Home >Opinion >Columns >Donald Trump and the art of being an infallible leader

Sixty courts, including the highest court in the country, said that there was no widespread fraud in the election. More than 90% of senators admitted there was no fraud. But millions of people continue to believe what one man, President Donald Trump, said—that there was widespread fraud in the US presidential election. Why do so many people believe this falsehood, despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary? Welcome to the magical world of infallible leaders.

Infallibility was formalized as a leadership attribute in 1870, during the first Vatican council of the Catholic Church. In this council, the dogma of the infallibility of the Pope was declared. The doctrine of papal infallibility means that the Pope cannot err or teach anything erroneous when he speaks on matters of faith. Throughout human history, various leaders have usurped this cloak of infallibility, several times. Such leaders often have a lot of appeal among people. Their infallibility provides them a form of security: if leaders are infallible, there would always be someone available to right our wrongs and make the world safe. It gives the common man cause for hope.

Infallible leaders have a continuous need to be seen as being ‘right’. These leaders assume that they can never show any sign of weakness. They take care to maintain a certain aloofness from the common man. Every country has myths and caricatures that define their great leaders of the past. These infallible leaders find ways to associate themselves with the images of those great leaders. With their projected image of infallibility, such leaders manage to create a ‘reality distortion field’ around them. They tend to acquire an air of charismatic self-assurance that is so overwhelming that it borders on the delusional. Even the sharpest of criticisms cannot penetrate their reality-distortion field.

Infallible leaders abhor even the slightest criticism. Critical assessments of them or their actions are met not with mere denials, but with strong rebuttals and even counter-attacks. Critics are reframed to extreme positions. While critics of infallible leaders are often labelled ‘anti-national’, those who are critical of religious leaders are typically reframed as ‘atheist’. With such levels of righteousness about them, they soon attain the status of demigods. After all, most religions teach us that the only infallible entity is God. For many of his supporters, President Trump is a demigod, an infallible leader.

The United States is a country that went into deep shock for several months after around 3,000 people were killed by a terrorist attack on 11 September 2001. But how come President Trump managed to lull almost half of that very nation into indifference when more than 300,000 people lost their lives to the covid pandemic?

President Trump and his advisors knew that forced forgetting actually induces remembering. When we are explicitly asked to forget something, we tend to remember that very thing. If we are told not to think of a pink elephant, the image that will come up prominently in our brain is that of a pink elephant. Knowing this brain fact, he just avoided any mention of covid in most of his speeches.

Masked faces were the most significant piece of tangible evidence of the pandemic that was spreading all around. But President Trump reframed the wearing of a mask as something done by the physically weak. He derided his political opponent, Joe Biden, for the mask he wore. By positioning the act of not wearing a mask as a political statement, President Trump was able to play down the pandemic. This was a master stroke of manipulation.

During the US election campaign, there was news of the President having contracted the novel coronavirus. But surprisingly, he managed to get back to his routine and duties in a matter of just three days. He even drove around in a car while he was undergoing covid treatment. The deeper messages these images were sending to the larger population were clearly meant to downplay the seriousness of the pandemic and also to reinforce the leader’s infallibility.

President Trump maintained his image of infallibility even after his defeat in the presidential election. He stirred up suspicion of the results among a very large number of people. He generated these suspicions around an issue that common citizens did not have enough knowledge of. The mechanism of postal ballots was a new thing for most people. The fact that most of these postal votes were cast in favour of his opponent helped him fuel distrust of the polls.

Trump has always created ‘enemies’ for people to be scared of, or even fight. These enemies were spun out of the deep non-conscious fears and biases of ordinary people. Racial tensions and the fear of jobs shifting to foreign countries helped create ‘enemies’ out of the Black Lives Matter movement and China. The language of war—the need to fight, to defend, and enlist everyone for the fight, etc—was used very often. Stoking fears of an external enemy is a sure-shot strategy to consolidate one’s in-group. President Trump used that strategy very effectively.

President Trump probably knew very well that he had lost the election. But he also knew that for his future political career, being seen as a victim who fought the enemy till the bitter end was better than being seen as a loser. So he played his victim card very well. President Trump played the role of an infallible leader brilliantly. He proved that he cannot fail, he can only be failed.

Biju Dominic is the chief evangelist, Fractal Analytics and chairman, FinalMile Consulting

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