“Use Greenstein’s six components of presidential leadership to analyse Donald Trump as a political leader”
There is no doubt that American political leaders hold sizeable responsibilities and have a pivotal role in shaping political history. Notable events such as the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis, the Vietnam War, the Watergate Scandal and the 2003 Iraq War have all occurred at the hands of the chief executive. Thus, it is no surprise that there is a growing body of literature that investigates the role and efficiency of the president; which is fundamental to the American state, as well as the international world order. With no prior governmental experience, Trump defied all expectations when he succeeded in the 2016 presidential elections. This essay aims to provide a thorough analysis of Trump as a political leader, based on Professor Greenstein’s framework of presidential leadership that was put forth in his book The Presidential Difference (2000). I will focus on his strengths and weaknesses in the context of Greenstein’s six components; public communication, organisational capacity, political skill, policy vision, cognitive style and emotional intelligence (Greenstein, 2000). There are of course contending perspectives on the extent to which Trump offers a strong and persuasive presidential leadership. It is worth noting that much of Trump’s electoral success may be down to impeding factors unrelated to his individual characteristics and ability; including voter perceptions and a populist political landscape. The aim of this essay, however, is to argue that under Greenstein’s framework and in the broader context of U.S. leadership, Trump has largely been unsuccessful in performing as a political leader.
This quality refers to the ability to communicate to the public in a proficient manner, relating to the outer face of political leadership (Greenstein, 2000). Trump’s communication style appears to be fragmented, incoherent and often times abrasive. Whilst he may not be the most gifted orator, he certainly succeeded in communicating in a manner that led to his triumph in the 2016 presidential election. Trump’s strength derives in part from his speech style, and in part from heavily divisive rhetoric. Although many were opposed to Trump’s rhetoric, referring to it as inflammatory, it is this exact “populist communication style - grandiose, dynamic and informal” (Ahmadian et al, 2017, p.52) that earned him his electoral success. A study found that Trump’s speech style is marked by high levels of grandiosity, extensive use of first-person pronouns, greater pitch dynamics and informal communication (Ahmadian et al., 2017). The significance of grandiosity is seen through previous research which has linked narcissism to success in areas such as leadership. As such, Trump’s ability to harness his self-promotional style when communicating to the public, means he was able to convey his message to voters successfully. Furthermore, it is found that voters tend to favour simplistic and direct speech as opposed to sophisticated rhetoric which would explain Trump’s success (Ahmadian et al.,2017). Social media has also opened up another medium of informal communication with voters, Twitter being a key platform. This platform tends to be topic-orientated and is something Trump has utilised to the best of his ability. Trump scored significantly higher on Twitter usage, which positively correlated with success (Ahmadian et al., 2017). Moreover, Trump’s rhetoric and message plays a substantial role in his ability to communicate to the public. Pushing an extremely patriotic message through divisive rhetoric worked well to resonate with voters, especially amidst the rise of a populist political landscape. This is exemplified in the work undertaken by Carsten et al (2019) where Trump’s rhetoric contained significantly more blame, denial and aggression than Clinton, during the 2016 presidential election (Carsten et al., 2019). This further reinforces that Trump’s commandeering style and authority when communicating to the public does indeed make him a proficient public communicator. However, Professor Neustadt offers an alternative definition of presidential power that is worth considering, that is the power to persuade as well as the ability to bargain(Neustadt, 1990). Whilst Trump is able to communicate directly and passionately, he does not present a case or even deliver a compelling argument. That being said, under Greenstein’s (2000) framework of presidential leadership, Trump fits the criteria in that he can successfully deliver an idiomatic message understood by the masses.
The president’s capacity as an organiser includes his ability to forge and manage a team, as well as the ability to create effective institutional arrangements (Greenstein, 2000). Historically, presidents have differed in their ability to benefit from a rich and varied fare of advice and information. Greenstein (2000) highlights president Eisenhower as having the greatest organisational capacity; with a highly developed ability, he actively sought out different viewpoints and encouraged vigorous debate to ensure efficiency (Greenstein, 2000). Trump is the first U.S. president to come into office without any prior government experience, this becomes remarkably evident in his inability to organise the White House. Trump’s instinct was to continue the style of management used during his career in real-estate; where he depended on a small group of trusted business partners, used selective micro-management, and negotiated important deals personally. In contrast, the presidential role entails managing a vast number of arms of government, delegating authority to subordinates and coping with a fractured Congress. All of which Trump refused to do, leaving him unprepared to fulfil his role as a political leader in the White House. According to Pfiffner (2017) the Trump administration is unique and differs from previous presidents in the conduct of three institutions that are central to the White House; dynamics of the cabinet, presidential appointments and White House organisation (Pfiffner, 2017). Trump’s organisational incapacity would inevitably breed resentment in the cabinet, and the friction amongst these White House power centres explains some of the lack of coordination present. Additionally, a more prominent and perhaps disturbing pattern emerges in the organisation of Trump’s cabinet, that is the systematic deconstruction of the administration (Pffifner, 2017; Milkis and Jacobs, 2017; Boot, 2019). Trump appointed a number of domestic cabinet secretaries who were opposed to their departments’ traditional missions. His nomination for Director of Environmental Protection Agency, Pruitt had previously sued the agency more than a dozen times. Secretary of Education, DeVos spent decades campaigning for private and charter schools. Secretary of Housing and Urban Development, Carson believes “poverty is really more of a choice than anything else” (McCarthy, 2017). This pattern is reflected in almost all of Trump’s nominations and reflects the anarchic nature of his administration; further providing insight into Trump’s poor organisational capacity.
In order to be deemed politically skilled, the president must build and maintain public support and establish a reputation among fellow policy makers as a skilled, determined political operator (Greenstein, 2000). Trump is complicated in this sense, on one hand he was able to maintain strong support from his voter base, on the other hand he failed to form strong ties within the White House. Carsten et al (2019) analysed the candidacy of Trump through the eyes of his followers, finding Trump advocated values of U.S nationalism whilst simultaneously denouncing immigrants and refugees. A common theme that emerges is the ‘perceived threat of social groups’amongst his voter base (Carsten et al., 2019). Another study supporting this, highlights the link between the ‘psychology of relative deprivation’ and Trump’s leadership; where he is able to tap into his follower’s ‘self-enhancing self-evaluations’ (Goethals, 2018). This is especially relevant in a highly divided political atmosphere, thus making his political strategy successful. With terrorist events occurring globally, the Syrian refugee crisis prior to the election, and a hollowed out economy, followers were faced with a sense of destabilization and insecurity. Trump was able to capitalize on the instability felt on a national level; by utilizing uncertainty as well as challenging the status quo. As a result, followers with low self-esteem percieved him as more charismatic and could use the uncertainty embraced by the leader as a sense-making tool (Howell and Shamir, 2005; Boin et al, 2010; Goethals, 2018). In line with this research, it is possible to assume that Trump was indeed able to successfully “build and maintain public support” (Greenstein, 2000, p.182) and thus could be considered politically skilled. However, Trump’s relations within the White House on the other hand, suggests a lack in political skill. His inability to maintain bonds within the White House, along with the tendency to create further tension attests to this. In one instance, Trump declared that deportation of immigrants from the U.S would be a ‘military operation’ to which Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly responded with “There will be no – I repeat – no use of military force in immigration operations. None” (Pfiffner, 2017, p.11). As well as this, Trump’s nomination was opposed by much of the Republican establishment; suggesting he was not well connected to the ‘shadow government’ of experienced Republicans (Pfiffner, 2017). In relation to Greenstein’s framework, Trump fails in attaining a reputation as a “skilled, determined political operator” (Greenstein, p.182, 2000). With this knowledge, the extent of Trump’s political skill is brought into question and consequently his ability to perform as an efficient political leader.
Greenstein (2000) highlights that presidents who stand firm in their political standing are able to set the terms of policy discourse. In the case of Trump, it is difficult to explicitly define the overarching vision he proposes for the U.S, due to his inconsistent policy positions. Since the beginning of his presidency, there has been extensive coverage on Trump’s direct contradictions to his previously held positions in a number of policy areas. One particular articleby Kruse and Weiland (2016) details his inconsistencies on immigration, gun rights, nuclear arms, minimum wage and so on. Additionally, Trump’s tweets and changes in policy positions have led to problems with many of his own cabinet secretaries. Thus, some have noted that Trump’s ‘vision’ is highly personified and is purely dependent on his own leadership. As Milkis and Jacobs (2017) puts it, “Trump’s election plans to reshuffle fiscal, administrative and human resources to augment his own vision of a strong American state” (Milkis and Jacobs, p.586, 2017). His administration proposed to implement a conservative formula of using administrative power aggressively in order to change the trajectory of policy in areas such as homeland security, immigration and climate change. This was demonstrated in his first budget request in office, where he successfully managed to implement a conservative redeployment in key areas. This included increases to the Department of Veteran’s Affairs ($4.4bill), Homeland Security ($2.8bill) and Defence ($52bill), offset by cuts to other departments; the EPA, the State Department, the Agriculture Department (Milkis and Jacobs, 2017). Another aspect of Trump’s ‘policy vision’ seemingly aims to actively erode Obama’s efforts, evident in the suspension of Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA). As well as this, Trump’s incompetency with regards to foreign policy has caused significant wider implications. Cohen (2019) states:
“The president has outlined a deeply misguided foreign policy vision that is distrustful of U.S. allies, scornful of international institutions, and indifferent, if not downright hostile, to the liberal international order that the United States has sustained for nearly eight decades.”
This proves especially true as Trump plunges towards exactly the kind of conflict in the Middle East that he pledged to avoid. After extensively criticising his predecessor Obama regarding the Iran war, suggesting that he is ‘weak’ and ‘ineffective’ with ‘no ability to negotiate’ in 2011, Trump recently authorised the assassination of Iranian general Qassem Suleimani (Rupar, 2020). This foreign policy crisis not only reinforces Trump’s weakness in terms of policy vision, but also highlights the substantial ramifications of having an incapable political leader in an international context.
Greenstein (2000) refers to cognitive style as the way the president processes the ‘Niagara of advice and information’ that he receives (Greenstein, 2000). Whilst previous presidents had the capacity to properly synthesise information presented to them, particularly Obama who was also able to illuminate issues from contrasting viewpoints, Trump appears to completely disregard it (Rocco, 2017). There are many instances where he has “demonstrated an almost singular allergy” (Rocco, p.364, 2017) to the expert analyses of presidential action that is presented to him. His inability, or perhaps refusal, to process the information he receives alludes to a lack of understanding and analytic ability. Furthermore, Trump has gone as far as dismissing these analyses as completely false, without providing any evidence. This appears to be a common feat for Trump and his surrogates; there were as many as 19 instances during the presidential campaign where he claimed the unemployment figures released by the Bureau of Labor statistics were totally fiction, again without evidence(Ingraham, 2017). This further reiterates Trump’s abrasion with the policy state, and explains a lot of the significant legislative challenges that took place during his first few months of his administration. Instead of relying on evidence backed and detailed information, Trump resorts to using symbolic or emotive language to defend his policy proposals (Rocco, 2017; Pennycook and Rand, 2017). This raises questions to his competency as a political leader, as it is evident his cognitive style places him at a disadvantage. Moreover, Trump has required executive agencies to conduct new policy analyses with the aim of justifying his administration’s goal (Rocco, 2017). Thus, instead of adopting criticism and alternative viewpoints as a means of improving his policy agenda, Trump looks to create a predisposed and biased informational base to draw form. This is in stark contrast to Obama’s cognitive style, recognised for his open-mindedness and capacity for complex thinking (Greenstein, 2009). To understand Trump’s cognitive style further, it may also be useful to look at the type of voters he attracts. A study by Pennycook and Rand (2017) found strong evidence indicating the use of intuition is correlated with political affiliation, ideology and behaviour. Their results found that Trump voters were less analytic and more intuitive overall, scoring substantially lower on cognitive reflection tests (Pennycook and Rand, 2017). Trump’s campaign was particularly attractive to these voters possibly due to his most salient features, his reliance on intuition and impulse. However, Greenstein (2000) does highlight that previous presidents lacking in cognitive ability have still had major policy accomplishments, suggesting intelligence is not the sole cause of presidential effectiveness (Greenstein, 2000).
In this aspect, the president is able to manage his emotions and use them for constructive purposes, rather than allowing them to hinder performance as a political leader (Greenstein, 2000). It is widely accepted that the successful management of emotions has been vital to successful presidential candidacies. Trump, however, is notorious for his emotional outbursts and inability to control his anger. His anger is established not only as an essential feature of his character, but is also used as a guiding force in policy decisions (Wahl-Jorgensen, 2019). A number of Trump’s policy proposals were based on intuitive tendencies and drawn from a highly emotional state; as evident through the prioritisation of immigration policies, homeland security, trade deals and foreign policy. This suggests that the concept of angry populism informs a large part of Trump’s motivations and behaviour in office (Wahl-Jorgenson, 2019). Trump’s inclination towards the use of Twitter as a platform to express his anger is also exemplary of his inability to control his emotions. He makes no reservations in using aggressive rhetoric and launching personal attacks against his perceived opponents on a public platform. This being said, the explicitness of Trump’s anger resonates on some level with his disenfranchised voters and followers; which would explain Trump’s rise to the White House. Gerbaudo (2018) highlights how social media enables these movements to ‘rally anger’ against mainstream media and has enabled ‘disgruntled individuals’ to form ‘online crowds’ (Gerbaudo, 2018). Whilst Trump’s volatile emotional state serves well in the case of rallying individuals, the fact still remains that he is deficient in terms of self-control. This has wider implications, particularly with his failure to display the discipline needed to master the details of foreign policy (Nye, 2016). This is particularly noteworthy with his recent attack on Iran, triggering consequences on an international scale. This deficiency in his emotional intelligence has cost him the support of renowned foreign policy experts, as well as earning him the lowest public approval ratings to record. Further evidence of his emotional intelligence deficit is found in the following study. Coma and Maier (2019) found that his public persona is poorly self-disciplined, highly disorganised and low in emotional stability (Coma and Maier, p.622, 2019). Thus, it is possible to conclude that Trump fails to fulfil his role as political leader sufficiently with regards to this quality. Greenstein (2000) highlights the importance of emotional intelligence out of all six components, which perhaps rings true in observing Trump’s volatile temperament in dominating the political stage.
This essay set out to analyse Donald Trump as a political leader under Greenstein’s (2000) leadership framework. In a final analysis, Trump has proven to be successful in areas pertaining to public communication and political skill, but has fallen short in organisational capacity, policy vision, cognitive style and emotional intelligence. Findings show that Trump’s grandiose communication style serves well in conveying his message to his voter base; consolidating a strong sense of support. As well as this, Trump is successful in amassing and maintaining public support with his ability to utilise the ‘psychology of relative deprivation’; highlighting the level of his political skill. However, Trump’s refusal to delegate authority to subordinates and inexperience in governance makes him insufficient in terms of organisational capacity. His superficial grasp of complex issues and rejection of evidence based policy analyses leaves him incompetent in the area of cognitive ability. Most importantly, Trump’s inconsistent and unreliable policy positions, coupled with his impulsive nature and a volatile temperament has escalated tensions on an international scale; resulting in an impending foreign policy disaster. Just as Greenstein (2000) predicted “beware the contender who lacks emotional intelligence” (Greenstein, 2000, p.184), this becomes evermore important in light of Trump’s most recent attack on Iran, triggering significant consequences on an international level.
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