Trump, "Strength" and Presidential Leadership

The message of Donald Trump's bombastic candidacy is crystal clear -- I am "strong" and "tough" and my primary opponents (and virtually all political leaders) are feckless and weak.

As the caucuses and primaries are about to begin, voters should demand that all candidates explain precisely why their unique skills, experiences and temperaments will provide the leadership that the country needs to mitigate the dysfunction of our political gridlock and to deal effectively with the complexity of the world in which we live.

We know that Trump has an extremely high regard for himself because he tells us he is "really, really smart," "rich" and "successful." We know that he values "winning" and that every other candidate, by comparison, is "weak," "low energy," or "sweats" too much; and every current office holder in both parties is "stupid," "incompetent" or ineffectual.

His special brand of unrelenting machismo is resonating in this moment for several reasons.

First, Americans are anxious and scared. We fear economic insecurity and turmoil in world financial markets, homegrown terrorists and international terrorist plots and attacks, gun violence on our streets and in our schools and social venues, the increasing unaffordability of higher education and medical care, and the growing difficulty of maintaining a middle class lifestyle.

Second, after seven years in office, and despite significant accomplishments, a large segment of the electorate -- virtually all Republicans and not a few Democrats - perceive President Obama to be a tentative and hesitant leader. Relentlessly delegitimized by his foes, and frequently unappreciated by his friends, Obama's appearance of detachment and his measured, restrained tones are seen by many as "weak" and "soft" in dealing with his domestic and international adversaries.

Third, Trump has no peer in this primary season with the independence, the disregard for normal proprieties of political discourse, or the lack of concern for offending others. His unique celebrity and pomposity have thus far both inoculated him from the conventions of politics and shrouded him in an aura of invincibility, and yes, "strength" and "toughness."

Flourishing all of the showmanship, the bluster, the tweets and one-liners, the takedowns and rejoinders, Trump recalls the imagery of the classic bully: "I am the all powerful, muscular strongman on the beach and all my primary opponents and all politicians are the skinny kids in whose hapless faces I am rightfully kicking sand."

This narrative will not diminish. He will hoist it up in brighter and brighter lights -- like his golden name blazoned on all of those skyscrapers -- and hammer it ceaselessly throughout the primaries against any and all opponents, and should he get the nomination, or choose to run independently, during the general election.

He is entitled, of course, to pound his chess and advance his case for the remainder of this campaign. He knows with certainty that he is right because this approach to problem solving has worked for him for forty years in business and he therefore is confident that it will work for him in the public arena. He relishes the opportunity to kick sand in the eyes of the Chinese, or the Mexicans, or illegal aliens, or his domestic opponents, or ISIS or allies that don't agree with us.

But we, as citizens preparing to elect the next President of the United States, also are entitled, and obligated, to probe the deeper meanings of the words "strength" and "toughness" and debate fundamental questions about the style and substance of leadership that our country needs in these tumultuous times.

What made Abraham Lincoln, Winston Churchill and Ronald Reagan "strong" Presidents?

Why do we consider Franklin Roosevelt and Nelson Mandela to have been "tough" leaders?

Did these great men burnish their reputations as "strong," "tough" leaders because of bluster, belittlement, denigration of others, intemperance or insult?

Or, did they employ reason, deliberativeness, respect for others, eloquence in moments of national trauma, swift intervention when necessary or restraint when called for, decisive military action only as a last resort or crippling sanctions and diplomacy when appropriate?

What precisely does "strength" and "toughness" mean for how an American President comports him or herself in a world of 7.3 billion people living in 195 nations?

Is it possible some times to confuse respect for the dignity of others as "weakness" and mistake intelligent restraint for "softness"?

Can "strength" actually mean deliberative and civil and can "tough" result in negotiation and compromise?

Does America still value building international coalitions and forging multi-national cooperation to end hostilities, reduce tensions and resolve conflicts?

When are active, respectful listening, empathizing, and sharing power and responsibility signs of "strength" and when is achieving common purpose a result of disciplined "toughness"?

Qualities and attributes of leadership are vitally important questions that candidates generally fail to address thoughtfully during Presidential elections.

In the coming weeks and months, we must demand that each candidate explain specifically what he or she means by Presidential "strength" and "toughness" and how he or she will be the leader we need to inspire us, forge consensus, deal with our adversaries, keep us safe and successfully govern our nation.

Mr. Stein is the founder of the Democracy Alliance. The views expressed herein are his own.

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