Decoding Donald: A Relational Assessment of Donald Trump

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Love him or hate him, you most likely have a strong opinion about Donald Trump. He’s a controversial figure whose brash antics and bold comments as a political candidate have proven polarizing even within his own Republican party. Not that we’re surprised–as anyone who’s seen his reality show “The Apprentice” knows, Trump’s career was built on an intimidating persona and hardball negotiation tactics. His goal is not to be seen as a nice guy, but to embody his definition of what it means to be “a winner.” And by conventional corporate standards, with a net worth of $4 billion, he is just that.
But some of the same strengths that helped him amass profits in business and attract the support of many voters are also the very traits that have alienated others. Why is this? We know from research described in the book “Being Relational” that a transactional approach to interaction often leads to conflict, or controversy. This seems to be a hallmark of Trump’s personal brand and it is part of what makes his character so entertaining. However, conflict does not inspire trust, unity, or cooperation, which most can agree is essential for building successful and sustainable communities. Without extrapolating too much about what Trump’s words and actions say about his personal character or overall effectiveness as a leader, by examining how he negotiates his social interactions, we can assess how relational his methods are and offer ideas for improving the way he connects with others.
As the old adage goes, “every form of strength is also a form of weakness.” Below are 3 characteristics that make Donald Trump an appealing political candidate, along with critiques of where he falls short from a relational perspective:
Strength #1: He’s straightforward.
In a realm governed by doublespeak and rhetorical pandering, Donald Trump’s brazen candor can be appealing for its clarity. He tells it like it is, or at least like he sees it, without fear of backlash for his political incorrectness. This speaks to the collective desire for truth from a public that feels taken advantage of and misled by politicians who can seem more worried about offending special-interest groups than they are about solving real-life problems that affect everyone. Perfectly exemplified by his explosive comments about Mexican immigrants, Trump has showed he is not afraid of pointing fingers and burning bridges in calling attention to a problem.
Relational critique: By generalizing Latino immigrants as criminals and rapists, Trump showed that he lacks centeredness and groundedness in his observations of the world.
It is all too easy to stereotype and label whole demographics of people based off the actions of a few, but we know from history and our own experiences that this rarely, if ever leads to a positive outcome. In addition to being unfair and untrue, associating all Mexican immigrants with the stigma of criminality leads to destructive triangling, in which one group is demonized or ostracized as a technique for building alliances with another. Through his disparaging comments, Trump implicitly invited non-Hispanic voters to join him in a coalition against Mexicans and other Latin Americans, forming an off-centered triangle which inherently fuels conflict.
Illegal immigration is a salient issue with complex facets, but Trump’s sweeping judgments of who is to blame and how the problem should be fixed show a disregard for nuance and alternatives that could be explored by embracing the concept of “maybe, maybe not.” Maybe Mexicans and poor border security are solely to blame for the chaos and crime posed by high rates of illegal immigration…but maybe not. A mindset of grounded curiosity acknowledges that reality is not always as it seems from a fixed perspective, and other possibilities always arise if a situation is probed deeper.
Strength #2: He’s action-oriented.
Government in general and Congress in particular are notorious for the sluggishness and inefficiency that bureaucracy breeds. Donald Trump has shown that he’s someone who gets things done, as all businessmen must to stay competitive in a free market economy. On his show “The Apprentice,” Trump is also quick to tell any contestants whose competence is insufficient to accomplish a given task within a specific timeframe “you’re fired!” That ruthless focus on productivity and accomplishment of clearly-defined goals is something that could help create a sense of urgency for government agencies to be more productive.
Relational Critique: When actions are taken with the intent to benefit the self, even if at the detriment of others, the result can end in crisis. This goes especially for those in leadership positions whose actions affect a large group or organization, let alone a country. As mentioned above, the lack of groundedness and centeredness that Trump has exhibited in many of his comments and behaviors raise doubts about his willingness to consider the needs of others when making critical decisions about what actions to take and what the effects of those actions may be.
Strength #3: He’s powerful.
Power comes in many forms or currencies, of which Donald Trump has amassed many. Obviously, he has great economical power, but his many high-ranking connections also give him relationship power. His media-amplified voice gives him communicative and broadcast power. His familial privilege and roles of authority in business give him positional power. All these power currencies that Trump possesses, among others, give him a great resources and influence to affect change.
Relational Critique: Power can be used to influence change in ways that either show kindness to others or bully them. Bullying tactics often utilize physical force, coercion, intimidation, and threats to accomplish change. Though these tactics can be effective in the short-term, they inevitably breed resentment, mistrust, and retaliation in accordance with the Theory of Relational Reciprocity. Donald Trump’s highly-publicized fondness for litigation, name-calling, and support of foreign wars casts him as a man who would likely be drawn to approaches that emphasize the use of bullying to achieve goals. The implications for domestic and foreign policies guided by this kind of perspective can only lead to increasingly hostile cycles of conflict from what we know about principles of mediation and the nature of human interaction. Someone like Donald Trump may assume that exhibiting kindness in negotiations sends an undesirable message of weakness and subservience, but this does not have to be the case. One can stand up for their own interests in while still considering the needs and welfare of others without becoming a doormat. However, it takes creativity and a willingness to explore non-violent alternatives.
With his hardball negotiation tactics and low tolerance for dissent, Donald Trump seems to espouse a philosophy in line with Machiavelli’s quote that “it is better to be feared than loved.” It’s an outlook that many great rulers in history have shared, but the United States is a democracy, not a dictatorship. Instilling fear may keep people obedient, but it does not foster the unified society and flourishing economy that is possible through cooperation. With an understanding that we can transcend differences and beliefs under a common desire for peace and mutual well-being, it becomes clear that Donald Trump’s preferred coercive methods of negotiation can only perpetuate controversy and division, as they have already. However, a shift in attitude and behavior as prescribed by the ways of being relational could inspire Trump to use his massive power to change the world in positive and sustainable ways. He certainly has the potential to, but right now he doesn’t seem inclined to make that choice.
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Title: Donald Trump

Author: Gage Skidmore



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