TRUMP vs BIDEN–Lessons in Leadership & Mutilated Power

Esther Armah

Wow! The First US Presidential debate. Did you watch it? Have you recovered from watching it? I am still reeling. It offered us in Ghana lessons in leadership and power. What they are, what they mean and how we engage them is an important conversation for us here, for our politics, our media, our organizations and our progress.

What I am looking at and inviting us to engage is a more in-depth exploration of power as demonstrated by this chaos of a performance that millions all over the world tuned into.

I remember in 2016 when Donald Trump made unlikely political history when he was announced as the next president of the United States. Many thought the election would be history-making for a different reason – that America would elect its first woman president. I remember talking with my dear friend and brilliant strategist Kofi Ocansey-Blankson as we WhatsApp’d back and forth watching the results come in. I remember going on air here in Ghana, on the excellent Dr. Etse Sikanku’s radio show ‘World Affairs’ to discuss and explore the implications of the win. What horrified me – and frankly devastated me – was the numbers of men in Ghana, and across African nations, who supported Trump. They would say he is a businessman, that he will be good for America’s economy, and that would be good for Africa too. The support made no sense when the policies of his government would not be kind to them, their families or their nations. And yet, support him they did. Unequivocally and enthusiastically. Their arguments for support were rarely robust.

Why? It was about power, not policy.

And a particular kind of power. It revealed how a masculinity that is old-school, alpha, unapologetic, and unaccountable was seductive to men here in Ghana and across Africa, in the United States, and indeed the UK. It was a power that assumes and evades responsibility simultaneously. It takes responsibility for success, and evades it when accused of failure.

The global media headlines declared the debate chaotic, divided, bitter, disastrous. There was a total failure to honor the rules laid out and agreed by both campaigns. There was constant interruption, talking over, personal attacks, family attacks, accusation, antagonism. The moderator was roundly lambasted for his inability to control what, frankly, was uncontrollable. All these points have validity.

The additional issue is that of frame, not fact. I have focused on this before, I return to it again, because without engagement of how people and power is framed, we fail to reckon with what dangers a person in power presents, and instead continue to try and reason with the cycle of errors, rewriting of narrative, and blatant inaccuracies in their positions on given issues.

And indeed, although the issues of COVID19, systemic racism, white supremacy, climate change, policing, presidential record, presidential taxes were all part of the Moderator’s card of content, very little about those issues was revealed, particularly by President Trump. Trump exuded a masculinity that takes credit for every single thing that has been reimagined as wholly successful, and casts blame for failures on others – in this case Joe Biden, the Democrats, Hillary Clinton and, always the focus of Trump’s ire – Former President Obama.  He calls them losers, suckers, whiney, weak. He on the other hand is the one willing to take strong decisions, roll in, pull up and take control, discard negotiation and impose authority – and to do that while always appealing to his base of predominantly white men – and let us not forget the 53% of white women who voted for him – and their relationship to their nation about power, authority, supremacy – but also fear, insecurity and a resistance to co-existence.

This then is what a politics of emotionality looks like. We are mired in such politics. I call it ‘Emotional Patriarchy’. It is when systems and society bends, twists, bows and breaks to cater to the feelings – fears, failings, needs, hurts, sadness, pain, insecurity, anger – of men. We all have feelings. We all have emotions. A politics of emotionality is not about humanity and emotions – it is about power, dominion, privilege and supremacy in the context of race, gender, and culture. And that is what Trump exudes, and something that so many of those who support him adore.

It is hard – nigh on impossible as Biden demonstrated – to debate the facts, when this leadership always and only resorts to frame. That frame is to attack, destroy, lambast, antagonize and belittle his opponent. And to celebrate, congratulate, elevate himself, his performance as a leader, his authority and control over the issues. What should be done when presented with this position? Adapt. It is a question of an ‘agile leadership’ as taught by visionary leadership coach Taaka Awori  – one that takes account of changing realities and makes change for that purpose. The Democrats’ lack of adaptability, of repositioning in order to deal with this changed reality is problematic in a COVID19 world where normal is constant change.

The categories of law and order, law enforcement, policing as they relate to the killings of African-Americans George Floyd and Breonna Taylor are not framed by President Trump as an issue reflective of entrenched systemic racism, that part is discarded. – the protests responding to their killings is his focus, that is the frame. It centers police officers as keepers of the peace, and protesters as a threat to democracy. It highlights the power of a law enforcement, and the national guard who come in, clean up, get them under control and pull out – often applying violence to peaceful people. This too is mutilated power – one that takes no account of black people who are citizens of America and whose needs, futures, safety, health and progress must be part of how America engages, leads and exercises presidential power.

Asked to condemn white supremacy, the President said: ‘Proud Boys should stand by and stand up’. That is an exact quote. Proud Boys are a white supremacist group – who promptly changed their logo to include the President’s words. Asked if he would enable a peaceful transfer and transition of power, he consistently refused, declaring that the voting ballots are a massive fraud that he rejects.

This language, this stance, this relationship to a mutilated power is reminiscent of authoritarian regimes across the world that have been condemned by the West. It should be condemned now as it appears in this leadership from a US president.  What has happened is moderates are now extremists, and extremists are reasonable patriotic people defending families. That re-framing matters too. You do not reason with extremists.

Right now, rational debate by the Democrats – and as witnessed during the debate – is clearly not working, is not helpful and doesn’t enable progress. What happens is you lose in the eyes of those who are excited, emboldened and empowered by Trump’s brand of masculinity, by men – and the women support them – who view this mutilated power as something they want, desire and revere.

Power concedes nothing without a demand. President Trump has said presidential power is not something he will concede, even if the result from the ballot demands he must.  That is what we witnessed during that debate.

Power. Our relationship to it matters – in America and here in Ghana, across Africa. It is shaped by a history of systemic injustice and inequity, it has been fostered by an addiction to false notions of white superiority and black inferiority. And it is wielded with the weight of that history.

The future does not lie in the hands of the two men on the podium, it lies in those of the millions watching, wondering, horrified, turned-off, turned on, devastated, excited, engaged, and appalled. It is a reminder of the importance of the vote, the power of the ballot.

We all have power, how we use it matters.  How are you using yours?


Esther Armah is Executive Director, The Armah Institute of Emotional Justice (AEIJ); a global institute providing equity education in the context of Race, Gender, Culture using the visionary ‘Emotional Justice’ framework. AIEJ does this  via Projects, Training and Thought Leadership. Website: Email: [email protected] Twitter: @estherarmah.

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