In Warren Beatty’s 1998 film Bulworth, a U.S. Senator running for reelection has a moment of clarity and decides to do something no politician to date has ever done: be completely honest in everything he says.
Senator Jay Bulworth tells an audience in South Central Los Angeles that the Democratic party doesn’t care about them because they don’t contribute enough money to political campaigns. He informs a group of Hollywood executives in a private home that the movies they make are awful. And in a live televised debate with his opponent, he says that the news is controlled by the same corporate interests that contribute boatloads of cash to elections, which means that the public isn’t informed about what is really going on in the world.
Bulworth is a comedy. It has to be, since the premise that a politician would ever dare to be honest is inherently funny, right?
Enter Donald Trump into the 2016 Presidential campaign. The whole world knows what he thinks about Mexican immigrants, global warming, his fellow presidential hopefuls, the bestseller status of the books he’s written, and Megyn Kelly’s physiology.
We now have a real-life Bulworth, and it’s tempting to rejoice that here at last is a man so rich he’s willing to speak his mind without having any concern about the consequences of what he says.
If only life could imitate art.
The difference between Jay Bulworth and Donald Trump goes far beyond the fact that one is a Democrat and the other is (for now) a Republican. Or even that one is fictional and the other is real.
Jay Bulworth spoke the truth as he saw it because he was tired of living in a world where corporate greed and politicians’ unquenchable thirst for power have widened the gap between the haves and the have-nots, severely damaged the integrity of news organizations, compromised our faith in democracy, and poisoned the planet. In other words, he had a deep, abiding concern for things beyond himself.
Donald Trump speaks the truth as he sees it because he is an unrepentant narcissist who loves being the center of attention and doesn’t care how his words affect other people. As such, he fits in perfectly with our selfie culture. Both Donald Trump and those of us wandering around with selfie sticks are boldly declaring, “Look at me! Aren’t I great?”
The problem with Trump’s candidacy isn’t merely that he is willing to insult anyone who rubs him the wrong way. It’s that the Donald we see and hear on a daily basis appears to be psychologically incapable about caring about anyone other than himself. And if that’s who he really is, he won’t—and can’t—win the White House.
Leadership and narcissism: What’s the connection?
Stanford University business school professor Jeffrey Pfeffer recently wrote a fascinating article for Fortune in which he claimed, “Everything we bash Donald Trump for is actually what we seek in leaders.” Pfeffer argues that there is a yawning gap between the qualities we believe we want in our leaders and the actual qualities of the men and women we put in leadership roles. “[E]ven though we say we want people who don’t self-aggrandize, we secretly like the confident, overbearing people because they provide us with confidence—emotions are contagious—and also present themselves like winners,” Pfeffer writes.
But it’s one thing to be strongly, even supremely confident, and quite another to have contempt for both the truth and other human beings. One can be bold in thought and action and still be open to the possibility that one is mistaken. That, in a nutshell, is what it means to be rational. “I believe this with all my heart,” my college religion professor Patrick Henry once said about his faith, “but I might be wrong.”
It’s that last part of the equation that appears to be genetically absent from Donald Trump. I say “appears,” because I know the man the same way you probably do: only by what I see on TV. So I spoke with Jeffrey Hayzlett, author of the forthcoming book Think Big, Act Bigger: The Rewards of Being Relentless, a guest judge on Celebrity Apprentice, and a business associate of Trump’s, to get a closer perspective.
“Donald Trump cares a lot for his children and for the people on his staff,” Hayzlett told me. “He really does. If he were so bad, would his children still work for him? And the other people who work for him have been there forever.”
“So what advice would you give to him for the rest of the campaign?” I asked.
“To win the Republican nomination, he needs to be more inclusive,” Hayzlett replied. Part of the problem, Hayzlett believes, is that the media haven’t shown that Trump truly understands and cares about other people.
From “I” to “We”
I’m glad to hear that Trump treats his kids and his staff well. But the best person to run our country will care for everyone, not just family, team members, and supporters. That means casting aside hateful remarks, evincing a passion for the truth, and resisting the impulse to drone on and one about how terrific, smart, and successful he or she is.
Whether or not Trump is up to the challenge remains to be seen. But the smart money for the remainder of the race is on the man or woman who can look beyond the mirror and the adoring crowd at their feet and cast their gaze upon the vast sea of people who come here from all over the world but who are united by a single definition: American.
Bruce Weinstein, The Ethics Guy, is a keynote speaker and corporate trainer in ethics, leadership, and character, and his latest book is The Good Ones: Ten Crucial Qualities of High-Character Employees.