How long is too long to wait for change? If you’re at a red traffic light for more than a few minutes, you’re probably wondering if it’s broken and contemplating an isolated break with a societal norm.
But what drives us to wait or to move on? Many predicted that Donald Trump would make some changes following his victory in the Republican primaries nearly five years ago. Surely, conventional wisdom dictated, he would pivot quickly from fiery agitator to energetic statesman. After waiting through a campaign, a presidential term and then another campaign, I think it’s safe to say the wait is over. Change is not coming and it never will.
In 2016, a New York Times editorial ("The Donald Trump Pygmalion Project") focused on Donald Trump’s behavior and how “Mr. [Paul] Manafort’s ambition is to turn this Eliza Doolittle into a candidate more acceptable to decent society, in time for the general election.”
But too few were paying attention when Mr. Trump said, “I sort of don’t like toning it down.” That rare, honest admission should have been a clue. More questions needed to be asked; intentions should have been probed.
I love checklists and acronyms, and this looks like the perfect place for both. In politics, as in personal and business relationships, we need to think about and evaluate others in terms of a THEME:
Transparent: Do we have a clear view into this person and his or her intent? Is what we see what we get?
Honest: Are rules, and the rule of law respected? Are we getting the facts, the truth or some belief, some wishful thinking?
Empathic: Does this person really care about me, about others and the common good? What is this person’s motivation – is he concerned about helping others, greedy, or a narcissist?
Moral: What does this person value? Is there an understanding how his or her actions might affect others?
Ethical: What is the character of this person? Is this a principled person with a consciousness of his or her actions?
This is the lens through which we need to view our leaders, colleagues, even friends and family members when it comes to gauging the probability of change. Of course, we need to remember that no one is perfect and that giving the benefit of the doubt is generally better than immediately cutting off relationships.
But when it comes to the current President, we already had years of answers to the questions in my THEME. We should have been able to avoid the mistake of the fabled frog. I’m referring to the story of the Scorpion and the Frog where the scorpion, unable to swim, asked a frog to ferry it across a river. The frog responded that it was afraid of being stung by the scorpion. The scorpion answered in logical terms: If I sting you, he said, then we’d both drown. Thinking the scorpion wouldn’t risk its own life, the frog allowed the creature on its back. Well, you guessed it. In mid-crossing, the predatory arachnid stung the frog. As they began sinking toward their deaths, the frog asked, “Why?” The scorpion replied, "I couldn't help it. It's who I am." The echo of 2016 Donald Trump is loud and clear.
The frog did ask, though. He questioned. Sadly, he believed the lie. He hoped and trusted when he should have been skeptical and suspicious.
Too few challenged Donald Trump and still don’t, even after all the facts were in plain view: the self-dealing, the hush money, the loyalty tests, the muzzling of scientists, and the targeting of the news media as “enemies of state.” The passivity of some and the enabling by others empowered an unabashed, unaccountable, downright lawless administration. After hundreds of years of steady though non-linear progress, our country has actually devolved. Americans are worse off now than in decades past. Our people are sicker, more polarized, less trusted. The planet is unhealthier, more fragile, less stable.
It’s not too late to reverse course. The whole country won’t respond right away and some people never will. But what differentiates us as human beings is that we’re able to learn, adapt, and progress. Let’s do that.
Paul Oestreicher, PhD is a recognized expert in strategic communication, public affairs, and issues, crisis and reputation management. He is the author of Camelot, Inc.: Leadership and Management Insights from King Arthur and the Round Table and the blog C-O-I-N-S: Communication Opinions, Insights and New Strategies. Follow him @pauloestreicher.