Yes, he’s been POTUS, but he’ll always be the CEO who gave you insomnia.
Two impeachments later and with mere days left in his presidency, you can hear the historians settling at their laptops to sum up — somehow — the legacy of one Donald J. Trump. He’s been a politician, a reality TV star, a real estate developer, even a purveyor of wine and steaks. But I hope, as we all look back, that we won’t miss something that’s never changed no matter his title. It’s an underappreciated facet of his ugliness, but Trump really is a classic toxic CEO. As a former and sometimes recovering consultant, I know.
Before any of the rest of it, there was his inheritance: the Trump Organization. It’s there that he forged the persona many Americans took for the real thing on The Apprentice. Throughout his life, he’s repeated the leadership patterns that made him feel “strong” there, safe within the high walls of wealth that his father Fred built—as everyone around him played along because they literally couldn’t afford not to.
When do people figure out they’ve come to work for a monster? The moment must come with a certain chill.
With a toxic CEO, the choice is often stark: enable the abusiveness or leave. There’s no reporting them to HR because HR works for them. They pride themselves on demanding the “best” of everyone around him, but out of fear of their rages and retribution, employees grow accustomed to telling the boss what they want to hear, hoping a few more direct deposits hit before the truth catches up. Believing they can handle the pressures, a select few seek aggressive advancement to grab as much money as they can in whatever time they have. Unsurprisingly, company culture turns poisonous; all is survivalist backstabbing. Sound familiar?
To his something-like-credit, and from a certain cold perspective, it was Giuliani who did about as well as anyone could with Trump. (You have to doff your cap to anyone who could somehow survive Four Seasons Total Landscaping.) Of course, the mayor’s outsize $20K/day promises won’t be fulfilled now. But how many weeks of empty ranting and hair dye malfunctions has he collected for already? We’re now in the dark final hours of the grifter who got grifted, wherein the boss has finally gotten wise and declared he will no longer approve his former right-hand man’s expense reports. They have no actual relationship, so Trump will hurt Giuliani where he can: in his wallet.
As for the many stakeholders whose well-being Trump should have guarded as president (the hundreds of thousands lost to COVID-19, the permanently shattered children at our border, the Black Americans who see no end of police brutality, the Kurds we abandoned in the field, the list is so long we could be here all day) and the values he swore to uphold (ethics up to and including divesture, transparency, core principles of democracy itself), they’re simply roadkill. Toxic leaders, primarily concerned with self-image, focus on finding scapegoats to absorb the consequences for their mistakes rather than correcting them, much less worrying about who got hurt. Unworthy of anyone’s trust, they’re also skilled at arguing that deep down, everyone is just as self-serving as they are — making betrayal an act of savvy self-defense, even genius.
Maybe it’s hard to think of Trump on the scale of a mere C-suite member now. His followers attacked the U.S. Capitol. He’ll leave political and economic relationships around the world strained, at best. America herself is vibrating in a state of collective trauma not yet fully defined or articulated. But I can’t shake how familiar his attitudes have been, from his first days as a candidate to these final hours. He worked with different, far more dangerous tools in his hands and more shrewdly ambitious (to put it politely) people at his desk. But he’s never stopped being the same developer from Queens, directing his lawyer to bully his enemies and threatening to withhold final payments for his projects if his contractors couldn’t accomplish the impossible.
Trump’s presidency is now almost over, but moving on will be up to everyone else, as toxic CEOs rarely do. If they ever had the capacity for reflection, they set it aside long ago. They can’t apologize for distressing or harming you because they don’t care — and in fact, they’ll blame you for being so gullible and weak as to let it happen. Toxic leaders step over their own failures while berating others for not clearing their path more thoroughly. So that’s what we can expect in the years ahead. Only that.
It may be helpful to remember that closure is a bit of a myth, anyway. He won’t give it to any of us — not to his critics, not to his disillusioned faithful, not to the Republican leaders who wanted to pass his tax cuts but really resented him insulting war heroes and Gold Star families and just constantly saying the quiet parts out loud (on Muslims, on BLM, on immigrants and even refugees, again, such lists we can write). However cathartic it would be to hear Trump acknowledge and regret what he hath wrought, hoping for it will only be a grand waste of time. Instead, we might have to settle for clinging to what we have in common, which is simply having survived him.
There’s one arduous road ahead. America’s wounds predated Trump. Healing from these fresh blows will take time and a level of determination I’m not sure we can yet measure. But maybe, just maybe, instead of continuing to obsess over the unchangeable toxic figure who has stolen our peace, we can turn some kind of newly united attention on something that can be redeemed: our nation, and ourselves.
For all their self-congratulatory bluster, toxic CEOs are incapable of growth. We are not. As long as we refuse to learn what they would teach us.
Anne DeAcetis is a writer and performer based in New York whose work has included business and communications consulting (and still does, sometimes). She hopes everyone feels valued and heard at work and in the country they call home. She watches C-Span obsessively while looking forward to the return of live gigs and unmasked gatherings. Above all, she wishes you good sleep. www.annedeacetis.com