The Dark Secret That Fueled Trump’s Political Rise

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From any rational perspective it is incongruous that a crude, flamboyant, egocentric real estate tycoon and reality-show host could stand any chance of being nominated, let alone elected president of the United States. If this scenario were proposed as a reality-show for television, it would be rejected as too implausible.  And yet, that is what we are witnessing. 

What is so surprising and fearful for many is that Trump has used his ostentatious persona to dominate the 2016 election cycle and become the leading candidate for the Republican nomination. What was once considered a joke is now considered a serious threat. The big-wigs of the Republican establishment are in full, fearful panic-mode over the possibility of Trump winning the Party’s nomination for president. This situation puts the Republican establishment in a difficult position, because they have been forced to choose between the feelings of fear or loathing; and when given that choice, they have embraced loathing.

Fearing Trump more than the Zika virus, the Republican establishment has embraced Ted Cruz, a man they universally despise and loath, as their preferred candidate for the nomination. This despite an anonymous poll of all 100 U.S. Senators last year that discovered all except one (Cruz) were steadfastly against the idea of Cruz becoming president; it seems his Senate colleagues universally loath him for both his abrasive personality and rigidly dogmatic, self-serving attitudes. One Republican Senate colleague was quoted as saying, “The word “hypocrite” was invented, just to be able to describe Ted Cruz.” For the vast majority of the Republican establishment, supporting Cruz is akin to drinking a full bottle of feces-flavored castor oil, but they gulp it down out of fear of Trump. The Republican leaders have become so paranoid about Trump’s potential nomination they have taken to saying, “It’s better to lose with Cruz, than it is to win with Trump.”

The Secret to Trump’s Rise

If the political rise of Trump is so outrageous and absurd to so many, what is the secret to his success? Trump has been perceptive enough to tap into a secret that has been known by humorists and satirists for centuries. Just as comedians and satirists use this secret to entertain their audiences, Trump uses the secret to make a point and connect with voters.

Just so long as there is an element of truth in the sarcasm, not matter how outrageous or offensive it may be, it can not only trigger a laugh, but it can also bring home a specific point. It is this underlying truth in sarcasm that touches the feelings of the audience and allows them to relate to the “humor” and the point being made that gives sarcasm credibility. Trump seems to understand this and has used this technique to relate to voters. And this is the reason the Republican leaders are crying now, rather than laughing.

Sarcasm has long been considered by humorists and social critics to be the most effective tool to put a spotlight on raw social issues and expose the foibles of the elite to the masses. That is the reason why Saturday Night Live has been so popular for over 40 years. It is the reason why television shows such as Big Bang Theory, Modern Family, The Family Guy and The Simpsons have been so successful with the masses. Trump, better than any professional politician (most of whom believe they are the elite) recognizes the secret of sarcasm and makes it central to his campaign.   

When you think of Jeb Bush, do you think of a son of a president, a successful businessman and two-time governor of Florida or do you think of “low-energy Bush?” When you think of Marko Rubio, do you think of a polished 44 year old Senator and bright shining star of the Republican Party or do you think of “little Marko?” When you think of Ted Cruz, do you think of an extremely intelligent, driven and experienced individual or do you think of “Lyin’ Ted?” When Mitt Romney was out on the stump attacking Trump, did you think of him as the wise sage of the Republican Party, or did you see the “choke-artist” who blew the 2012 election?

When you think about it, Bush did give off an aura of low energy. When you think about it, Rubio did seem like the little kid on the block, jumping up and down trying to get the attention of the older guys. When you look at Cruz giving one of his debater-like speeches, that little smirk on his face just makes it look like he is lying. And there is no doubt that Romney choked in 2012.

Trump seemed to innately recognize that by adopting the comedic techniques of sarcastic humor and mocking style against his opponents, he would be more successful than if he challenged them straight-up on the issues. The Republican establishment (and almost all others) considered it to be a joke when Trump announced his campaign. But to Trump’s credit, he turned his weakness as a traditional candidate into a strength and the joke was on the Republican establishment. It may be a hollow way to approach running for president and is certainly against all the “rules” for how a campaign should be conducted, but it has worked so far for Trump. Trump has used sarcasm and mocking to expose issues other politicians would just as soon duck, and he has brought to light the elitist tendencies of the Republican establishment. This is the secret that has put Trump at the top of the polls and caused the leaders of the Republican establishment have their underwear in knots.

Trump and Sanders Show the Power of Not Being Beholden to Power

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Have you ever been in a situation at work when you were frustrated with your boss over something that you believed was not the right thing to do? Have you ever thought to yourself? “I wish I could tell my boss what I really think.” But you knew that saying anything would upset the boss, so you held your tongue because you were beholden to the boss for your job. Unfortunately, this subtle use of power is the normal way of life in business, and its intent is to protect the status quo, consolidate power, and cower those who are beholden to the system for their very livelihood. And as a result, this force of intimidating acquiescence to the power of the establishment causes blindness to change, stifles debate and suppresses innovation.

Imagine how emboldened you would be to state your viewpoint, challenge the status quo or expose mistakes being made, if you were not beholden to the established power of the organization for your future. Unfortunately, because we are so often dependent on a company for our very livelihood, few of us ever have the freedom, opportunity or courage to challenge entrenched power.  That’s too bad, because calling-out the establishment is often just about the only way to bring about needed change. The truth is that if you felt free to be candid, open and honest about the good, bad and ugly of the establishment, not only would you feel better about yourself, but you would become a power in-and-of-yourself and stand a better chance of being successful.

Gaining Power Over Power

It’s hard to know if either Donald Trump or Bernie Sanders would be a good president, but they both have a unique advantage that is rarely seen in politics and almost never in business. Neither one of them is beholden to the established powers in their Party, the media, the ultra-wealthy or the kingpins of business for their success. This empowers Trump and Sanders to say and propose what they think is needed and right. In a strange reversal of fortune, with the rise of Trump and Sanders, it is the establishment powers that seem to be in fear for their future.   

Trump and Sanders are the only candidates in the race who have not sought and do not receive support from wealthy donors or heavily funded Political Action Committees. Trump is quick to brag about his ability to “self-fund” his campaign. He points out again and again that, unlike other candidates, by not accepting power-broker money he is not beholden to them and thus immune to any pressure they most surely would want to exert on him. Likewise, Sanders constantly reminds anyone who will listen that his funding comes from millions of small donors who give on average $27. Sanders likes to point out that because he does not have to crawl to Wall Street for support, he can stand up the abuses perpetrated by Wall Street.

Trump and Sanders are trying to make the point that because they are not dependent on the big-money establishment, they are free to say and do what each thinks is right. Contrast that with the other candidates who depend on big-money contributions to keep their campaign going. Those who know that if they don’t say the right thing, those funds will dry-up and disappear, as will their campaign. Unlike Sanders, Clinton is forced into a delicate balancing act trying to appeal to those who feel they are being ripped-off by the Wall Street moguls, while trying to assure those on Wall Street who fund her campaign, that she is really their friend.

Another thing that emboldens Trump and Sanders to speak out is that they are not beholden to the “establishment” of either party. Indeed, the establishments of both the Republican and Democratic Parties are throwing a hissy fit and doing all in their power to defeat Trump and Sanders. Squadrons of establishment Republican leaders have come out in an effort to blitzkrieg Trump’s campaign; not to mention the nearly $50 million dollars that has been spent by Republican PACs on negative attack ads against Trump. As for Sanders, the entire apparatus of the establishment Democratic Party is firmly resisting him.

The reason the political establishments of both parties are so deeply engaged in fighting Trump and Sanders is because their own power is at stake. These entrenched Party big-wigs know that if either one of them does happen to get the nomination or is elected president, they will lose their power, because neither one will be beholden to the Party.

There is another advantage that Trump and Sanders will have if either is elected president. Unlike the other candidates, they are not dogmatically appealing directly to the organized “special interest” factions of their particular Party. This means that as president they will not be beholden to any particular “special interest.” This will give them the freedom and flexibility to deal with all interests on an evenhanded basis, affording a better chance to reach compromise and make progress. Can you imagine how ham-strung Cruz – who is beholden to rock-ribbed conservatives, the Tea Party followers and Evangelicals for his support – would be when it comes to being flexible and willing to compromise in order to make progress?    

It has Happened Before

There is a parallel in politics that might give us a glimpse of the unique power Trump and Sanders might have if elected. In 1998 the former Navy Seal and professional wrestler Jesse Ventura was seeking publicity for his local radio show in Minneapolis and on a lark decided to run for governor of Minnesota as an Independent. He was laughed at, ridiculed and rejected by the Minnesota media, the business establishment and both the Republican and Democratic Parties.

And yet, employing a totally reform-oriented anti-establishment campaign, he won the election going away. As surprised as the establishment was by his victory, they were not as surprised as he. The only advantage Ventura had entering the governor’s office was that he was not beholden to any of the Minnesota political or business establishment for his election.

This freedom allowed Ventura to challenge the sacred-cows of the establishment; and he did so with verve. During his term Ventura was able to push through reforms in property tax and implemented sales tax rebates. He successfully challenged the budgeting of the state university system, cut business and individual income taxes and begun construction of light rail service for Minneapolis and Saint Paul. The establishment never accepted Ventura, but they did have to admit that he accomplished more than either of the establishment candidates he defeated could have ever hoped to do; even if they wanted to.

Trump is like Jesse Ventura on steroids and Sanders is like Ventura, but with an intellect. There is no telling whether Trump or Sanders would be successful as president, but wouldn’t it be great if, just for once, we elected a leader who is not beholden to special interests, the ultra-wealthy or the political establishment? There might be a clue to the answer of that question by noting that this scenario is just what the establishment fears most.

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Pandering in Politics or Business is Not Leading, it is Herding

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Pandering leadership – the practice of telling followers what they want to hear, even if it is not what they should hear – is an affliction that has permeated politics since the dawn of the Republic. The only difference in this election cycle is that Donald Trump and Ted Cruz have elevated pandering politics to near pandemic levels in their battle for the Republican presidential nomination.

In Federalist 71 (a series of “blogs” written by Alexander Hamilton and others in support of the ratification of the U.S. Constitution) Hamilton argued that a political leader had an obligation to candidly discuss the issues and propose solutions, even when voters hold ill-informed or irrational views on the issues. Hamilton was not naïve, as he recognized that an individual running for elective office would be incented to pander to the fears and beliefs of the electorate, no matter how illogical they may be. Nevertheless, he argued that since leaders normally have more information about the issues, (the exception being Trump) they have an obligation to educate the voter. Ultimately, this would define their success as a leader.

Besides being disingenuous, sycophantic political pandering to voters ultimately leads to the destruction of the leader’s credibility and effectiveness. This is an important lesson to learn for anyone who seeks a leadership role. Pandering may be successful in the short term, but it always plants the seed for the ultimate failure of leadership. Observing the pandering ways of politicians is a wonderful way to learn this lesson, because it is so obvious and easy to see how destructive it can be.

Pander at Your Own Risk

The risk that arises from a pandering style leadership is that it ignores the complexity of some issues, raises false expectations and causes disillusionment when the promised fixes are unfulfilled. While there are many, a good example of how political pandering to the voter can come back destroy the leader is encapsulated in George H. W. Bush’s famous remark at the 1988 Republican Convention. In his acceptance speech he pandered to the voters by pledging, “Read my lips. No new taxes.” He said this despite the fact that he full-well knew that for any hope of controlling deficit-spending, taxes would have to be raised. The pledge helped Bush will the 1988 election, but the fact that he did break the pledge and raised taxes (as he should have) was the wedge used by Bill Clinton to defeat him in 1992.  

Going to New Heights Pandering Down to the Voters

Despite a 200 year history of political pandering in America, Ted Cruz and Donald Trump have taken the art of pandering to new levels. They both are pandering to the fears and ignorance of the base of the Republican Party.  Cruz is the worst of the two, because he hypocritically promised that he would never pander to voters; only to try to outdo Trump. At least give Trump credit for being unabashed about pandering to the electorate. From his first speech and television appearance he has openly admitted doing nothing but pandering to “the base.” Both Trump and Cruz have different approaches to their pandering, but their target is the same; they appeal to the root fears and frustrations of the base, without offering education or constructive solutions.


The latest example of Cruz pandering – and probably his most egregious effort yet – was his reaction to the terrorist attack in Brussels. Before the smoke from the bombing had even cleared, Cruz was rushing to the nearest television camera calling for increased surveillance and police patrols in American Muslim neighborhoods. Aside from this approach being ineffective in preventing terrorist attacks (just ask the French and Belgium police), Cruz, as a self-described constitutional scholar, knows that such an action is unconstitutional. But desperate to overtake Trump in the nomination process, Cruz is trying to out-Trump Trump when it comes to pandering to the fears of people. Not to be out-pandered Trump’s retort to Cruz was, “I’ll call your surveillance bet and raise you increased torture when we catch those Muslims.”

The problem is not that people have fears, because that will always be the case. Leadership is defined by how leaders – both political and business – respond to those fears. Leaders acknowledge but allay the fears of the followers, while demagogues the likes of Cruz and Trump fan the flames of fear for their own benefit.  

As ludicrous as the campaign for the Republican presidential nomination has become, what is really frightening is that a dominant majority of the Republican Party and close to a majority of the general electorate would accept either one of these empty vessels of leadership as president.

There is a great lesson to learn here for anyone who desires to be an effective leader in business or politics. The simple lesson is that pandering to those we want to lead is not leadership, it is herding. Leadership is not about doing what can be done, but doing what should be done. The challenge is that most followers don’t have the perspective to understand what should be done and this creates the need for leadership. A real leader does not acquiesce to and inflame the often uninformed fears and feelings of followers in order to be popular. Instead, a true leader sets out a vision of what should be done and shows the way to do it.  

Franklin Roosevelt, one of the great leaders of the 20th century, did not fan the fears of fearful people. Instead, he confronted those fears by telling followers that, “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.” Roosevelt was a great leader because he was not afraid to challenge people to understand that fear was the real enemy; not other groups and certainly not another religion. And he cemented his effectiveness as a leader by offering constructive ways to defeat the fear of fear. One thing is clear, neither Trump nor Cruz will ever be in the league of leaders who are compared to Roosevelt.

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