Trump’s leadership style and his response to his election loss

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US Election results
US Election results

By Christopher Featherstone, Doctoral Researcher, POLSIS, 
School of Government, University of Birmingham.

“Low-complexity leaders generally perceive the world as very black-and-white, using binary terms (good/bad, friend/enemy), and they are more likely to make decisions based on intuition and emotion rather than using advice from experts.”

Donald Trump has shocked and entertained the world with his conduct as the 45th President of the United States of America. His style of leadership has been a crucial part of this shock and entertainment, and it has attracted significant attention. A key part of Trump’s leadership style has been his conceptual complexity, which refers to how a leader processes information and the level of nuance in a leader’s perception of other people, places, ideas and situations.

Trump is a low conceptual complexity leader, as I argued in my recent piece co-authored with Dr Asaf Siniver. Low-complexity leaders generally perceive the world as very black-and-white, using binary terms (good/bad, friend/enemy), and they are more likely to make decisions based on intuition and emotion rather than using advice from experts. A low conceptual complexity leader is also more prone to pursuing confrontational courses of action. This low conceptual complexity has been on full display in response to the 2020 Presidential election results and will continue to have an impact after he leaves the White House.

The first way Trump’s low conceptual complexity manifested was in his election night speech in the White House (ignoring that this is in contravention of the Hatch act). Rather than accepting the information from pollsters, the media, and vote counters that Biden was ahead, Trump’s immediate response was to declare: “Millions and millions of people voted for us tonight, and a very sad group of people is trying to disenfranchise that group of people and we won’t stand for it”. Trump could not accept that he was receiving fewer votes than Biden, and so his means of processing this information was to declare fraud or an attempt to “steal” the election.

This was on show again in Trump’s response to the media declaration that Biden is President-elect. Writing two days after the media called the election for Biden, Trump has still not accepted the loss. In the immediate aftermath of the declaration of Biden as President-elect, Trump gave a speech accusing President-elect Biden of rushing to “falsely pose” as the winner and threw out more accusations of election fraud with no basis. This speech displays Trump’s confrontational and black-and-white response to the election result and his accusation that Biden was falsely claiming the Presidency displays his hypocrisy, given Trump himself declared himself the winner of the election on Wednesday 4th, November, four days prior to Biden being declared the winner.

Trump’s speech also displays his refusal to listen to advice. Despite many Republicans, both those elected in this election and former Presidents, advising Trump to accept the result and proceed to a peaceful transition of power, Trump ignored this to continue with his baseless accusations of electoral fraud. There are numerous reports that Trump is angry at both the election result and the republican politicians who have been unwilling to back his accusations of electoral fraud.

The weeks until January 2021 and Biden’s inauguration will be crucial to establishing the political context into which Biden enters the Presidency. Trump’s leadership style will be crucial in one of the most egregious transitions in US politics. The response of US courts to Trump’s legal challenges to the election result, and the response of the Republican party to Trump’s accusations of electoral fraud will both set the stage for Biden’s claims that he will appeal to American unity.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the University of Birmingham.

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