Meanness versus mindfulness: Trump versus Biden

Jan 24, 2021

The contrast in the content and tone of the final days of Trump’s Presidency and the early days of Biden’s is stark. Trump bungled, blamed, and bullied; Biden already seems competent, considered, and compassionate. Apart from Me-ness, Trump’s Presidency was also characterised by Meanness; Biden is already showing a certain Mindfulness.

The early messages from Joe Biden, the 46th President of the USA, are telling. They couldn’t be more in contrast with his predecessor. Biden warned Trump after the insurrection of the Capitol building on January 6, 2021, that presidents can either ‘inspire’ or ‘incite’. Trump is now experiencing a historic second impeachment for doing just what Biden indicated – the consequence of inciting an insurrection at the Capitol.

Trump’s final recorded message was all about his achievements and his Me-ness, akin to his wife #MeMeMeMelania. From the very beginning, aides confided that Trump only read documents that were a page long and had his name on them. Trump’s record is replete with examples of narcissism and self-promotion – he is, after all, a ‘very stable genius’.

Trump believes he created a “movement” that the “world had never seen” and that it had ‘just begun’; Biden inherits a republic where refugees used to be welcomed and allies respected. Biden also inherits a sicker, weaker, poorer and meaner America.

Apart from Me-ness, Trump’s Presidency was also characterised by meanness – separating children from their parents and putting them in cages; authorising the federal execution of more people than any previous President; teargassing #BlackLivesMatter protestors to stage a photo opportunity of Trump holding a bible.

Rather, Biden is already exhibiting a certain mindfulness. Joe Biden’s and Kamala Harris’s pre-inauguration memorial is a study in appropriate and sensitive recognition of the truth of COVID-19 and the need to heal the partisan divide.

They hosted a sombre acknowledgement that 400,000 Americans have perished as a result of the pandemic, whereas Trump first denied its presence as a “hoax”, then suggested imbibing bleach to cure it, and claimed the “China virus” would “magically disappear”. Trump regarded wearing masks as being ‘politically correct’ and merely a symbol of being a Democrat. In contrast, Biden and his team have followed health advice in wearing masks and they have been planning a massive response to the pandemic with a fiscal stimulus and a rapid vaccine roll-out.

Trump spoke with arrogance, ignorance and in Twitter bites; Biden speaks with finesse, knowledge, and even in full sentences. Trump created his own reality with #stopthesteal; Biden is preparing to face reality where he was resoundingly and validly elected.

Trump was inept, deluded, and divisive; Biden seems clear-eyed and brings a reassuring and experienced pair of hands to the Oval Office.

As James Mattis, a former Defence Secretary wrote, “Donald Trump is the first president in my lifetime who does not try to unite the American people—does not even pretend to try. Instead, he tries to divide us.”

On the other hand, Biden states he is keen to unite both blue and red states into one, “indivisible” United States. He presents a hopeful vision to build a “new and better world” where democracy has “prevailed”, civil rights are respected, and the planet is “crying for survival”. This is indeed a steep ‘hill to climb’ after Trump’s Presidency.

The contrast between them could not be more marked.

Robert Boyatzis and Annie McKee wrote a great book on Resonant Leadership (Boston, MA: Harvard Business Press, 1998). They highlighted three aspects of an effective leader – mindfulness, compassion and hope. Biden already appears to embody these qualities in stark contrast to his predecessor. We trust this will continue for America’s sake and for ours.

Americans are understandably traumatised by the pandemic and most seem disillusioned and dismayed by four years of Trump, and not only Democrats and the American diaspora.

Australians are exhausted from hearing about Trump and his excesses over the past four years. Most of us would now be relieved that his term has ended – perhaps forever. We are sad that so many Americans have died due to Covid-19 because of the Trump administration’s bungling and Republicans’ enabling of their incompetence. We are also concerned that America’s credibility as an enlightened democracy has been so severely diminished under Trump.

Apart from his loyal cult-like followers, the only one who might retain some residual interest in Trump and his ‘movement’ are scholars of leadership. Trump is now a cautionary tale and a useful case study, even if he won’t go away quietly.

While avoiding the negative ‘horn’ effects for Trump as well as the positive ‘halo’ effects for Biden, the contrast between their styles and behaviour is already significant.

Trump’s legacy includes toxic rhetoric, mocking scientists like Anthony Fauci, disrespecting institutions like the WHO, and ignoring political customs while at the same time appointing conservative justices, hardening immigration policy, providing corporate tax breaks, and encouraging radical extremism.

Biden speaks of the need for purpose and resolve to face their “cascading crises”, and he appeals to Americans’ devotion and commitment. He urges Americans to ‘open their souls, not harden their hearts’. Biden knows that he works for the people who pay his salary. For Trump, the people were only there to serve him and his ego.

At least one ‘take-away’ for leaders who reflect upon the 45th Presidency and witness the very early days of this 46th Presidency is this:

“Don’t lead like Trump or follow him – and show some respect for others.”

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