The Complainer in Chief

Organizational communication scholars often begin their basic textbooks by explaining the fundamental paradox. This paradox involves the tension that exists in all groups. On the one hand, an effective group has to be unified. Everyone must work together for the common good and try to achieve mutually agreed upon outcomes. People working together can accomplish much more than the individuals can independently. Group members bring their unique knowledge, skills, experiences, creativity, and diverse ideas to the group. Working with others can generate passion for a project and help obtain the buy in that is needed to implement a plan. On the other hand, an effective group has to respect and nurture the talents of the individuals in the group. Individuals have to be allowed to express dissent, pursue novel ideas, do some work independently, be acknowledged for their contributions, and represent their interests or the interests of the group they represent. We must realize what’s good for the group won’t totally satisfy the individual members, and what’s good for the individuals may not be in the best interests of the group as a whole. Hence the dilemma. Good leaders manage the tensions that exist between the needs of the individuals and the desires of the group.

People have no choice but to belong to organizations. However, people may be inclined to favor managing the fundamental paradox in different ways because of their value systems. Some people may prefer a strongly united group with little tolerance for individual freedoms. Other people may prioritize the rights of individuals over the solidarity of groups.

The Democratic party, for example, tends to believe in the power of the group to bring about change. They believe that people can work through their individual differences and develop plans that best fit the needs of everyone. The Republicans, however, believe more strongly in the rights of the individuals. They believe that individuals have the power to bring about change. Groups, they hold, hinder progress. Wholesale regulations get in the way.

Democrats thus believe, by and large, in big government solutions. Everything needs to be the same for everyone. We see growing support, for example, in single payer health care. In contrast, Republicans think government is the problem. Let the free market rein in health care. Every person for herself.

Republicans criticize the Democrats by pointing out how individuals abuse the rules put in place for citizens. Undoubtedly, there are people who receive welfare who could be working, who claim disability when they are able-bodied, who vote illegally, and who seek to enter the country to propagate terrorism. Democrats see these examples as being exceptions to a system that is generally working well. Democrats critique Republicans for prioritizing individuals over the group–the nation–as a whole. They point out the inequities that exist when individuals, unfettered by the government, are allowed to amass great sums of wealth. Another example has to do with the public schools. The Democrats dislike it when parents can choose private schools for their children at the expense of public schools.

Other cultural considerations, especially religion, play a role in how Democrats and Republicans resolve issues relating to the group/individual dilemma, but, in general, Republicans want to preserve individual rights. They believe in the value of competition between individuals to determine outcomes (winners and losers), and they distrust the government. Democrats believe in fairness for everyone. They promote cooperation to determine outcomes. They believe in the government as a force for good.

Cynics would probably argue that politicians of all political stripes fundamentally believe in the individual–themselves–when it comes to getting reelected. No doubt, politics is more polarized today than ever before in this country. There are fewer politicians, it seems, who put the good of the country over the good of the party or who vote against their base when it affects their chances of being reelected.

What about Donald Trump? This is where it gets interesting. Where does he stand when it comes to the fundamental paradox? Does he favor the group or the individual? To repeat, Republicans favor the individual over the group and show the shortcomings of their opponent’s position while expressing the value of their own. The Democrats take the opposite position, but like Republicans, have a positive argument for their position. Both parties, to some degree, show an understanding of the fundamental paradox. Only the radicals of both parties see no merit at all in the individual or group perspective.

What Trump has done is to embrace the criticisms of both sides (against the individual and against the group) without expressing the virtues of one side or the other. He has no interest in managing the tension. He simply ignores it while embracing the arguments both Republicans and Democrats use against each other. He puts the icing on the cake by insulting everyone. This makes him attractive to complainers. Lately, Trump has become increasingly bipartisan. This is not a surprise. Trump doesn’t stand for anything; he simply looks at the issues narrowly and sides with whomever or whatever issues seems likely to make him look good.

Trump is a leader who has never really led. He thought all the changes he promoted during the presidential campaign would be easy to make. This naïve presumption is how inexperienced leaders (or leaders who have not faced opposition) act because they assume they know more and are smarter than everyone else. Everyone will fall in line, they believe, when the group members recognize their brilliance or when the opposition is forced to fall in line or is ignored.

The deeply disgruntled will stick with Trump. He can attract nationalists from the far right and Marxists from the far left. The political spectrum no longer exists once you siphon off those who are disaffected. Some people are deeply dissatisfied, are not pragmatic enough, or are too inexperienced to realize individuals can’t be totally free at the same time they are members of a group. It’s not either/or: anarchy or dictatorship. Governing is about working hard to figure out how to value individualism and people’s rights while uniting people in a group that establishes fair rules. Democracy is messy, but Trump is messier because he attacks everything and undermines the positive foundations of our democracy. Taken to its logical conclusion, Trump’s approach will result in the country ending up with the worst elements of both anarchy and dictatorship. Anyone for Brutal Chaos?

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