What Do You Tell Your Kids When the Leader’s a Liar?
Everyone Else (Spouses, Parents and Peers) Wants Answers Too.
General managing partner, G2T3V and Chicago High Tech Investors
The old laugh lines and Catskills zingers aren’t that funny any longer because these days the joke’s on us and it’s a situation that’s beyond sad. We have a liar for a leader and there’s just no other way to put it. In the face of such horror, humor is impossibly hard. But we need to say something to our kids and everyone else in our lives who are trying to make sense out of this cynical charade. As numb as we all are at the moment, it’s dumb to stay quiet any longer.
We once said that you could tell when a politician was lying to you because his or her lips were moving. Today we have a leader who lies the way (and just as easily) as most people breathe. It’s beyond second nature to him; it’s in his very DNA. He doesn’t merely lie to secure a certain objective or interest (apart from his reelection); he lies because he enjoys it, because he can’t help himself, and because it’s a central part of his deeply-flawed character - whatever that may be. And because he intuitively believes what Thomas Jefferson said so many years ago: “A continual circulation of lies among those who are not much in the way of hearing them contradicted will in time pass for the truth”. If Trump has a credo, this is it: A lie repeated often enough becomes the truth.
We laughed that the difference between a car salesman and a computer salesman was that the car salesmen knew he was lying to you. The computer guy barely understood what it was that he was selling. Trump knows he’s lying and knows as well exactly what he’s trying to accomplish. To scare us, to turn us against each other, to always blame the “other”, and to incessantly aggrandize himself. It actually seems to be getting worse. His brief and quickly aborted attempt to declare himself King wasn’t very different from the claims in ancient France of Louis XIV that “l’etat c’est moi”. Trump thinks saying makes it so and claimed that: “when somebody’s the president of the United States, his authority is total”.
This embarrassing, baseless, and arrogant assertion couldn’t even survive a single news cycle before the petty braggart had to back it down. When tin-pot dictators (and wanna-bes) lose the people’s trust, confidence and belief, they seize upon authority as their final claim of support. The truth is that no one ever believed in Trump – he was a cartoon and a joke from the get-go – but unfortunately too many people – each acting in their own self-interest – saw him a weapon and a vehicle to secure their own aims. They held their collective noses, looked elsewhere, and let the clown run wild. We have only one person to blame for this mess and that’s each other.
Lies often reveal who and what the liar wishes he could be, and Trump has desperately sought the approval of the powerful and the media since his earliest days. He was by his own account always the biggest, the best, the loudest, but he was never taken seriously. He has been a farcical caricature and, as he berates the press to their faces in the White House (and forever soils the place with his venom), we see just how bent and bitter he truly is. It’s pathetic and beyond embarrassing to see this out-of-control reality show character singling out and slandering the press and, by extension, the public’s interests which they attempt to represent. The press may deserve a fair amount of criticism and contempt for its own shortcomings and failings, but his actions are simply beyond the pale.
Now the Cheerleader in Chief thinks he’s gonna unilaterally adjourn Congress so he can jam through a further bunch of mediocre nominees and know-nothings using recess appointments. This stupid ploy is equally doomed - even head Senate flunky Mitch McConnell already rejected it - but it’s also very reminiscent of an old Hollywood quote from Samuel Goldwyn about his employees which couldn’t be more fitting and timelier for our current circumstances. He said: “I'll take fifty percent efficiency to get one hundred percent loyalty”. And boy, don’t we know that and see it every day in action. Lying may be an essential part of politics but lying to yourself (as Trump does every day) and believing your own lies is pathological.
To make things worse, Trump’s ego’s so fragile and sensitive and so easily offended that, for the slightest perceived slights, he pummels the press and even his own people and rubs things in their faces (especially the medical professionals) on a daily basis right before our eyes. He’s an overbearing bully, a mini-martinet, and a Twitter-retweeting weasel to boot. Samuel Goldwyn’s most famous observation fits here too. He famously said: “I want everybody to tell me the truth even if it costs them their job”. Honestly, you can’t make this stuff up.
The humorous definition of a “gaffe” once was when a politician accidentally told the truth. President Trump has repeatedly demonstrated that he subscribes to that great rhetorical line from the War Dogs movie: “When does telling the truth ever help anybody?” Inconveniently for him, the truth is confusing, detailed, messy and ill-suited for sound bites and storytelling. It’s especially challenging for someone with an infant’s attention span, not a drop of patience, no desire to learn, and no interest in detail or accuracy. Trump’s a lazy man who hides from the truth, hears only what he wants to hear, and ignores/disregards the rest.
So we’re left in this ongoing and immoral morass with the question of what explanation, what excuse, what rationalization, or even what justification can there be for tolerating the daily circus we’re subjected to on TV by this narcissist who believes that the sole truth lies within him (in his infinite wisdom and fact less judgment) and who, at best, pays only fleeting lip service to the data, the experts, the professionals and to anyone with a view other than his. And, more to the point, how do we fairly describe for our families just what is happening to our government and our country and why we can no longer in good conscience believe its duly elected, but clearly deranged and dishonest, leader.
This is no easy task or conversation to have with people (young or old) who have been raised (as we all have) to respect the office of the president, to err on the side of goodness and give any occupant the benefit of the doubt in terrible circumstances, and to believe that anyone in such a position of trust and responsibility would act – not in his own selfish interest and for favored special interests - but for the good of the country as a whole.
But it’s just not happening as anyone would expect (because this character has no soul and no shame) and it couldn’t be a more critical and timely topic when the facts, the relevant timeframes, and the gross and inappropriate behaviors are fresh in mind, when the most critical choices and decisions still remain to be made, and before the history is rewritten to create and promote the success stories and the celebrations of Trump’s “triumphs” which are sure to occupy far more of his time and attention going forward than the continually mounting numbers of sick and dying people across the country.
So, what do you tell your kids today? Start by telling them what it takes to be a real leader.
(1) Leaders can cast shadow or light. Everything about Trump is dark and divisive.
(2) Leaders must understand that they’re part of something greater than themselves. Trump actually believes that he’s the king of the world.
(3) You’re not a leader until others believe that you are putting them first. Trump is about nothing but Trump.
(4) A leader never blames his people for his failings. Trump is utterly incapable of accepting either blame or responsibility. He blames everyone but himself.
(5) Leaders can either swell or grow. We can only hope, as the swelling and bloat continue, that Trump bursts one of these days.