and prosperity; to welcome the stranger …because we are all important to this common project? Or are we just another nation, hunkered down in a fearful world?’ Trump-Bannon’s opting for the latter view has ‘exposed the hollowness of our patriotism,’ in Brooks’ opinion.
My caution about the Brooks position comes again from my work in large-scale change, which teaches me to view every ‘either / or’ dichotomy with suspicion. Here’s another lesson for leaders: nothing destroys forward momentum like forcing a polarizing one-or-the-other choice on strong-minded people. Trump-Bannon are undertaking a transformation of gargantuan proportions. Successful large-scale change efforts explore every supposedly ‘either / or’ choice as a ‘both / and’ possibility.
The Brooks question for us as a nation then is this: how can we both retain our sense of American exceptionalism and purpose and heed the realities of living in a fearful world? We are just one of many nations struggling with our sense of prerogative in such a world. Perhaps if we regain some of that prerogative, and mitigate some of the fear, as the Trump – Bannon game plan intends, we might rediscover a still-exceptional place in this common project called Planet Earth.
Caldwell ends his article philosophically with this: ‘We’ll see how it turns out.’ My own experience inclines me toward a similar philosophical position. Let’s find a way to make some movement forward together. Leaders undertaking long, complex change efforts know the value of such attitudes amongst their constituents. Let’s see whether we can’t meet in this lost middle ground and pry open a dialogue about our common future.
Comments? I’d like to hear your thoughts. Email me at firstname.lastname@example.org