Trump’s Leadership Style

Eric Zuesse

Not much has been written about Donald Trump’s leadership-style, but his style of leadership is essential to understand, in order to be able to understand his values, his  Presidency, the roots of his Presidency, and where his Presidency is taking America. His style of leadership has historically been exhibited by a certain type of national leader. Trump is no mere vague example of it, but a clear personification of it.

An article, “The Executive Mr. Trump”, in Politico magazine, July 2016, by Michael Kruse, asserted:

Based on conversations with people who have worked for him, people who still work for him and a half dozen of his biographers, the reality of Trump as an executive — his methods and his manner — bears little resemblance to the man viewers saw on the show. Rather than magisterial and decisive, Trump the actual boss swings wildly between micromanaging meddler and can’t-be-bothered, broad-brush, big-picture thinker. He is both impulsive and intuitive, for better and for worse. He hires on gut instinct rather than qualifications; he listens to others, but not as much or as often as he listens to himself. He’s loyal — “like, this great loyalty freak,” as he once put it — except when he’s not.

His unpredictability in the boardroom is not a quirk but a hallmark, according to those who’ve worked with him for years. He is on the job around the clock, and expects those on his payroll to be the same way, but also resists a rigid schedule — he is, in other words, an unstructured workaholic. The way he manages his people and properties, too, is a reflection of his abiding conviction in the value of unfettered competition — between his own staffers, between himself and his staffers and vendors and contractors, and ultimately between himself and the rest of the world.

That turned out to be also an accurate way to describe Trump’s leadership-style inside the White House.

The key to understanding how the command system works in the Trump Administration is the readiness, encouraged at all levels of the Republican Party and of the Administration, “to work towards Trump” by initiating measures that lower-ranking Republicans understand as implementing Trump’s overall political and ideological goals. Republican followers compete with each other in realizing their leader’s vision in “anticipatory obedience” to Trump’s will. Thus: bills, laws, directives, and regulatory actions, are usually launched without requiring the President’s direct command or intervention, but instead only his retroactive approval. [For example, Trump immediately endorsed the Republican House healthcare bill, even though it contradicted leftist promises that he had made during his campaign, such as “universal health care” and “the government’s gonna pay for it.” He’s been doing the same thing now with the Republican tax-bills. He requires, from Republicans in Congress, only that they get something to his desk that’s far-enough to the right for him to sign, which will please the Party-base — and that he then can call his own, put the “TRUMP” brand on — nothing more than this, whatever it is.] Thus, Trump, now as the President, can remain above the fray of day-to-day politics, embellishing his popular image [amongst the Republican faithful, his own adopted political base] as omniscient and infallible savior of his people [their race, or whatever they consider themselves basically to be]. This image [that he represents “SUCCESS” or a “WINNER” or “chosen by God”] is the central element of his charismatic leadership, and is the political myth that is now holding his Party itself together.

(That last paragraph is an updated version adapted from p. 125 in Roderick Stackelberg, 2007, The Routledge Companion to NAZI GERMANY.)

Trump rules the White House autocratically by asserting the leadership principle. The principle relies on absolute obedience [otherwise called “loyalty”] of all subordinates to their superiors; thus he views the government structure as a pyramid, with himself — the infallible leader [he never admits to having made any errors] — being at the apex. Rank in the Administration is not determined by elections [which are basic to democracy] — positions are instead filled totally top-down, through appointment by those of higher rank, who demand unquestioning obedience to the will of the leader. Trump’s leadership style is to give contradictory orders to his subordinates and to place them into positions where their duties and responsibilities overlap with those of other appointees, so as to have “the stronger one do the job”. In this way, Trump fosters distrust, competition, and infighting amongst his subordinates, to consolidate and maximise his own power. Though the contradictions, between the leader’s promises and his actual performance in public office, naturally produce failures, the failures (such as of the healthcare bills) are blamed on his opponents, not on himself; and, if needed, one of his own losing appointees might become fired for the failure (though any such firing is explained to the press as having resulted from a different cause, so as to hide the leader’s own actual failure).

(That last paragraph is an updated version adapted from Wikipedia’s article “Adolf Hitler”.)

This leadership-style naturally generates intense conflict within the top team. It was consequently considered an extremely disorganized White House, until President Trump, on 28 July 2017, appointed General John F. Kelly to be his Chief of Staff. He is the gate-keeper, to the Oval Office. The militarily-trained Trump has been pleased to see that his military White House is bringing him better reviews than did his prior, political (and he deeply despises political — including elections and democracy), Chief-of-Staff — the Republican National Committee chairman Reince Priebus — achieved. This improved success, by using General Kelly, confirmed Trump’s aristocratic, extremely hierarchical and status-affirming, instincts, Trump’s contempt for democracy. Kelly has brought order to the previously disorganized Trump White House, and he has done this by controlling people’s access to the President — isolating Trump from the public even more than he was before.

Kelly’s improvement of the Administration’s effectiveness confirmed the message of, actually, the most important educational institution in Trump’s entire life, the one that had done the most to shape the adult Trump. As the Washington Post reported on 22 August 2017:

Trump has revered military brass since his youth, when he attended a New York military academy. [That’s an error: he attended the “New York Military Academy,” the only one.] He holds up generals as exemplars of American leadership and views them as kindred spirits — fellow political outsiders.

Trump didn’t learn his deep respect for military top brass (and corresponding contempt for the public) at the Wharton School, but instead at his high school before that — this 100% top-down military prep school.

Trump intentionally plays top Party members off against one another, and plays the Administration itself against the civil service. In this way, he fosters in-fighting amongst his team, and each member fights to please the leader more than other members do. Trump typically doesn’t give written orders; instead, he communicates them verbally, or has them conveyed through his Chief of Staff Kelly. Falling out of favour with Kelly thus means that access to Trump becomes cut off. Kelly has proven to be a master of intricate political infighting. Along with his ability to control access to Trump, this has enabled Kelly to curtail the power of Stephen Bannon, Anthony Scaramucci,  Kellyanne Conway, and even at times Jared Kushner. Many of these people have become Kelly’s enemies. This ruthless and continuous intriguing for power, influence, and for Trump’s favour, has come to characterise the inner workings of the Trump Presidency.

(That last paragraph is an updated version adapted from Wikipedia’s article “Martin Bormann”.)

On 8 November 2013, Trump tweeted “Whatever happens, you’re responsible. If it doesn’t happen, you’re responsible.” Britain’s Independent recalled this, on 18 July 2017, when headlining “Donald Trump tweet on leadership comes back to haunt him as tries to pass blame for healthcare defeat”. The commentator said: “The missive is unfortunate in light of his party’s inability to deliver on their key promise of the last seven years: Repealing former President Barack Obama’s signature healthcare legislation.” Precisely 10 days later, on July 28th, Reince Priebus got fired, and General Kelly got hired, as the U.S. President’s Chief-of-Staff.

On that same day, July 28th, Trump was able to pass the blame for this healthcare failure down to its opponents in the Senate: “3 Republicans and 48 Democrats let the American people down.” Trump had strongly backed both the Republican Senate’s healthcare bill and the Republican House’s healthcare bill, but both bills failed, even though both houses are Republican-controlled.

Trump’s replacing Priebus by Kelly improved Trump’s effectiveness, but even before that, his top advisors and staff were almost all generals. Trump has militarized U.S. foreign relations. There is talk of possibly firing the Secretary of State, Rex Tillerson. The State Department is becoming eviscerated. The U.S. military budget, already larger than that of all the next 9 biggest-spending military nations together, among the 10 nations with the largest military budgets in the world, is soaring even farther into the stratosphere, while non-military U.S. spending is being slashed. Will all of these new weapons never be used, or does the President have plans for whom they’re to be used against (if he even cares)? He’s certainly going to be turning lots of America’s pruning hooks into spears, and ploughshares into weapons. The generals, whom he respects so much, are urging him to transfer even more from non-military, to military spending. Trump’s only fulfillment, thus far, of his campaign-promised big boost to American manufacturing, occurred on 20 May 2017, when the all-time largest arms-sale, of $350 billion in U.S.-made weapons to the Saud family, was culminated. Those profits don’t go to the U.S. Treasury; they go only to the list of “Top 100 Contractors of the U.S. Federal Government”, whose top 5 are: Lockheed Martin, Boeing, General Dynamics, Raytheon, and Northrop Grumman. Who would have thought that Trump could be such an all-time-record-breaking salesman for them?

Hitler had started his leadership of Germany by massive increases in ‘defense’ spending. He ended it with massive military invasions. Trump appears to be copying Hitler there, too, at least as regards the start of his regime. But, of course, America is a ‘democracy’.

This type of government is sometimes called “socialism for the rich, capitalism for the poor.” After FDR, it increasingly became the American way of government. Ronald Reagan called it “supply-side economics” because Republican dogma has always been that the “demand-side” can always take care of itself and thus can be ignored by government. (In microeconomic theory, that assumption is called “Say’s law” and it’s basic not only to libertarianism, but to the Republican Party itself, which is the reason why history has consistently shown that in terms of actual performance for the economy, Democrats in office have always improved the economy more than Republican ones have. Belief in Say’s ‘law’ produced the Great Depression, but 70% of the aristocracy insist upon its truth; most of the other 30% don’t much care; and, so, Say’s ‘law’ continues to be taught by almost all economists as if it is true, though it is empirically false.) Donald Trump is simply embodying it (this entire top-down approach) in a more blatant version of the reality, than his predecessors did after FDR. The mask is, now, finally, being taken off, at least by the Republican Party, to say that this America controlled by the richest, is good, the way things ‘ought’ to be — definitely not the way things ought not to be, and must be stopped from being.

Trump’s leadership-style is thus reflecting the thousands of years of history of aristocracies, going back to much earlier than the formation of the American nation by a revolution against the (then-British) aristocracy. This, Trump’s America, is strongly a restoration of the old order, which pre-dated this country’s formation, and against which this country was formed, in an attempt to produce democracy. A majority of the American public (in keeping with the conservative myth) misunderstand the U.S. Constitution, as if it were a conservative document instead of a progressive one; and, so, many Americans favor this increasingly successful American counter-revolution, to restore the old order, but this time under America’s own domestic aristocracy. (Trump’s “nationalism” is thus very much a part of his ideology — and it reflects more the Republican Party side of the U.S. aristocracy than the Democratic Party side of it.)

People who call Trump some kind of ‘revolutionary’ have it exactly wrong: he’s a counter-Revolutionary. He represents the feudalist tradition that America’s Founders, the people who wrote the U.S. Constitution, had waged the Revolution in order to end.


Investigative historian Eric Zuesse is the author, most recently, of  They’re Not Even Close: The Democratic vs. Republican Economic Records, 1910-2010, and of  CHRIST’S VENTRILOQUISTS: The Event that Created Christianity.