THE BLOG

If Trump Learnt How To Listen He Might Learn How To Govern

No one person can know it all.

03/11/2017 10:24 AM AEDT | Updated 03/11/2017 11:05 AM AEDT
Win McNamee via Getty Images
"President Trump will continue to commit avoidable gaffes and increasingly serious mistakes, either until he leaves office or he learns to listen."

November 8, 2016, marks the day Donald Trump rode a wave of fervent populist anger to the highest office in the United States and arguably the most powerful position in the world. In retrospect, his gaffe-filled campaign was the harbinger of a stumbling governance style rooted in a political ideology best described as faux pas-pulism.

A populist is "a believer in the rights, wisdom or virtues of the common people". It is a loose term often characterised by anti-establishment, anti-elite sentiment and accompanied by the "claim to be the 'true democrats', fighting to reclaim the people's sovereignty from... elite 'enemies' who... have stolen and perverted democracy".

A faux pas is a common French term meaning, literally, 'false step'. It denotes socially awkward or tactless acts or speech, which are usually avoidable. A political figure who combines characteristics of these two concepts becomes a faux pas-pulist: someone who uses populist rhetoric or imagery to justify their aversion to listening or consultation, often leading to awkward social encounters and counterproductive or even dangerous pronouncements and policy initiatives.

Thus, in contemporary America, faux pas-pulism is not simply false populism gilded with an elitist, French accent; it is a consistent set of political decisions undergirded by President Trump's personal ideology where listening is weakness and sneering at expertise is strength.

No one person can know it all, therefore by adhering to the idea that he does, Trump's faux pas-pulism becomes shackles as he stumbles his way through governance.

America is a land richly seeded with populist sentiment. This is, in part, because its founding narrative, though driven and led by political and economic elites, focuses on images like the Boston Tea Party, citizen militias, throwing off the rule of a king and declaring to the world "that all men are created equal".

Also, American populist tendencies are the conceptual flip side of the American Dream: if anyone can make it then elites, too, are the 'everyman' and no better than anyone else. As my grandmother would say in her rich Southern accent, "God is no respecter of persons and neither am I!"

In the U.S. today, conditions are ideal for these seeds to take root in a rich soil of social discontent and economic malaise. While these conditions are driven by factors complex and multi-variate, the overall view is that elite America is failing America.

Economic inequality is rising; religious moral leadership is marginalised and undermined, in no small part as a result of self-inflicted wounds; professional journalism is becoming commercial media, coalescing into ideological silos and weakening this essential institution; and in the face of powerful special interests and ideological zealotry, federal leaders seem to have given up on the ideals of respectful dialogue, bipartisan compromise and "government of the people, by the people, for the people".

And Americans feel it. For example, during the recent presidential campaign, the Program for Public Consultation (PPC) at the University of Maryland conducted a survey on the dissatisfaction of American voters. The overwhelming majority (83 percent) of Republican, Democrat and Independent voters reported being angry or dissatisfied with the way the federal government works. This is the highest the PPC has found since 1999 when it began studying dissatisfaction with government. Even more stunning is that 92 percent of voters surveyed felt that the federal government serves big interests, rather than the benefit of all the people.

Reform is clearly needed. To many, Mr. Trump seemed to have the right trappings as a reformist, but these quickly proved to be illusory coverings for his own self-interests. For example, he didn't begin campaigning as an avowed populist. It wasn't until Steve Bannon came on board in mid-August that Mr. Trump honed his rhetoric to speaking for the people.

He lost the popular vote but won the election on the strength of the electoral college, an elitist structure purposefully designed to keep populist movements in check. And instead of draining the swamp, he has done the exact opposite, appointing millionaires and billionaires, Wall Street executives, former senators and lobbyists to key cabinet and advisory positions.

One might argue the trait best demonstrating President Trump's populist bona fides is a willingness to sneer at intellectuals, senior government officials and any other kind of expert. But, the sneering does not appear to be populist driven, for its object is not to humble the arrogant that the commoner may be exalted. It is placing all except himself and a few close family members in a group of 'sneer-ables', be they elites or not. There might be gradations within that group, for example, migrants, women and U.S. allies appear much lower in his estimation, but all are below him, whatever their rank among themselves.

President Trump is not the first, nor will he be the last, political opportunist to cater to populist sentiment in order to gain electoral power (current examples include Nigel Farage riding the Brexit turmoil and Pauline Hanson's re-emergence onto the Australian political scene). But what helps differentiate him from your run-of-the-mill false populist and cements him as the archetypal faux pas-pulist is an unshakable aversion to listening respectfully to someone with knowledge or experience in a specific area.

No one person can know it all. Therefore, by adhering to the idea that he does, President Trump's faux pas-pulism becomes shackles as he stumbles his way through governance.

Because he doesn't listen, he leaves a grieving war widow in tears.

Because he doesn't listen, he can't get signature healthcare legislation passed, even with his party holding a majority in both legislative houses.

Because he doesn't listen, he alienates NATO allies.

Because he doesn't listen, he cedes the field to an increasingly assertive China by unilaterally pulling out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership and the Paris Accords.

And because he doesn't listen he legitimates views and organisations diametrically opposing the very principles on which the United States is founded, namely that all are created equal and endowed with inalienable rights.

Ultimately, in a nation as diverse and populous as the United States, leadership, true leadership, includes listening to the many views, persuasions, needs and aspirations of those you govern, even those you don't like or understand.

Unfortunately, President Trump's faux pas-pulist ideology precludes this type of leadership and he will continue to commit avoidable gaffes and increasingly serious mistakes, either until he leaves office or he learns to listen.

More On This Topic