Last week, writing about the demands any public office places on the officeholder, I used President Trump’s well-received address to a joint session of Congress to illustrate the point.
Anyone who has followed the career of Donald Trump before he became President Trump understands that, at least publicly, his preferred style is more bellicose than his address on the 2nd would suggest. President Trump’s address demonstrated a sensitivity to the demands of public office that surprised many. It also probably came at no small emotional cost to the man.
That’s not to ask for undue sympathy. That’s simply the reality of public service. Sometimes we must work outside our comfort zone, which comes at a personal cost.
All of us have emotional needs and, from time to time, all of us absorb costs to achieve some purpose we judge more important than our needs. What may separate overall success from failure is our ability to recognize our “fuel level” and replenish our emotional tank when the costs of service deplete it.
A competitive or combative temperament, for example, may need to be moderated to build coalitions and achieve policy goals. An aggressive outing on the court, the links or the poker table may restore such a person’s emotional reserves. Letting loose one’s frustrations with a close circle of friends may achieve the needed equilibrium as well. Much less constructively, unloading on staff may make a leader feel better, but probably comes at a cost to the team’s overall performance (as well as the individual staff members’ emotional equilibrium).
Whether such private expressions are therapeutic or not, the harm they cause is limited to those in the room or in the game. By contrast, great damage may be done when the vent enters the public sphere. The venting may be “honest” and “authentic” (meaning, it is how the individual feels), but both honesty and its cousin authenticity can be taken to extremes that do the public harm.
Again, President Trump provides the illustration: his tweet storm alleging that then-President Obama personally and illegally ordered surveillance of Trump Tower.
President Trump understands, better than most, the extent to which his supporters and his critics see all things through radically different lenses. He knows that his allegations will be treated as factual assertions by some media outlets, which will repeat and validate the allegations until they are fully self-reinforced and largely impervious to rebuttal. As a result, they will distrust all the more the government with the primary responsibility for the nation’s security and defense.
Meanwhile, his critics, reinforced by other sources, will be incredulous that anyone believes such allegations.
Given the continuing partisan division in Washington and the stakes the Republican majority has in a Trump presidency (as any party in power would have in its president), a thoroughly bipartisan investigation of the various allegations of foreign interference and domestic surveillance seems improbable. We will be left divided, not simply over whether we like a president or his policies, but over whether the government itself is the enemy of the people.
It would do any public leader, President Trump included, much good to consider whether public venting in this manner comes at too high a cost to the citizens we serve.