Professor Nigel Nicholson discusses why America hasn’t got the president it deserves
The American people have spoken: Donald Trump is the 45th US president after winning the votes needed to enter the White House. But is he the right person to lead and heal a deeply divided nation?
Nigel Nicholson, Professor of Organisational Behaviour at London Business School, is sceptical. He also believes Hillary Clinton, Trump’s campaign rival, was perhaps not the ideal candidate. “From a non-American outsider perspective, neither looks like the right leader for this time,” he says. “There are a lot of American people who have lost or fear for their jobs, and many people who look at issues with a parochial, home-town mentality, barely seeing beyond the country’s borders.
“These people have genuine concerns and want a voice for those grievances. They believe Trump represents their frustrations, but they’re going to be disappointed when he can’t deliver what he’s promised. Trump is a populist demagogue – they generally make bad leaders – but he reflects a swathe of public opinion.
“As for Clinton, those people who want change might have ended up disappointed – she’s not a revolutionary. She probably would have been tougher in the Middle East than Barack Obama, but she isn’t a radical reformer. Clinton would have been an incremental liberal if elected president.”
Trump, the Republican nomination for the White House, made promises throughout his campaign relating to trade, foreign policy, healthcare, tax policy and immigration. He wanted to amend trade deals with Mexico and Canada, make sure that no US business paid more than 15% of its profits in tax and either scrap or dismantle former President Barack Obama’s deal with Iran, which seeks to prevent the Islamic country from attaining nuclear weapons.
He also pledged to build a wall along the US-Mexico border, deport 11 million unauthorised immigrants and ban Muslim immigration. Trump has since tempered such statements by promising to carry out “extreme vetting” and refusing to explain his plans for undocumented immigrants.
Will Trump deliver on his promises?
“Whatever Trump promises is completely different to what he can deliver,” Professor Nicholson says. “The House of Representatives, Congress and the judiciary won’t let him build a wall or start a trade war with China. Unlike the UK model, where Prime Minister Theresa May can push through what she wants with her party’s support, in the US it seems that the balance of power in the constitution and the variance in Republican sentiment will limit his room for manoeuvre. I guess we can expect some headstrong moves, but he might not do as much harm as people fear.”
Professor Nicholson, who writes in his book The “I” of Leadership about having the right leader doing the right thing at the right time and place, believes finding the ideal person to be president is challenging because of how potential candidates get themselves in the frame for the role. “It’s a network and money-driven system, so only certain people with the deep pockets and the right contacts get to play the game.”
Trump projects strength and is seen as resilient, but Professor Nicholson wonders if this is true. He predicts that Trump will be easily manipulated by others. “The danger is he’ll be used by people smarter than, much as George W. Bush was,” Professor Nicholson says. “Bush is probably smarter than Trump, but he lacked confidence. Trump seems to have lots of confidence, but he has a very thin skin. His ideas on foreign policy seem to be naïve and confused, so he’ll struggle to get respect from other world leaders."
Nevertheless, Trump has an advantage over Clinton: he doesn’t belong to a political tribe. Professor Nicholson says the test of any US president is to work across party lines and build relationships with both Republicans and Democrats.
“Trump is in a better position than Clinton would be to appeal to people across party lines, because he’s been so detached from a Republican establishment that doesn’t like him anyway. Clinton is more sectarian and tribal. It’ll be interesting to see how Trump realigns US politics in a divided country now that he’s president.”
Clinton was the better option
Clinton seemed to be the better-qualified candidate for the US presidency because of her background in politics. She served as a US senator from 2001–2009 and as secretary of state for Obama’s administration from 2009 to 2013. Clinton spent her time in the latter role focusing on women’s and human rights and leading US diplomatic efforts in the Middle East.
Her supporters believe Clinton has no sound political values, but that she’s tough, capable and rarely gets fazed – traits that would have served her well had she won the US presidency. But despite her attributes and political background, she lost out to a businessman and TV personality with no relevant experience. The question is: why?
Many voters felt Clinton was untrustworthy, according to Professor Nicholson. “Why do we have so many women such as Theresa May, Nicola Sturgeon and Angela Merkel in politics? People want to trust their political leaders – on the whole, women are trusted more than men, but Hillary lost trust not just because of the email scandal [classified information was stored on a private email server at her home, which she denied, when she was secretary of state] but because of a long record of defensive secrecy,” he says.
The Benghazi incident – where a US ambassador and three Americans were killed on 11 September 2012 by Islamist militants during an attack on a US diplomatic compound in Libya – also tainted Clinton’s image. The state department, at that time led by Clinton, had rejected appeals for additional security at the consulate where the attack took place.
Critics accused Clinton and Obama of incompetence and even of taking part in a cover-up. The accusations came after the White House inaccurately described the assault as a spontaneous act of violence in protest over an anti-Islamic video.
“Politicians lie, but to get caught doing it repeatedly isn’t good. It’s a shame because Clinton has an honourable record as a politician who stands up for women’s rights. Trump’s outrageous untruths and accusations are curiously forgiven as expressions of his strong character. There’s a double standard, because people expect women to be more truthful than men.”
The debate over who should be in the White House – and whether the US has the leader it deserves – seems set to continue for some time.