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Imagine a political candidate facing a crowd of supporters. He is anticipating their needs and begins making promises to make things better for them.

As they respond he doesn’t have facts at his fingertips, so he exaggerates by guessing at some numbers. The crowd applauds, so he does it again as his promises multiply. Finally, the crowd is shouting. The sheer joy of the experience becomes a trap that nudges him into even more exaggerations and lies the next time.

He simply does not have enough knowledge to educate constituents about issues. But he finds that the more lies he repeats the more true they sound, even to him. So soon they become rallying cries and full-blown campaign themes. And as crowd after crowd goes crazy with shouts and screams, feeling that exhilaration becomes his narcotic.

The issue of immigration is another case in point. Stopping illegal border crossings has widespread political appeal. A campaign promise to fix the situation can be quite popular. But in making a strong immigration case it’s easy to misrepresent the kind and number of people coming across. Some exaggeration is expected in campaigns, but when the candidate’s exaggerations are responded to with shouts and screams, it becomes all too easy to misrepresent facts even more.

Exaggerations soon become outright lies, and promises for fixes become more and more extreme. In the case of immigration, putting in place some kind of border barrier is a possible step toward a fix. But when a call to build an impregnable wall the entire length of the border is met with wild cheering, a candidate can easily be tempted to keep this theme going… and expanding.

What might have been a reasonable campaign promise quickly can expand into a wild “drain the swamp” idea. It’s just the kind of noise maker angry voters might be craving. A bold border wall proposal may not be practical, but that doesn’t matter. Enthusiastic revenge-seeking supporters can quickly become cult-like, and others will likely climb aboard because they think they will benefit politically and personally simply by association.

So… after our president recently asked his team to hold a press conference and tell the truth about Russian election hacking, he immediately flew off for his next narcotic fix. Standing there basking in the exhilaration of rally lies, exaggerations, shouts, and screams, he totally contradicted what his team had just said about the Russians. Mr. Trump is clearly in his element when entertaining his troupes… but a colleague recently suggested that he should also be saying, “Please stop me, I like this stuff way too much!”

Daily streams of lying, exaggerating, bullying, and threatening from the White House are causing voices of concern to get louder about dangerous effects on fundamental standards of civility and human decency.

Some basic questions to consider: When does the behavior of a CEO influence copycat behavior in others? Or, do leaders quickly become role models for followers with similar inclinations? Or, as they are now suggesting, can a president’s subordinates implement a set of consistent policies while his behavior is continuing to be more erratic every day?

My past experience consulting with institutions simply teaches that when a leader at the top is seen to be unsteady, leadership can never be successfully taken over from below. Everyone will always look to the CEO when making judgments about how things are going.

I joined a conversation the other day where the participants were lamenting what they believe to be a rapid breakdown of civil discourse in our society. They were arguing that the president’s “only I can fix it” obsession and constant mind changes on critical issues have cancelled out any hope for unifying the nation. And they see this behavior (intensified at his rallies) as inciting serious racial divisions and increasing the likelihood of hostile community confrontations.

Make no mistake, this has nothing to do with political ideology. This is only about a top leader’s choice to either champion good or bad cultural values and open dialogue in nations and institutions, and the impact that choice will have on those inside and out.

When the idea emerges that a strongman’s ends can justify a strongman’s means, it must be remembered that a strongman’s ends most often will be tragic, and a strongman’s means will inevitably establish hostile and fearful communities which eventually will have to be fixed.

That is, of course, if the destruction of vital institutions and firing of talented experts has not already gone too far.

 

 

 

The new digital media ecosystem is a game-changer.

The recent NATO meeting is proof of the power of new media technology. Many media platforms spread Trump’s attacks on his allies instantly around the world. They created immediate confusion, and much of it was divisive, emotional, and totally bewildering.

To be sure, social media platforms can be useful tools. Unfiltered contact with audiences can be positive. Blogging and tweeting gives opinion writers the opportunity to publish constructive unfiltered ideas. Many platforms are also useful professional tools for doctors, teachers, lawyers, etc. And, of course, some platforms provide fun and games, quality entertainment, and daily exchanges with friends and family.

But these platforms are also creating problems:

  1. Wastes time. Some people become addicted to social media. Others never stop to think that some of that time could be spent more productively.
  2. Becomes fads. For example, one student advised me to talk to her mother about Facebook. She is now addicted to Instagram and Snapchat.
  3. Alters the brain. Researcher Nicholas Carr found that constant use can reduce the capacity of the brain to process details.
  4. Enhances depression. While happily interconnecting circles of friends, social media can also show how some are more popular than others. Being left out is pushing some into depression, and even suicide. Research at MIT has also shown how excessive texting makes some young people want to avoid healthy face-to-face situations.
  5. Enables bullying. Social media can encourage bullying because it allows the perpetrator to avoid feeling responsible for the consequences.
  6. Distributes fake news. Lies and conspiracies about adversaries can be easily, instantly, and effectively distributed to the world.
  7. Enables emotional warfare. By eliminating key facts, selectively emphasizing others, and creating alternate truths, anyone or any group can be effectively and publicly attacked.
  8. Eliminates personal privacy. Most platforms gather personal profile data which today is constantly being distributed to adversaries and advertisers.
  9. Allows autocrats to dictate. A media platform that bypasses the news media can become a lethal and confusing leadership tool. It can also enable the development of a worldwide ruling council of autocrats.
  10. Distracted parenting. Living constantly with their face in a smart phone or I-Pad removes many adults from connecting intellectually and emotionally with their children.

These problems may seem obvious. But many of us ignored them as they rapidly multiplied. Now our only defense seems to be monitoring bank and other accounts for hackers, while simultaneously promoting greater media literacy. One thing for certain about communication… conventional wisdom doesn’t work any longer.

We simply must find more ways in schools, organizations, and communities to teach more people how to think carefully about what they are consuming and communicating. They are the selectors of the platforms and editors of the information they consume… and it’s very easy to become overwhelmed and confused.

What we had before the Helsinki Summit is what we still have now… two bullies playing reality TV, each giving incoherent monologues.

The U.S. bully had just attacked his NATO allies, his only protection from another world war. He then derided his most reliable European trade partners, and also viciously undercut a longstanding UK friendship. Later in Helsinki, he ignored ironclad proof of Russian election meddling.

The Russian bully claimed he never met the guy standing next to him before he became U.S. president, even though there are Trump brags on video tapes proving otherwise. Constant lies and exaggerations came home to roost in Helsinki for both men, and so nothing said by either one was believable.

In the final analysis, if there was any winner at all it was probably the Russian. He got a photo standing equal in apparent power and influence with the U.S. president, while also looking more skillful at producing amusing facial distractions. Body language reveals a lot. Conducting the official meeting in secrecy, however, means we may never know what was actually said, or if important issues were ever even discussed.

It’s sad, but the American people never had a chance to see a proud patriot standing tall representing them in Helsinki! There were no specific U.S. interests advanced that we know of… only disappointing words of autocrat-to-autocrat admiration. Even supportive Republicans in Congress began to voice disgust.

Certainly “The Base” must now be able to see far more clearly that character and common decency mean everything when it comes to advancing the interests and values of the once universally admired United States of America. Bottom line: When you can’t trust the messengers, there will be no good results. It’s as simple as that.

Forget the politics. Now it’s about the potentially destructive outcome of blindly and viciously attacking longstanding NATO allies in public, and about hearing and seeing a US president rant on totally ignorant of recent history. Who can possibly benefit from this? China? Putin? Anyone at all? His base might cheer the hostile tone, but what can they gain?

Angry public criticism of allies can only poison summits. Disagreements are always addressed in private meetings. But what binds them, and not what divides them, is their purpose. In NATO’s case, collective security is clearly the unifying benefit. Mr. Trump arrogantly criticized Germany’s energy pipeline arrangement with Russia in front of TV cameras. His concern is legitimate and has been appropriately debated inside NATO. But it is not a situation that will change the overall security benefit NATO provides for it members. Also, Trump’s loudly voiced problem with NATO funding imbalances has been the legitimate complaint of multiple presidents. But this also never affected the numerous security benefits of NATO, including member countries hosting major US military bases.

To make matters worse, in the midst of this NATO debacle Trump is also announcing more sweeping trade tariffs. And the UK is also bracing itself for an untimely Trump visit following this summit. The US president is unpopular in the UK and his arrival will no doubt cause huge protests. These will unnecessarily distract the Prime Minister who is currently dealing with a very serious Brexit produced political crisis.

Meanwhile daily assurances also continue that everything is safe in North Korea even though their leaders are saying the US approach has been gangster-like. Mean-spirited immigration rhetoric also continues this week while migrant children remain cruelly separated from their parents. And all this will lead the president suspiciously into a private and chummy get-together with the Russian dictator… even when most everyone agrees that Putin has expansion intentions and is orchestrating the tearing apart of the entire US electoral process. What is most troubling is how at home Mr. Trump looks when schmoozing with autocrats.

Photos of the week so far show Trump’s staff and diplomats looking hopelessly embarrassed in his presence. So what are the consequences? A complete unraveling of NATO? Greater polarization and ethnic divisions everywhere? More normalization of cruelty and “me first” behavior? Worldwide citizen numbness? Or how about a golden opportunity for China to simply claim economic and global superiority?

One colleague told me that it seems Mr. Trump just can’t help himself and is actually begging the US Congress to stop him. My analysis focuses only on the overall consequences of out-of-control wrecking ball communication behavior. But career consequences for totally paralyzed elected officials in a situation like this is anybody’s guess.

It’s really important to note, however, that when a leader’s portrait is finally hanging on the wall with all the others, it is his or her character that is most remembered.

A big media revolution lesson: Daily lying and exaggerating destroys credibility for when things really get serious.       

Mr. Trump seems to be on a roll at home. But with his longstanding record of lies and unethical behavior, attempts to befriend an experienced and cunning manipulator like Putin will likely unleash a carefully calculated response that will cleverly tuck Mr. Trump neatly under Putin’s wing.

A baby-faced dictator in North Korea is already showing the world how gaining such an upper hand with Trump can work. It’s called, “sound cooperative and then ignore him.” And you can be sure that cool-operator Putin will have a well thought-out and ultimately Trump-ignoring plan ready to go. Putin is an old hand at this game, and a rookie foreign affairs deal-maker will very likely meet his match. Trump may be much easier to trump than Trump thinks.

Trump is not the first to argue that it’s a good idea to meet and talk with adversaries. Often this is so. But in Trump’s case the odds are not on the side of a good outcome. Dictators like Putin are obsessed with maintaining their power and are constantly collecting embarrassing information about adversaries as a matter of routine. They store it, and respond with it very strategically when the need arises. And their response is not always immediate, or obvious, or even highly visible.

Putin is an experienced political enemy crusher with a passionate commitment to bringing back Russia’s national pride. Believe me, being a trustworthy and loyal friend to Trump is not in Putin’s game plan.

In the days ahead it looks like Trump will face big disappointments in both North Korea and Russia, proving that admiring sleazy dictators is no pathway to global prominence. The bottom line here is that the best way to achieve competitive advantage for the United States is to once again proudly champion the founder’s values-based “idea of America,” the “big idea” that the world still most admires.

A colleague recently commented that he deeply cares about the fate of immigrant children but that he is also becoming numb to our whole political mess.

Media revolutions produce far-reaching consequences, and that can include a kind of mass numbing. For example, in today’s media ecosystem news photos depicting the horrors of war day after day are having a numbing effect on many of us. It’s a sanity protection response to constant horror when not being able to see a way out. And recent daily doses of screaming children being separated from parents at the Mexican border may soon have a similar effect.

Not being able to deal with constant life-threatening contradictions can also result in numbing. For example, this happened to many of us when Mr. Trump reported he has a mutually admiring and ongoing working relationship with the murderous North Korean dictator at the very same time his defense secretary was reporting no evidence of denuclearization.

We now have visible evidence that more and more Americans are simply ignoring or turning away from the president’s constant lying, excessive bad behavior, reality TV dramatics, personal attacks, bullying, ethics violations, political extremism, alienating allies, and schmoozing with dictators.

If you are a Trump supporter you no doubt suspended the belief you had in always telling the truth and behaving ethically, thus allowing yourself to accept his gross exaggerations about bringing back factory jobs, coal mines, making healthcare great, and draining the Washington swamp. This is a wishful-thinking kind of numbing.

And if you don’t support Trump, by now you are very likely becoming numb to his daily lies and mind changes, and are turning away from his incessant doublespeak in order to find mental freedom and solace in your work, family or hobbies.

Both political parties have also become numb. Months ago they polarized themselves into a numbing paralysis. The dominant party is completely anesthetized by their fear of losing the next election. And the minority party has numbed itself into an inability to find and state an inspirational and unifying vision for the country.

A brilliant emeritus historian at Penn State recently pointed out to me that the cresting of powerful nations seems to be an inevitable historical reality. Leaders can either choose to wisely manage through the situation, or to recklessly make dictatorial choices that speed the decline. So far speeding the decline has been the choice… and sadly, a countrywide state of numbness is not a situation that offers us much promise.