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The divided America of Trump and why Joe Biden should look at New Zealand

Aggiornamento: 2 apr 2021

Matteo Piovacari

“I ran like a Democrat but I will be the president of everyone, who does not seek to divide, but to unite”. These words resonated uproariously in the night of Wilmington, headquarters of the Democrats’ electoral campaign, inaugurating the victory speech of Joe Biden as the 46th President of the United States of America. As the polls had foreseen, Biden overcame the incumbent President by 306 electoral votes against 232, thanks to the victories collected in the same swing states that had handed over the White House to Donald Trump in 2016. Inclusive words, those shared from the stage by both the Vice-President-elect Kamala Harris and the President-elect Biden, that channeled the attention to the necessity of ‘healing’ (“It is time to heal America!” said Biden) and reconciliation of the American people, lightening a beacon of hope in the darkness of both the sociopolitical and cultural polarization that has been scourging the United States for several years now. The question, and challenge number one that the new administration will have to address, concerns the actual capacity to comply with the promises of building a more united America, infusing solidarity and synergy to a nation that looks today deeply fragmented.

Every leader, in any sector and context, is characterized by a particular style of leadership. This leader is capable of exerting an attractive ‘power’ towards supporters and subordinates, indissolubly affecting their behaviors and ways of thinking. Whether we like it or not, a leader is capable of shaping its surrounding reality, individuals and minds included. Since the dawn of the 2016 presidential electoral campaign, the style of leadership externalized by Donald Trump resulted quite controversial, above all by representing a breakdown not only with his predecessors, but also with the institutional expectations regarding the role of the head of the State. By employing a lowbrow rhetoric, which Europeans would love to define as ‘populist,’ Trump cleverly managed to fabricate his leadership profile around a cocky, egocentric, and unpredictable personality, showing no qualms to achieve his personal objectives. To this regard, for example, we can mention the sexist insults to Hilary Clinton or the taunting of a disabled journalist during the past campaign. All this even at the cost of clouding the truth with lies, as meticulously documented by The Washington Post that detected more than 20,000 misleading or false affirmations told by the President since his entrance at White House. This pattern of behavior is nothing really new for a person that already in 1987, within his first book ‘The Art of the Deal’, claimed that the key to success is the bravado. Through his speeches and deeds, Trump did not only get to dishonor a formal and respectful way of making politics. Even worse, he was capable of normalizing a manner of relating to other people, especially those who think differently, that cherishes confrontation and praises exclusion. Although Trump was defeated on election day, the approval received even during this round of voting, confirmed by the 11 million more votes than 2016, demonstrates the widespread resonation of his communication style and leadership.

Nevertheless, in one respect the President Trump has irreparably failed. The United States appears today as an even more divided country than it was four years ago, when Trump leaned on the burgeoning ‘white’ populism to clinch the White House. The current situation looks so critical that the journalist Carl Bernstein defined it using the militaristic wording of “cold civil war,” namely an internal conflict hanging on a precarious balance. The US, already presenting a marked economical heterogeneity, is crossed by deep cleavages fragmenting American society at various levels: white vs black, men vs women, urban areas vs rural vicinities, and the list could continue. Political polarization follows on the heels. According to the Pew Research Center, the level of polarization in the USA grew exponentially since 1994, with the two major parties embracing ideological stances increasingly antithetical, and the Americans that demonstrate an increased intolerance against the supporters of the opposite political force. Catalyzing from this drift, Trump’s fierce rhetoric in targeting critics and dissidents added gasoline to the fire, demonizing movements such as Antifa, climate activists, and #MeToo, and even ethnic groups such as African-Americans and Latinos. The American powder keg burst out last May with the beginning of the Black Lives Matter (BLM) protests, started after the murder of the African-American George Floyd by the police of Minneapolis. Over the following months, while entire cities were torn apart by violence and clashes between law enforcements and BLM protestors, the words of the President, mostly in the shape of tweets, fomented the situation of urban guerrilla throughout the nation as well as the polarization of the public opinion. Similarly, an analogous scenario occurred with regard to the ambiguous way the Trump administration oversaw the pandemic crisis, especially communication-wise. In these instances, Trump lacked one of the key skills of a good leader, as according to what indicated by numerous leadership experts, which is empathy. Instead of envisioning a path towards national unity and social reconciliation, the incumbent President constantly focused on denigrating the ‘enemy,’ visible or not visible that is, and the political opponents, shaping an unprecedented election climate in the US.

On the contrary, Jacinda Ardern, the Prime Minister of New Zealand, made empathy her strength, combining it with pragmatic and effective governance. She was recently elected for a second term in October with 49% of the votes; a success that New Zealand has not seen in 50 years. The Labor leader, who had broken all records in May in terms of approval rate, won the re-election thanks to a sage handling of the Covid-19 outbreak, which led to the total elimination of the virus from the island. Above all, Ardern managed to win New Zealanders hearts and votes thanks to her remarkable effectiveness as a communicator. During her first mandate, she attuned resolve and pragmatism in decision-making with a great clearness of communication, faithfully complemented by a genuine humanity. A striking demonstration of this style of leadership occurred during the phases of hard lockdown, swiftly imposed at the very beginning of the outbreak when New Zealand counted only 102 total cases. By resorting to the use of social media, Jacinda Ardern remained in constant touch with the national public, seeking to explain in a simpler manner the details of the latest emergency measures announced during the previous press conferences. In this way, the PM succeeded in establishing a supportive relationship of trust with the New Zealanders in a moment of unprecedented crisis. Another emblematic episode that marked Jacinda Ardern successful path as a leader was her response to the Christchurch terrorist attacks of 2019 at the hand of a white supremacist, the most serious in the history of the country with 51 victims. On that occasion, the Prime Minister dealt with the potentially divisive issue by showing a calm and compassionate leadership, projecting the closeness of the whole New Zealand people to the Islamic community hit by the attacks, while rejecting any exclusive or racist rhetoric. In the wake of the shooting, Ardern gave one of the most evocative and inspiring speeches of recent history, mourning with Muslim community and the relatives of the victims. That day, Jacinda symbolically wore a black veil on her head as a symbol of her solidarity with the Islamic minority living in the country.

In the light of recent US electoral events and the critical situation of the upcoming post-Trump United States, President-elect Biden should pay particular attention to the leadership model offered by Jacinda Ardern, drawing inspiration from her decision-making pragmatism, but especially from her capacity of establishing a genuine, empathetic relationship with her people, which made of her one of the most effective leaders of our time. Even though the two countries are characterized by very diverse social and cultural backgrounds, Jacinda Ardern demonstrated to the whole world how empathy, humanity and compassion come to be fundamental skills if a leader want to build a unitary and reconciliatory vision for their country, capable of guiding a nation through unparalleled moments of crisis. America deeply needs it if it genuinely wants to heal, because, as Abraham Lincoln used to say, “a house divided against itself cannot stand.”

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