On the occasion of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.'s birthday, it is worth reflecting on the similarities and differences between his and Donald J. Trump's leadership styles. To some degree King and Trump both sought to mobilize their potential followers and defeat their adversaries as one waged a struggle for civil rights for African Americans and the other for winning a national presidential election.
The context for each one's efforts were of course quite different. King was leading a struggle against the established legal order in the South while Trump, in seeking the Republican presidential nomination and then to win an electoral victory, was operating within a legally established institutional system. Each adopted novel leadership styles and strategies that might seem unusual in their different contexts. Nevertheless, each could claim to have had considerable success.
For King, a primary goal was to convince African Americans and allies that the established laws of Jim Crow could be abolished. He did not need to tell them how bad their conditions were. He offered a strategy and convinced many, step by step, that nonviolent resistance could be victorious and end the Jim Crow system. Of course, he did not invent the strategy and he was not alone in advocating it, but he articulated it brilliantly. He built on the culture and institutions of African Americans, on the songs and churches, and on the obvious injustice of their experience. With training, discipline, and courage, people in the civil rights movement fought for narrowly focused goals, and they triumphed.
For Trump, his primary goal was to arouse dissatisfaction with the established order's elite leaders and replace them with himself. He voiced the grievances that many people felt and identified some reasons for them, particularly foreign trade and immigration, and he often used crude language. With immense self-confidence he asserted that he alone could fix the problems. He bullied his competitors for the nomination, enhancing his appearance of personal toughness. This leadership manner worked to get the nomination and then the support, in varying degree, from the Republican establishment. He continued in the same style in fighting against the Democratic nominee, Hillary Clinton. This strategy was widely disparaged as divisive and nasty; a majority of Americans disapproved and voted against him.
King and his associates always used language that embraced shared American values, celebrating the American creed of promising equal opportunity for all. The reliance on nonviolent resistance, when answered by police and vigilante acts of violence and murder, rallied most Americans to support the civil rights struggle. The nonviolent actions were coercive, but wrapped in love and in confidence that shared benefits would follow. The legacy of King is evident. He has joined the pantheon of great Americans. The changes he helped bring about in America are celebrated widely by Americans and people around the world.
The legacy of Trump, of course, is not certain. The leadership strategies that he may think won him the presidency certainly will not serve him well as president. Democratic governance in America must be collective, engaging many people's diverse interests. It is hard to imagine that being president will transform Trump's personality. Unchecked, his legacy is likely to be episodes of sordid conflict, chaos, and long-lasting damage to many Americans and to the world's environment. Unchecked, Trump's legacy is likely to be a bewildered wonder by us and our children about how he could have won election as president.
Trump's legacy will depend greatly on the Republicans in Congress. Will they discard responsible tax policies by reforms that do nothing much more than cut taxes for the wealthy? Will they fail to assist the workers of America who Trump got to vote Republican on the promise of help? Will they discard the clear evidence and widespread public concerns of global warming to turn away from the real progress made in the last several years? Will they check bullying international conduct initiated by President trump? If they fail to act responsibly and indulge themselves in legislating ideological slogans, the result is likely to be a tragic legacy for Trump, the Republican Party, and the United States of America.
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