11 July 2018 – Please bear with me while I, once again, invert the standard news-story pyramid by presenting a great whacking pile of (hopfully entertaining) detail that leads eventually to the point of this column. If you’re too impatient to read it to the end, leave now to check out the latest POTUS rant on Twitter.
I’ve made friends with all kinds of people, from murderers to millionaires, but there are a few types that I just can’t abide. Top of that list is people that think they’re smarter than everybody else, and want you to acknowledge it.
I’m telling you this because I’m trying to be honest about why I’ve never been able to abide two recent Presidents: William Jefferson Clinton (#42) and Donald J. Trump (#45). Having been forced to observe their antics over an extended period, I’m pleased to report that they’ve both proved to be among the most corrupt individuals to occupy the Oval Office in recent memory.
I dislike them because they both show that same, smarmy self-satisfied smile when contemplating their own greatness.
Tricky Dick Nixon (#37) was also a world-class scumbag, but he never triggered the same automatic revulsion. That is because, instead of always looking self satisfied, he always looked scared. He was smart enough to recognize that he was walking a tightrope and, if he stayed on it long enough, he eventually would fall off.
And, he did.
I had no reason for disliking #37 until the mid-1960s, when, as a college freshman, I researched a paper for a history class that happened to involve digging into the McCarthy hearings of the early 1950s. Seeing the future #37’s activities in that period helped me form an extremely unflattering picture of his character, which a decade later proved accurate.
During those years in between I had some knock-down, drag-out arguments with my rabid-Nixon-fan grandmother. I hope I had the self control never to have said “I told you so” after Nixon’s fall. She was a nice lady and a wonderful grandma, and wouldn’t have deserved it.
As Abraham Lincoln (#16) famously said: “You can fool all the people some of the time, and some of the people all the time, but you cannot fool all the people all the time.”
Since #45 came on my radar many decades ago, I’ve been trying to figure out what, exactly, is wrong with his brain. At first, when he was a real-estate developer, I just figured he had bad taste and was infantile. That made him easy to dismiss, so I did just that.
No wonder his companies went bankrupt. Again, and again, and again….
I’ve known scads of corporate CEOs over the years. During the quarter century I spent covering the testing business as a journalist, I got to spend time with most of the corporate leaders of the world’s major electronics manufacturing companies. Unsurprisingly, the successful ones followed the best practices that I learned in MBA school.
Some of the CEOs I got to know were goofballs. Most, however, were absolutely brilliant. The successful ones all had certain things in common.
Chief among the characteristics of successful corporate executives is that they make the people around them happy to work for them. They make others feel comfortable, empowered, and enthusiastically willing to cooperate to make the CEO’s vision manifest.
Even Commendatore Ferrari, who I’ve heard was Hell to work for and Machiavellian in interpersonal relationships, made underlings glad to have known him. I’ve noticed that ‘most everybody who’s ever worked for Ferrari has become a Ferrari fan for life.
As far as I can determine, nobody ever sued him.
That’s not the impression I got of Donald Trump, the corporate CEO. He seemed to revel in conflict, making those around him feel like dog pooh.
Apparently, everyone who’s ever dealt with him has wanted to sue him.
That worked out fine, however, for Donald Trump, the reality-TV star. So-called “reality” TV shows generally survive by presenting conflict. The more conflict the better. Everybody always seems to be fighting with everybody else, and the winners appear to be those who consistently bully their opponents into feeling like dog pooh.
I see a pattern here.
The inescapable conclusion is that Donald Trump was never a successful corporate executive, but succeeded enormously playing one on TV.
Another characteristic I should mention of reality TV shows is that they’re unscripted. The idea seems to be that nobody knows what’s going to happen next, including the cast.
That leaves off the necessity for reality-TV stars to learn lines. Actual movie stars and stage actors have to learn lines of dialog. Stories are tightly scripted so that they conform to Aristotle’s recommendations for how to write a successful plot.
Having written a handful of traditional motion-picture scripts as well as having produced a few reality-TV episodes, I know the difference. Following Aristotle’s dicta gives you the ability to communicate, and sometimes even teach, something to your audience. The formula reality-TV show, on the other hand, goes nowhere. Everybody (including the audience) ends up exactly where they started, ready to start the same stupid arguments over and over again ad nauseam.
Apparently, reality-TV audiences don’t want to actually learn anything. They’re more focused on ranting and raving.
Later on, following a long tradition among theater, film and TV stars, #45 became a politician.
At first, I listened to what he said. That led me to think he was a Nazi demagogue. Then, I thought maybe he was some kind of petty tyrant, like Mussolini. (I never considered him competent enough to match Hitler.)
Eventually, I realized that it never makes any sense to listen to what #45 says because he lies. That makes anything he says irrelevant.
FIRST PRINCIPAL: If you catch somebody lying to you, stop believing what they say.
So, it’s all bullshit. You can’t draw any conclusion from it. If he says something obviously racist (for example), you can’t conclude that he’s a racist. If he says something that sounds stupid, you can’t conclude he’s stupid, either. It just means he’s said something that sounds stupid.
Piling up this whole load of B.S., then applying Occam’s Razor, leads to the conclusion that #45 is still simply a reality-TV star. His current TV show is titled The Trump Administration. Its supporting characters are U.S. senators and representatives, executive-branch bureaucrats, news-media personalities, and foreign “dignitaries.” Some in that last category (such as Justin Trudeau and Emmanuel Macron) are reluctant conscripts into the cast, and some (such as Vladimir Putin and Kim Jong-un) gleefully play their parts, but all are bit players in #45’s reality TV show.
Oh, yeah. The largest group of bit players in The Trump Administration is every man, woman, child and jackass on the planet. All are, in true reality-TV style, going exactly nowhere as long as the show lasts.
Politicians have always been showmen. Of the Founding Fathers, the one who stands out for never coming close to becoming President was Benjamin Franklin. Franklin was a lot of things, and did a lot of things extremely well. But, he was never really a P.T.-Barnum-like showman.
Really successful politicians, such as Abraham Lincoln, Franklin Roosevelt (#32), Bill Clinton, and Ronald Reagan (#40) were showmen. They could wow the heck out of an audience. They could also remember their lines!
That brings us, as promised, to Donald Trump and the Peter Principle.
Recognizing the close relationship between Presidential success and showmanship gives some idea about why #45 is having so much trouble making a go of being President.
Before I dig into that, however, I need to point out a few things that #45 likes to claim as successes that actually aren’t:
- The 2016 election was not really a win for Donald Trump. Hillary Clinton was such an unpopular candidate that she decisively lost on her own (de)merits. God knows why she was ever the Democratic Party candidate at all. Anybody could have beaten her. If Donald Trump hadn’t been available, Elmer Fudd could have won!
- The current economic expansion has absolutely nothing to do with Trump policies. I predicted it back in 2009, long before anybody (with the possible exception of Vladimir Putin, who apparently engineered it) thought Trump had a chance of winning the Presidency. My prediction was based on applying chaos theory to historical data. It was simply time for an economic expansion. The only effect Trump can have on the economy is to screw it up. Being trained as an economist (You did know that, didn’t you?), #45 is unlikely to screw up so badly that he derails the expansion.
- While #45 likes to claim a win on North Korean denuclearization, the Nobel Peace Prize is on hold while evidence piles up that Kim Jong-un was pulling the wool over Trump’s eyes at the summit.
Finally, we move on to the Peter Principle.
Peter was (he died at age 70 in 1990) not a management consultant or a behavioral psychologist. He was an Associate Professor of Education at the University of Southern California. He was also Director of the Evelyn Frieden Centre for Prescriptive Teaching at USC, and Coordinator of Programs for Emotionally Disturbed Children.
The Peter principle states: “In a hierarchy every employee tends to rise to his level of incompetence.”
Horrifying to corporate managers, the book went on to provide real examples and lucid explanations to show the principle’s validity. It works as satire only because it leaves the reader with a choice either to laugh or to cry.
See last week’s discussion of why academic literature is exactly the wrong form with which to explore really tough philosophical questions in an innovative way.
Let’s be clear: I’m convinced that the Peter principle is God’s Own Truth! I’ve seen dozens of examples that confirm it, and no counter examples.
It’s another proof that Mommy Nature has a sense of humor. Anyone who disputes that has, philosophically speaking, a piece of paper taped to the back of his (or her) shirt with the words “Kick Me!” written on it.
A quick perusal of the Wikipedia entry on the Peter Principle elucidates: “An employee is promoted based on their success in previous jobs until they reach a level at which they are no longer competent, as skills in one job do not necessarily translate to another. … If the promoted person lacks the skills required for their new role, then they will be incompetent at their new level, and so they will not be promoted again.”
I leave it as an exercise for the reader (and the media) to find the numerous examples where #45, as a successful reality-TV star, has the skills he needed to be promoted to President, but not those needed to be competent in the job.