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Trump teaches Turnbull the truth about leadership

Peter Switzer
17 February 2017

Two weeks ago, Malcolm Turnbull showed us a flash of leadership by tongue-lashing Bill Shorten in Parliament and the country got a confidence boost. Donald Trump has too much of it and his brand of leadership is worrying a lot of people, though what he’s got has Wall Street excited with US market indices at record highs!

To see the impact of leadership, recall nothing has changed in the USA except for the leader and what the leader is promising. However, the S&P 500 index is now over $US20 trillion in market cap terms, and given what it was when Donald Trump became President-elect, this fact has coincided with a $US1.6 trillion rise in the market capital value of the top 500 US companies.

That’s the monetary power of leadership, and while there have been some other issues that have helped stocks rise in the USA by around 10% since November 8, only a Trump-hater would try to play down his leadership role in that improvement in wealth.

I can’t remember who said words to this effect: “Everyone wants to be known for being generous but few are willing to pay for it.” I think most of us would love to be a leader but it takes more than what people are prepared to give (or give up) and that’s why we have a leadership problem from Canberra to the country’s company CEOs.

I’m fascinated with Trump and how he won the US election, won over Wall Street, where most didn’t want him as President, and how he’s pushing up global stock markets, including our own, via his policies of less bank regulation, a lower company tax rate and a commitment to infrastructure spending, with his Great Wall of Mexico being a case in point!

(US President Donald Trump. Source: AAP)

Trump started winning over the same types of voters who now love Pauline Hanson here in Australia. And she has what Donald has and what Malcolm needs to work on and it’s called connection.

Trump is being ‘loved’ by more Americans and non-Americans than most of us would’ve thought, including the writers of The Simpsons, who lampooned him in 2000 as President of the USA. One of the writers, Dan Greaney, recalled the episode when fiction became reality on November 8 last year and this is what he said: “It was a warning to America. That just seemed like the logical last stop before hitting bottom. It was consistent with the vision of America going insane.”

To see if US insanity had had an expression previously, I went back to the country’s selection of a B-grade Hollywood actor in Ronald Reagan, whose victory in 1980 was a shock to me but then again, he won in extraordinary times. The former President, Jimmy Carter, had been a disaster culminating in the Iran hostage crisis, where 52 American diplomats and citizens were held for 444 days from November 4, 1979 to January 20, 1981, after a group of Iranian students belonging to the Muslim Student Followers of the Imam's Line who supported the Iranian Revolution, took over the U.S. Embassy in Tehran.

That was the setting but he also had his eyes on what he called the “evil empire”, the USSR. He gave birth to something called Reaganomics, which was associated especially with the reduction of taxes and the promotion of unrestricted free-market activity. 

It actually pioneered what the movie Ferris Bueller’s Day Off reminded us of: voodoo economics, which was a disparaging term coined by George Bush Snr., when he first analysed the proposition that if you cut tax rates, you’d actually collect more tax!

Reagan didn’t invent this economic theory. It was the work of economist Arthur Laffer, who sold it to a team of Republicans headed up by Dick Cheney at a lunch. I interviewed Laffer in 2014, when he was in Sydney and he said he pitched his economic idea as a curve, which he drew on a paper napkin and the rest became history!

But this is all by the by. What still staggers me is that Reagan is still remembered by many Americans, including credible historians and political scientists, as a good US president, which offers hope for Donald Trump, I guess.

(Former US President Ronald Reagan and first lady Nancy Reagan. Source: AAP)

So let’s look at Trump’s similarities to Reagan and see if there’s anything that Malcolm can learn from the ex-President.

Fans of Reagan saw his terms this way: “From 1981 through 1989, Ronald Reagan led a great American comeback. He not only achieved what his critics said would be impossible; he made it seem easy. His leadership transformed a sputtering U.S. economy into a rocket of growth that led to a generation of prosperity. He restored a neglected U.S. military and its alliances, engineering the eventual defeat of the Soviet empire, without starting a war and without firing a shot. Through it all, he revived America’s spirit, restored our hopes, and strengthened our faith.” (Ben T. Elliott).

Sure, Reagan had his dissenters but the US economy did a turnaround and the Berlin Wall did come down and, eventually, the USSR (his evil empire) was broken up and the Cold War (as we knew it) ended.

So what were his strengths?

He was great at connection and that’s what Trump does to his fans. If he pulls off his economic plans, his fans will grow, as we saw Wall Street jump on board the Trump train post-election. And this is what Malcolm has to ramp up. We are seeing signs that he is learning, with more appearances on media channels once seen as hostile to him. 

He connected better to his team when he ranted against Bill Shorten in Parliament, when he was accused of being an out-of-touch mansion owner on the harbour. If you missed it, check it out here, and if you want to see the impact on his team, have a look at the video’s first shot, which shows Barnaby Joyce clapping on cloud nine.

(Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull. Source: AAP).

The likes of Reagan and now Trump can elevate their supporters if they effectively answer their followers prayers. And the Government here knows their leader has been struggling and they know they can’t switch leaders again, given what happened to Labor when it did the Gillard-Rudd leadership shuffle.

Writing in the National Review, Ben T. Elliott, who was in the White House speechwriting team in 1981 and served as director of White House speechwriting from 1983 to 1986, gave us his take on Reagan’s leadership qualities.

“Reagan grasped more than just what was timeless — he had a great capability for adapting to changing realities,” he observed. “He understood growth. He had a sharp eye for danger and recognized the leader’s duty to prepare and protect. And, his profound respect for the dignity, rights, and responsibilities of the individual, rooted in constitutional principles and 5,000 years of Judeo-Christian history and tradition, would equip a leader well to deal wisely with the contentious issues that preoccupy our country today.”

First, Elliott says Reagan united America. He never sought to divide. “He always spoke to us as “we” – citizens connected by the same love for America, the same values of family, faith, neighborhood, work, peace, and freedom,” Elliott contends.

Trump is a divider but he has worked the “we” with his followers very effectively.

Second, he inspired America. “On that day he kicked off his campaign, and throughout his presidency, he challenged us to lift our sights,” Elliott noted. “He assured us that every American is created with the rights to life and liberty.”

Trump again taps into this for his true believers but Malcolm has a lot to learn on this front.

Third, like Trump, Reagan “emboldened America” painting a vision of what was possible under the right leadership. Malcolm needs to talk the vision stuff more graphically than just jobs and growth. He has to talk about how he is going to change our lives through a better economy.

Fourth, Reagan was big on defending America and keeping the USA safe and we can see Donald Trump has learnt from Ronnie’s playbook. I don’t think Malcolm has failed on this subject with his border protection policies but he has to be careful on this one. Luckily for him that Labor isn’t too far away from him on this subject.

Like Trump and Reagan, Malcolm has to draw a line in the sand and even if it’s unpopular on the ABC and in Fairfax newspapers, he has to represent what he thinks the majority of Australians want.

When John Howard got his coveted Prime Minister’s gig in 1996 after years of failure, he still had the Bob Hawke baggage of “Little Johnny Howard”. Over time, on the back of gutsy and sometimes unpopular decisions, he turned the economy around, took the Budget into surplus and KO’d Federal Government debt.

Howard not only could communicate to the population, he learnt to connect with the majority, just like Reagan, Trump and Bob Hawke.

He seriously could re-enter Parliament and replace Malcolm Turnbull and I bet he’d beat Bill Shorten at the next election. That’s the legacy of strong leadership and Malcolm Turnbull has to keep on improving or he will be remembered as the smartest guy in the room who simply couldn’t connect.

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