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Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump: Polar Opposites as Leaders

August 1, 2016

BernieLeadership is an odd beast. We tend to perceive it as a charismatic endeavour, where historically males have held “leadership” roles, from Genghis Khan’s Mongol empire in the late 1100s to Abraham Lincoln in the 1860s to General Electric’s Jack Welch during the 1980-90s.Trump

But there have been notable women leaders, fortunately rising in numbers during the 20th Century: Great Britain’s Margaret Thatcher, India’s Indira Gandhi, and Hewlitt Packard’s Meg Whitman.

At its core, leadership is about creating a vision that captures the hearts and minds of people, enrolling them to be part of a collective future. While some would argue that Hitler, Mao and Stalin were leaders, one distinguishing difference within the leadership arena is what could be called do no harm. For example, Adolph Hitler certainly had a followership within a segment of Germany’s population. However, he didn’t just seek to make Germany great again (to borrow from Donald Trump’s 2016 campaign) but more pertinently aimed to wipe out Jews, homosexuals, Gypsies and anyone else that didn’t fit with his vision of an ethnically pure country—an Aryan race.

Leadership, therefore, may simply be described as doing good for a cause, a community, an organization, or a nation. And it’s achieved through bringing together people, aligning them towards a common future, and motivating them to stay on course.


Enter the 2016 Republican and Democratic Primaries in the United States. Not only Americans but the entire civilized world has been subjected to the spectacle of a megalomaniac businessman and reality show star upending the Republican Party to beat out some initial 20 contenders for the party’s nomination for the national election in November. On the Democratic Party front, no such competitive process occurred, quickly narrowing down to a Brooklyn-born, muppet-like 72 year-old man taking on the first woman to run for national office.

The problem with Hillary Clinton is that she has brought a huge amount of baggage to the party. Indeed, while Clinton’s nomination was made official on July 26th, raising justifiable cheers from women that the presidential glass ceiling has finally been broken (or almost), she is in a very vulnerable position, given her contentious history dating back to the late eighties and nineties and extending to the present. Add to this the revelations in late July that the Democratic National Party (DNC) had tried to sink Bernie Sanders’ grass roots campaign. This raises more questions about the establishment, of which Clinton is an esteemed member, and the incredible lack of judgement and leadership shown by those in positions of power in the DNC.

Unfortunately, the manipulations and deceit perpetrated by the DNC have only added to Donald Trump’s anti-Clinton arsenal. There has probably never been a time in American political history where one of the two contenders for the presidency has used such a dark tone with the electorate—and with stunning effect. Trump’s make-it-up-as-you-go campaign from the start has been based on fuelling hate, fear and divisiveness in America. His campaign has turned out to be the most stupendous reality show ever produced in the United States, a dystopian Trump world that would astonish aliens from distant, galactic civilizations.

Mad Trump 2

Donald J. Trump, a 70 year-old man, has never read a biography of a U.S. president. This is a stunning revelation. That someone would seek the highest office in the United States, the most powerful country in the world, and not be familiar with both U.S. history and especially presidential history is pause for extreme concern among American voters. Throw in Trump’s pronouncement that he doesn’t need policy advice since he knows it all adds further fear to the mix.

Take a moment to reflect on this:

Real leaders do not engage in or support the use of fear tactics to enrol followers; they do not preach dividing a citizenry; and they do not paint a dark picture of the future.

You couldn’t have a greater contrast between Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders. Both have loyal followers, many of whom have not participated in the voting system in the past. They believe that they’ve been left on the side of the road as America’s economy has become increasingly characterized by winners and losers, with a growing gap between the small percentage of very wealthy people and a shrinking middle class. The destitute poor and working poor, who traditionally have low voting turnouts, continue to live in conditions found in the poorest developing countries. Indeed, it’s not as much about the One Percent (attributed to economist Josept Stigliltz) but instead the 20 individuals who own as much wealth as the bottom half of America’s 315 million population.

But the natures of their respective followerships are vastly different. Bernie Sanders is driven by social and economic justice reform. His campaign was about hope and change. “A future to believe in,” Sanders’ tagline, has been embraced enthusiastically by his followers, represented by a strong contingent of Generation Y. These younger people face a tough job market due to technology, the outsourcing of jobs to other countries, and the end of the traditional employment contract (employers and employees had reciprocal loyalties for fulltime, permanent work).

Defined benefit pension plans have largely disappeared (except in the public sector), while defined contribution plans have become the norm — provided one has secure employment. Indeed, expect millions of Americans to head into retirement in the coming years without any pension savings.


Only a few days before I wrote this leadership post I returned from a three week road trip with my wife to Canada’s East Coast. The last leg on the way home was two nights in New Hampshire and Vermont, home of Senator Bernie Sanders. We visited for a second time the gorgeous state legislative building in Montpelier. In both the congressional room and in a large room used for receptions with a huge Civil War mural, I noticed a crest. It read: “Freedom and Unity.” I asked our tour guide if that was Vermont’s motto. He replied yes, to which I replied, it was more mature and meaningful than New Hampshire’s “Live Free or Die.”

Freedom and Unity, in my mind, is what Bernie Sanders strove so hard to achieve. And indeed his campaign—movement—has had a very strong influence on the Democratic Party’s policy platform. The Party has benefitted hugely from Sanders’ leadership and relentless effort to address the country’s shrinking middle class, disenfranchised youth and minorities, rustbelt communities, and healthcare coverage gaps.

If Trump’s dark-storms-ahead campaign is purportedly true, why did Canadians jettison a prime minister, Stephen Harper, who had no vision for the country, save for creating a barbaric cultural practices hotline to rat out supposed questionable new Canadians (aka Muslims)? Justin Trudeau, albeit still relatively new to politics though a fast learner, used his “Sunny Ways” tagline to capture the hearts and minds of Canadians. While still early on in his mandate it seems to be working.

This is what real, effective leaders do: they create a positive vision of the future and enrol citizens or employees to work towards it. Unfortunately, in the United States millions of Americans feel alienated. Their Congressional representatives have extremely low approval ratings. The growing gap between the top one percent and the rest of the country is extremely warped. Corporations show no loyalty to national borders. CEO salaries are proportionately out of step with historical ratios to worker wages.

The last comment goes to Nobel prize-winning economist Joseph Stieglitz, who powerfully expresses the juncture at which the United States has arrived. This is now one of those moments in U.S. history where visionary leadership which enrols all Americans is so desperately needed.

“There are two visions of America a half century from now. One is of a society more divided between the haves and the have-nots, a country in which the rich live in gated communities, send their children to expensive schools, and have access to first-rate medical care. Meanwhile, the rest live in a world marked by insecurity, at best mediocre education, and in effect rationed health care―they hope and pray they don’t get seriously sick.

At the bottom are millions of young people alienated and without hope. I have seen that picture in many developing countries; economists have given it a name, a dual economy, two societies living side by side, but hardly knowing each other, hardly imagining what life is like for the other. Whether we will fall to the depths of some countries, where the gates grow higher and the societies split farther and farther apart, I do not know.

It is, however, the nightmare towards which we are slowly marching.”

― Joseph E. Stiglitz (from The Price of Inequality: How Today’s Divided Society Endangers Our Future)

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