For some, the most alarming comments by Donald Trump in an interview with reporters from Times of London and Germany's Bild newspaper may have been the ones he made about NATO and German Chancellor Angela Merkel. The president-elect called NATO "obsolete," reiterating his critique that many members "aren't paying what they're supposed to pay," and said Merkel's refugee policy was "one very catastrophic mistake."
Yet his response to a question about heroes is also raising eyebrows. It is startling for his statement that "I don't like the concept of heroes," as well as his decision not to name a historic figure other than his father and the fact that he touted himself in a question aimed at getting him to talk about people he admires. It also reveals what appears to be a narrow definition of leadership and who has the ability to achieve it.
Trump's response to the question ("do you have any models -- are there heroes that you steer by -- people you look up to from the past?") is, as The Fix's Chris Cillizza pointed out Monday, a "stream of consciousness answer for the ages." Here is it is, in full:
— Daniel Dale (@ddale8) January 16, 2017
The question is the sort of softball often lobbed at political leaders to get a sense of whom they admire, what leadership traits they believe are critical for the job and what kind of leader they aspire to be. It could not be simpler to answer. Simply plucking an admired president from the past -- George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, or Republican hero Ronald Reagan -- would have been a perfectly reasonable, if unremarkable, answer.
There are many other ways Trump could have answered. He could have said Winston Churchill, the World War II prime minister whose bust British Brexit backer Nigel Farage suggested Trump might return to the Oval Office. There's always the option of citing a broad group, such as "America's armed forces veterans" or "the hard-working Americans who put food on the table every day for their kids" -- a generic but politic answer. Even naming Gen. George Patton, the tough-talking World War II general Trump has repeatedly praised, would have at least provided some consistency to his rhetoric.
Instead, Trump offered a rambling answer in which he says he doesn't "like the concept of heroes" and "certainly you can respect certain people and certainly there are certain people," naming only one of those certain people, his father. Other presidents have frequently named historical figures they admired: George W. Bush often mentioned Churchill, calling the bust he had in his office "a constant reminder of what a great leader is like." Bill Clinton cited Martin Luther King Jr. and Nelson Mandela as personal heroes. Barack Obama has cited the same figures, as well as many others, particularly Abraham Lincoln.
Such a response is not all that surprising for someone who not only questioned John McCain's status as a war hero, saying early in the campaign "I like people who weren't captured," but who has taken to Twitter in recent days to knock Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.) as "all talk, talk, talk -- no action or results" after the civil rights hero questioned the legitimacy of Trump's presidency. Nor is it surprising coming from a candidate who said on the campaign trail "I will give you what you've been looking for for 50 years. I'm the only one," and said "I alone can fix it" in his acceptance speech last year.
Moreover, naming a historic figure he admires could set Trump up for comparisons on such leadership traits -- things like transparency or empathy -- that go beyond the dealmaker image he's cultivated for himself. It's telling, after all, that Trump says several times in his answer that what he learned from his father (or inherited from him: "I also think negotiation is a natural trait, I don't think you can, you either have it or you don't") was how to negotiate.
After all, unless you count sales or political skills, the ability to negotiate is the only leadership trait he mentions in the answer -- not authenticity, not creativity, not inspiration or integrity -- before going on to say that "natural ability, to me, is much more important to me than experience and experience is a great thing -- I think it's a great thing -- but I learned a lot from my father in terms of leadership."
Trump's answer to the question about heroes is, yes, a revealing if muddled glimpse into the ego-driven worldview of a man who is about to be president of the United States. But it also demonstrates a lack of concern for society's needs for common heroes and historic figures we can all aspire to emulate. It looks past the lessons of history and ignores the power of shared figures to whom we can all relate. And it presents a narrow and simplistic definition of leadership as both the pedestrian task of a negotiating deal-maker and a task that's limited to those with natural abilities.