Archie Brown is author of “The Myth of the Strong Leader: Political Leadership in the Modern Age” and emeritus professor of politics at Oxford University.
President Trump’s electoral success owes a great deal to the high value voters placed on having a strong leader and to their perception that Trump looked the part. Survey data, based on Morning Consult/Politico exit polls, showed the importance of the presidential candidate appearing to be strong. This was twice as salient a factor in the 2016 election as it was in 2012, with 36 percent last November as against 18 percent four years earlier, saying that what they wanted, above all, was a strong leader.
We should, of course, never forget that but for the vagaries of an electoral system in which the candidate who won almost 3 million more votes than the new president was deemed to be the loser, Trump would not be in the White House. Nevertheless, he had substantial support, and that included backing from people in social groups who might have been expected to look to the Democrats for succor rather than to a billionaire property developer. The image Trump projected of nationalist strongman, regurgitated in his inaugural address, resonated with those who had been left behind by globalization.
That raises three questions: First, what does it mean to call someone a strong leader? Second, having established the criteria, is Trump really a strong leader in that sense? Third, is strength the quality we should especially value in a political leader or are there other attributes we should esteem more highly and which contribute more to good leadership in a democracy?
The notion of a strong leader is open to various interpretations, but when we compare various presidents and prime ministers, we generally, and perfectly reasonably, describe as a strong leader one who maximizes his (or her) personal power; dominates his government, political party and a wide swath of public policy; and asserts his right to make all the big decisions.
Trump has, indeed, shown every sign that he intends to be a strong leader in that sense. He has not hesitated to criticize the Republican Party establishment and has made policy pronouncements on the hoof, without regard either to predominant opinion within his own party (on Russia, for example, including praise for Vladimir Putin as a strong leader) or even to long-standing bipartisan foreign policy positions in Washington (as on China and Taiwan). His Cabinet appointments show little sign of seeking political balance. They have been highly personal, with a number of appointees lacking any obvious qualifications for the job other than enjoying the trust of the president.
In projecting himself as a strong leader, Trump has verged on the messianic. In his acceptance speech at the Republican National Convention he told his audience there and in the country that “I am your voice.” Disregarding his lack of political experience, he said that he knew the system better than anyone else which was why “I alone can fix it.” In the hyperbolic presidential inauguration speech, he promised to determine not only the course of the United States but also of the world “for many, many years to come,” and claimed that his supporters had “become part of a historic movement the likes of which the world has never seen before.” The fact that turnout at his inauguration ceremony fell far below that which welcomed Barack Obama in 2009, and that the world has seen many larger movements that have escaped his attention, was not allowed to get in the way of the rhetoric.
We can readily agree that Trump meets the criteria of a “strong leader.” (The Japanese prime minister, Shinzo Abe, was among those who lost no time in describing him as such in the congratulatory message he sent following the presidential election.) The bigger question is whether we should value the strength of a domineering individual above other leadership attributes and whether strong leadership is the same as effective leadership.
The self-consciously strong leader is, in a democracy, rarely as strong as he thinks he is. In a parliamentary system, an overweening leader often loses office before the government’s term of office has run its course as a result of a revolt by enough members of his or her own party in the legislature. It happened to the three British prime ministers in the past 90 years who attempted to concentrate the most power in their own hands and who acquired an extravagant belief in the superiority of their own judgement over that of their colleagues: Neville Chamberlain, forced to resign in 1940; Margaret Thatcher, ousted in 1990; and Tony Blair, who was obliged to yield the premiership to his colleague and rival, Gordon Brown, in 2007.
American presidents are harder to depose between elections than are British prime ministers, but they can be undermined by the threat of impeachment, forced out (as Nixon was), or politically weakened through their party’s loss of control of the House or Senate. American courts, moreover, have been active participants in the political process to a greater extent than has the judiciary in most parliamentary democracies. Early in the Trump presidency, they have not shirked the task of declaring a White House executive order unconstitutional. Testing times lie ahead for the checks and balances on which the American political system has long prided itself.
Strong leadership, in the sense of concentrating maximal power in the hands of one person, is far from being identical with good leadership. There are only 24 hours in the day of even the strongest leader. The more that person tries to do individually, the less time he or she has to weigh the evidence and gain an understanding of the complexity and nuances of each issue. The self-consciously strong leader is often tempted to demonstrate strength by coming to quick decisions. Even in a crisis, however, it is often possible to take time and to listen to the widest range of opinion, before reaching a conclusion.
If President John F. Kennedy had come to a quick decision when the Cuban missile crisis broke in 1962, the world might well have been engulfed in catastrophic nuclear war. From the outset, the Joint Chiefs of Staff advocated a comprehensive military strike on Cuba. Wiser counsels eventually prevailed. It was only decades later that the United States discovered what the likely consequences would have been of accepting the military advice. They learned that there already were tactical nuclear weapons in Cuba for use against the United States in the event of an invasion and, moreover, that Soviet ships approaching Cuba had submarine escorts with commanders authorized to fire nuclear torpedoes at U.S. targets without awaiting authorization from Moscow.
Nothing is more important than that an administration should contain people of independent political standing, of great and varied experience, and that within the government they should not engage in self-censorship, adjusting their advice to the perceived predilections of the top leader. They should be prepared to subject his conclusions to serious scrutiny and to provide counter-arguments. No president or prime minister in a democracy was ever selected because he or she was believed to have a monopoly of wisdom. A democracy worthy of the name has many leaders, not one.
A leader — in a democracy as well as an authoritarian regime — who tries to monopolize power will certainly do more harm than good. Far more valuable qualities of a head of government than “strength” in that sense include integrity, intelligence, collegiality, a questioning mind, willingness to seek disparate views, ability to absorb information, empathy, good memory, flexibility, courage, and (if we are lucky) vision. Those who possess that last quality eschew chauvinistic bravado and never confuse the long-term interests of their country with what may play well in the media (social and not) today.
While governments collectively are not immune from making foolish and damaging decisions, the likelihood of calamitously bad decision-making is substantially greater under unconstrained, or only weakly constrained, personal rule. A president should not only be subject to the rule of law, but also feel the need to persuade governmental colleagues rather than foreclose the discussion by pulling rank. To pine for one-person dominance and to believe in the efficacy of such leadership is worship of a false god. Rather than succumb to the fanciful allure of the strong leader, we would do well to relearn the advantages of a more collegial, collective and dispersed leadership.