As Americans, we dare to dream of a better future. Although we often experience grizzly disagreements between and within our political parties, at the root of it all, we share a fundamental pride in our national identity, under the U.S. Constitution, along with a wide range of independent, but integrated symbols, such as our stars and stripes. We know we are experimenting with difficult challenges because of our rebellious nature, diversity and desire for freedom. This is our original and ongoing view of ourselves.
It may be difficult for some of us to believe, but against this backdrop, many of us secretly want our President to embody our ideal identity as a people, along with all our hopes and expectations for a better life. Psychologically, we are fundamentally geared to expect a strong and confident leader at the helm of our country and its prosperous, safe and secure future in the world. Will he or she have the compassion, skills and integrity to carry out her/his duty to us, in cooperation with the rest of our government? We take risks. We want the best for ourselves. We cannot expect less.
Truth and Leadership
Although our nation voted into office a person who demonstrably defied most, if not all, of our conventional expectations about how our political leaders should behave at work, home and play, it appears that across the board, his perceived truthfulness and authenticity in office was exceptionally important to many of us. There are other factors, no doubt, but after a long and complex election season, a little more than half of American voters held high expectations for this unorthodox leader.
Many citizens on the left virulently questioned his ethics and integrity, in large part because he was not speaking to them. He was not speaking their language. However, questions quickly arose about Donald Trump’s honesty and integrity across the board and this had a dramatic impact on his overall approval rating, which steadily declined for six months, beginning in January at 55% (Quinnipac, Jan. 10) and steadily dwindling to an all-time low of 34% in June (Quinnipac, June 7).
It may seem counterintuitive that anyone expected the truth and authenticity from Trump’s expansive manner of speaking to the public on TV and Twitter. “Tells it like it is” was the top quality that 78% of Trump voters were looking for in a candidate, according to one exit poll in the South Carolina primary, according to Elizabeth Markovits, author of The Politics of Sincerity (Washington Post, March 2016). Many of us heard this phrase repeated locally. Some of us asked, “Tells what like it is?” We could not figure it out, but eschewing “political correctness” felt authentic to many people.
Michael Barbaro and Steve Eder (New York Times, July 2015) went so far as to say that Trump’s “unorthodox campaign for the Republican nomination for president” had a central theme at its core, namely, his persona “as a teller of difficult truths, whose wealth unburdens him from the careful pronouncements of ordinary candidates.”
“Politicians,” Trump cynically said during campaign season “are all talk.” He was describing himself. Did he feel he was earning a license to lie? We know he outright lied, even as he strategically played to Americans’ preference for truth.
He understands polling, propaganda and marketing. Television performances always have been critical to his act, and he expertly used them to his advantage. Most of his base was entertained. As he touched their emotions and spoke familiar phrases, they seemed to become “hypnotized” by Trump’s big lies. At least that is how it seemed to outsiders. We saw him as audacious and crass.
An example of his flippancy went something like this, “I think the only difference between me and the other candidates is that I’m more honest and my women are more beautiful” (Marie Claire, June 2017). So he performed soliloquies, as Aryeh Cohen-Wade described it, in 2016 (New Yorker, April 6)—He is like Macbeth, when he says the fateful words, “believe you me” over and over. Interestingly, the same article highlights Trump’s propensity to lie under oath. He was often in court with lawsuits he attracted in his business life. He is comfortable fighting. He is less comfortable spreading peace.
In recent days, the same media that unwittingly provided a three-ring stage for Trump’s P.T. Barnum–like campaign act, that earned him hours of free exposure on TV, appears to have turned against Trump, though it is difficult to say who turned on who first. It seems that the same news that reported every truthful or absurd thought, whim and utterance for two years is now shouting “liar” from every rooftop.
Perhaps it was America’s revered former FBI director, James Comey, who gave them official permission. With his sworn statements and others, before the Senate, Trump’s approval rating will likely keep dropping. For example, on June 19, VOX News splashed this title across the front of its online publication: “5 Times James Comey called Trump out on lying”; Comey was quoted as saying “I was honestly concerned he [Trump] might lie about the nature of our meeting.” And, as if daring the electorate and Congress to rise up and act, on June 8, USA Today printed “Donald Trump is a liar, now what?” across its front page.
For all the criticism out there, some journals maintained their integrity throughout a brutal election. At the end of the day. most media have consolidated into vast conglomerates that want and need to sell news. These days, the media believes that their audience wants to hear the President’s answer to questions under oath.
“Put Trump under Oath,” cried Brent Budowsky at The Hill on March 8. This is to be expected. For one thing, President Trump is calling former FBI Director Comey a “liar.” To many people, this does not ring true. Side by side, Comey appears more truthful and has a better track record of dedicating himself to the truth. Trump fired Comey when he did not like Comey’s official investigation into Trump’s own actions during the campaign season.
As if in hopeful unison, newspapers around the world gleefully announced that Trump “would speak under oath on Comey,” including the BBC (June 2017), the Gulf News (June 2017), the Times of India (June 2017) and the Figi Village (June 2017).
Does the media need the truth? Yes, “like there’s no tomorrow.” Our democracy depends on it. Do they expect Trump to tell the truth? Best guess is, no. Politifact, a trusted, not-for-profit, nonpartisan political truth tracker, says that it expects Trump to tell the truth only 5% of the time, overall, based on statements he has already made in public. Depending on how widespread the expectation that Trump will lie under oath is among the general public, the question of whether “he will lie” alone puts our nation and the world at risk. In sum, President Trump’s first six months in office have not been a great start as far as confidence-building is concerned.
Trust in Leadership Matters
The widespread expectation that Trump will lie under oath is not the most critical question that we, as Americans, face with respect to our President. The most critical question is about trust in leadership.
Trust is everything when it comes to leadership. Our belief in President Trump’s word is not only related to how we feel about him, his intentions and abilities. These beliefs and expectations are essential to our relationship with our leader and, by extension, our country. How we feel and what we expect from him are critical to how we see ourselves and how we function as a nation. When leaders do not meet our expectations, there will be critical psychological and practical management, safety and diplomatic consequences.
Leadership is generally important, all on its own, but the American Presidency is a unique leadership symbol in the United States and around the world.
Even with our current low expectations, we do not have to give up hope, especially if we remember who we are, what we want and how we can achieve our goals as a united nation in a democratic Republic under our Constitution.
Believing leaders is what we do.
American free spirits want real and symbolic leadership. We need guidance on how to unite our independent goals and dreams so we can all achieve success.
Regardless of whether we like being beholden to leaders, the majority have a “natural tendency” to await “the word” from those leaders. Somehow, things don’t seem right until respected leaders weigh in. “What did he or she say?” is the question many of us often ask before we can assess what is right or wrong and whether it is possible. We know that leaders’ opinions will affect “the outcome,” regardless of whether something is true.
In our families, where we learned our most poignant lessons about life, our parents often gave their best advice and there was never any option not to listen. Their instructions often kept us safe.
As babies, our mothers often led and told us what to do. We typically wanted to please her, and that behavior is respected and considered healthy. Entire families also have a leader, in our minds. We are not unlike other pack animals in this respect. But shared leadership is also possible. Essentially, children are never in charge and they must follow orders. Our safety and security depend on it.
When we were young, our parents typically spoke in simplistic terms and they seemed to easily predict the future. They were magical to us. We heard what they said and believed them because what they said worked but also because we felt loved by them. Moms and dads are never officially “under oath,” but we believed that they were.
As children, we respected and trusted our parents (or other close members of our inner circle) as the most knowledgeable people in the world. We felt more cared for and loved with their guidance and high expectations.
As children grow up, they live in a dictatorship most of the time. Whether fathers and mothers feel prepared to “step up,” be “the man” or leader, children demand leadership and listen to what those leaders say and believe. Expectations about leadership and “truth” can be limitless in families. Should dad always “know what to do?” Some mothers told us to “Wait until your father gets home.”
Some kids trusted dad for the “final answer.” Dads were also taught that they are supposed to “know everything” in traditional, stereotypical, American families and as portrayed in the media.
We can suffer negative consequences if we grow up a “parentified” or scattered child in a leaderless family without structure. We can easily become unsettled and anxious if we have a false sense of being in charge. Alternatively, if we have no rules and don’t feel responsible, we can create chaos wherever we go because we operate outside the system. These are not hard and fast rules, but leadership in families can change a child’s whole trajectory.
In short, most of us were not expected to lead ourselves so we looked up to and believed our parents. But this was not the end of our training.
Deities are mostly omniscient across religions. We are taught “The Word” in religious texts for most faiths. Some people think deeply about what “Our Father who art in heaven, hallowed be his name” would want us to do. Some people have ministers, preachers, rabbis, imams, gurus, shamans and tribal elders with answers. Not everyone is religious, of course, but most of us are exposed to these ideas throughout our childhoods and culture.
Other Leaders in Our Lives
Doctors have answers, or so we are told. We are not told that they have hypotheses. We follow their orders.
Some of us wait for Santa Claus and know that he “sees us while we’re sleeping and knows when we’re awake.” We are trained from an early age to trust the testimonials of people we admire, even when they are not experts on a specific topic.
We have captains who are supposed to “go down with their ships.” We are taught to “respect our elders.” We know that we “should listen to our teachers.” We await the “CEO’s message.” Generals give “the order.” We clap for the conductor when he or she walks onto the stage—even when the orchestra hasn’t performed anything yet. The principal at school “rings the bell”; we know that we could be sent to his or her “office” when something goes wrong. Some people ask, “What would the [pope, minister, Buddha, Supreme Leader, guru, psychologist, Mother Mary, Jesus, king, Muhammad or Elvis] say, do or think?”
The list goes on.
The American Presidency Is an Exceptional Leadership Role
The President of the United States sets the tone and leads the nation (with his or her words). Seventy-two percent of Americans believe that the American President should lead the world (Quinnipac, June 2017). In contrast, only 46% of American voters say President Trump is the “leader of the free world,” whereas 29% say German Chancellor Angela Merkel now fills that role.
Our President holds the power to psychologically lead our nation or let it fray, much like a family would, with or without capable parents. The President is supposed to be someone we trust with our lives and those of the people we love. He can call up a draft for war. He makes executive decisions. What he says and does not only could affect the present but also the future of American security, international relations, budgetary soundness, monetary policy and military decisions. Some would argue that he needs to be the leader of the “free world,” so to speak.
Mentally, Americans picture that he is “supposed to” manage the entire U.S. government. Americans want to love their President as much as they love their country.
In reality, the Executive Office of the President is only one of three pillars in our democratic republic under our American Constitution. If we do not believe him, there are supposed to be checks and balances that can monitor or investigate problems, as we have seen.
The President must answer to the American people, who he serves under the Constitution. He has many executive powers but, in large part, he is a symbolic figurehead for the whole government. Internally and externally, people need to believe he has integrity and our best interests at heart. We need to believe what our leaders say in order to follow them. But many people will follow lies because they want to feel confident.
Throughout history, when disaster struck or the United States faced imminent danger or worldwide success, we wanted to know, “What does the President have to say about this?” This included the “Great War,” the World Trade Center bombing, the Apollo moon mission, the list goes on. We need guidance and support. We want our leader to steer us away from trouble and toward safety. His thoughts can unite people of all backgrounds and get them to do the right thing if he is persuasive enough.
It is extraordinary that for all our rebellious American cynicism and independence, our psychology and training prescribe that we find a benevolent and trustworthy leader.
Although thousands of people make the U.S. government work, we care what one person thinks and does. If what he says is inspiring or reassuring, then some people will go to bed a little more comfortably, regardless of whether they know it.
Do we expect our president to tell the truth, under oath or otherwise?
I have read enough newspapers; heard enough radio and television broadcasts, Presidential speeches and rallies; talked with enough friends and colleagues; heard enough world leaders speak and react; and seen enough Twitter feeds to unequivocally say “you are not alone” in not trusting the President under oath.
Our President does not always mean what he says, though he “reassures us” over and over that what he says is “absolutely true.” He changes his mind. Sometimes the facts just don’t add up. He has to fire people he says that he trusts. Trusted leaders with professional integrity are demanding an inquiry into his statements and behavior. He will not produce his taxes or act in a transparent manner. He is not inspiring trust.
If we cannot believe our leader, we have a serious problem.
In short, our President has taken lying to a whole new level—even for politicians. He tells audacious big lies (a term coined during the propaganda wars in WWII). In fact, he misunderstands, misleads and misstates things so often that some people are “holding the faith” that what he does will be better than anything he says.
One thing is certain—we can tell that he wants us to respond to him in a specific way when he talks, even though what he says is often not true. Many of us feel manipulated. His research, propaganda and advertising are elaborate. Much of it is traceable. Its effects are profoundly troubling.
Even when we hear the President speak the truth about his own indiscretions—on tape, for example—many of us undoubtedly feel we trust him that much less.
The Awful Truth and Consequences
If we do not trust our President under oath in court or before the Congress or the Supreme Court, and if world leaders and especially our international allies and enemies do not believe our President, then we, as a nation, are in danger of isolating ourselves without friends and creating a volatile environment—both internally and externally.
In fact, we are starting to run amok and are expecting bad things that we cannot control, not unlike kids with parents who wield no control and create no structure.
By not believing our leader, we are in danger of not believing in ourselves, our country, our government, our leader and our democracy. Insecure, hopeless people without democratic empowerment tools can do rash things.
All Americans could understandably feel more depressed, anxious, rudderless and fearful of the present and future because they are asking the same question you are.
That may sound melodramatic, but given everything we’ve seen, that’s the nature of this Presidency. I don’t think we can overstate our country’s frame of mind against a sea of political turmoil and international unrest.
No doubt, many people are silently hoping against hope that they are wrong because they just want this whole ordeal to end as soon as possible.
But we cannot fake trust.
What can we do if we cannot believe our leader(s) under oath or otherwise?
If we remember who we are and that our Constitution serves us, then we will find the right leaders. If we consider everything we need, believe, want and can achieve, then we can restore hope. We deserve to dream. This, more than outright cynicism, will help us get much closer to our national goals of peace, prosperity, safety, security, freedom and national unity.
We must demand integrity, lawful behavior and truth from our current leaders. Blatant disregard for the truth, citizens’ rights, democracy and the Constitution are simply unacceptable.
We can be stronger than we are. We also need to find future leaders who we can believe and trust to run for local, state and national office, including the Presidency.
We must ask ourselves whether our leaders can honestly serve all citizens equally. Can they truthfully treat us with the dignity and respect that we were promised by our Constitution?
Political parties are management tools. They represent ways of operating that we prefer, but they should not divide our nation and precipitate civil unrest. If a leader only serves people who are in his own political party, then many of us won’t receive the help we need. If we cannot trust our leader’s word, then we cannot know if we have anyone looking out for our best interests.
We need to prepare a realistic and collaborative plan to effectively address our rapidly changing employment, economic, military, infrastructure, education, research, farming, natural resource, pollution, business startup and manufacturing needs, so we can all survive.
We cannot do this together if we do not believe or cannot trust our leader to provide us leadership.
And if Google search results, based on the logarithmic popularity of questions posed on Google, are any indication of anticipated reasons to worry, then, there is reason to be concerned. If you typed in “President Trump” on Google Search, on June 20, 2017, “President Trump Impeachment” comes up as the fifth most popular search.
Halima Aquino, M.A. is the director of the Central Valley–based Voter Engagement and Education Project (VEEP). Contact her at 559-343-3124 or firstname.lastname@example.org.