If anything, he became more abrasive and at times even callous. He took radical decisions that rubbed many the wrong way – both internally and externally. Having withdrawn America from almost all major world bodies, and having maintained a constant fight with several former US allies, many world leaders hoped, or perhaps even prayed for his downfall. Internally, there seemed to have been an outcry from across the nation, especially in the last two years of his reign. The lackluster handling of such devastating matters as COVID-19 and the Black Lives Matter outcry only seemed to make things worse for the tweeting president.
Thus, as the 2020 elections drew near, many analysts believed that Americans had had enough of their 45th President. Predictions were that he was going to be vanquished at the ballot – and with a landslide victory. But this was not to be. Though all indications were that he lost the 2020 elections, Trump refused to fall with a thud. Not just because of his claims of rigging – which kept his supporters hopeful – but especially because of the massive number of votes he amassed at the elections.
Whereas Biden had set a historic record by attaining more that 82 million popular votes, Trump shared this record-setting feat by garnering over 74 million votes. In 2008, Barack Obama earned over 69 million votes in the presidential election, the most ever. But then, both Joe Biden and Donald Trump far surpassed that tally, setting a new record for the US Presidential elections. Trump was therefore not hounded out office with unassailable win as many had predicted. The question is: Why did Trump turn out to be such an enigma?
Back in 2016, analysts and commentators reviewed the Trump win from various angles, trying to understand the underlying issues, and especially what may have led to the results that defied the predictions of almost all opinion polls. Of the many hypotheses, The Economist proffered an interesting perspective. They wrote, “Good people have been frightened and angered into backing a dangerous man.” The implication here was that, in spite of his abrasive style on the campaign trail, Trump articulated exactly what the “Good people” wanted to hear. Trump’s rough-shod voice on the campaign trail resonated with many. His almost reckless utterances, though widely viewed as un-presidential, was exactly what this group was looking for. Whereas this group had in its ranks nefarious far right diehards, it was mainly comprised of truly good people who stood for strong values. These people perceived themselves and their values to be in danger of being obliterated by the pervasive liberal policies espoused by the Democrats. Among these was the Church, especially the Evangelicals, which has increasingly felt ostracized, with all its Judeo-Christian values systematically dismantled under Democrats leadership. It was particularly this group that appears to have helped Trump to upstage the Democrats in 2016, and fully mobilised themselves in 2020 to give him a record number of votes.
What seemed to come out of the USA elections was that the fight between the liberals and the conservatives became desperate. The record turnout at the elections was evidence of a people that have developed strong worldviews at opposite ends, and which they were ready to defend at all costs. With almost 160 million voter turnout during a ravaging pandemic, these groups showed that they were ready to do anything to defend their cause.
The indications are that this is a trend that is likely to pick up among many nations across the world, especially as fundamental values get undermined by a rapidly growing liberal movement. The deep desire to have leaders that can liberate the conservatives from the liberals is a growing reality. Unfortunately, it is a situation that could easily give rise to destructive leadership. The concept of destructive leadership was proffered by Art Padilla, Robert Hogan, and Robert Kaiser, after a careful study of many leaders in organizations and nations. The scholars came to the conclusion that there is a category of leaders – Destructive Leaders – whose lives and behaviors only harm their organizations or social systems. Destructive leadership was found to involve dominance, coercion, and manipulation. Such leaders manifested a selfish orientation, focused more on their own needs than those of the larger social group. However, and perhaps of greater relevance to us, destructive leadership was found not to be wholly the consequence of having a rouge leader or set of leaders, but rather the outcome of three interlinked factors known as the Toxic Triangle.
The Toxic triangle consists of destructive leaders, susceptible followers, and conducive environments. In this conception, destructive leaders were found to possess five key characteristics: charisma, personalized use of power, narcissism, negative life themes, and an ideology of hate. Susceptible followers, on the other hand, are those men and women who believe in and readily rally behind the leader. Such followers fell into two categories: Conformers and Colluders. Conformers passively allow bad leaders to assume power because their unmet needs and immaturity make them vulnerable to such influences. Colluders support their leaders because of personal ambition, self-interest, and a shared worldview. But, for the toxic triangle to be complete, a conducive environment is critical. Such an environment was found to consist of four factors: instability, perceived threat, cultural values, and weak or lack of checks and balances. In moments of instability or perceived threat, people cry out for a savior. A charismatic leader is often the natural ideal. Likewise, when cultural values clash or there is intercultural disagreement, such leaders come in handy. They thrive best when the rule of law is either weak or not there at all. However, at times they either ignore or suspend laws they consider to be a hindrance to their course.
From the foregoing, it is not difficult to see how the toxic triangle may easily describe the American situation and could likewise explain the current Kenyan state of affairs. In the Kenyan scene, there exists an environment of instability and fear, with a perceived threat from the various ethnic communities. The result is a total loss of trust and respect for one another, thereby creating an environment totally susceptible to destructive leadership. What must we do? The study on destructive leadership found that, effective institutions, system stability, and proper checks and balances, are the backbone to strong nations or organizations. America seems to have survived due to strong commitment to respecting national institutions – electoral process, courts, transition procedures, etc. If these had been ignored or undermined, as Trump tried to – the nation would have been plunged into chaos. It follows therefore that any nation or organisation that seeks to survive any crisis, must build robust systems and structures, but more importantly, respect them. Any leadership that sets out to weaken or undermine the legal or constitutional order, can only be termed as destructive.
Another key pillar to mitigating the effects of destructive leadership are sober followers. Strong followers were found to be the best bet in slowing down attempts to take over the system. Accordingly, it is men and women are still sober enough to reason, and who love their nation or organisation that can stop the slide into destructive leadership. Such people must move from being susceptible followers – as colluders or conformers – and get to the place of sober judgement and responsible action. They must wrestle themselves from the clutches of ethnic bigotry and hatred, and every form of bias so they can work collaboratively to free the nation or organisation from the dangerous slide to possible destruction.