Donald Trump’s ascension to the most powerful office in the world has been astounding. For those of us who are still asking ourselves or the universe at large, “How the hell is this happening?” it is helpful—however slightly—to understand some things about power.
First know that there is a difference between personal power and positional power.
Personal power comes from things like this:
Positional power comes from things like this:
- Institutional support
- Discipline and reward authorization
- Hiring and firing authority
- Budget control
- Decision-making role
- Workload determination
- Wage determination
- Developmental and professional support
Personal and positional power are not mutually exclusive. You can have personal power without being in a position of power and you can be in a position of power but not have personal power, but you can also have both.
You might be tempted to think that this is a Venn situation here with the sweet spot of power being the conjunction of positional and personal power, but it’s more nuanced than that. Positional power can be a crutch. It can keep someone from effectively developing personal power.
Imagine a boss who threatens to fire her staff unless they work faster or longer hours. She is trying to use her position to influence performance. This kind of behavior might be excusable in a crisis situation, but if it’s chronic, that person in a position of power is relying on the construct of her position to be the source of her power, which weakens her personal power—assuming she ever possessed personal power at all. In the long run the deterioration of personal power or lack of personal power will erode a person’s legitimacy and expose her as a fraud, often motivating others to remove her from that position.
This is an important aspect of positional power to be aware of. It can be taken away. Nonetheless, positional power is legitimate and crucial. It’s strength comes from the fact that it has the full force of a institution behind it. To deny the power of the position is to deny the institution as a whole. So if someone were to, say, question the legitimacy of a sitting federal judge, he would be undermining the entire judicial system and its integral role in the separation of powers that the United States government is founded on.
It’s not uncommon for people to allow their positional power to cloud their better judgement—or even their humanity. Remember the Milgram experiment at Yale where participants posing as prison guards got drunk off of their power and began abusing participants posing as prisoners? Dangerous stuff, right?
That kind of abuse isn’t as common with personal power because personal power relies on an authentic means of influence like knowing what the hell you’re talking about and getting buy-in with objective information. Moreover, you have to put in the effort to communicate with those whom you hope to influence. That can be a challenge, which means the power is earned.
Having said that, personal power is far from incorruptible, as you’ll see below.
OK, we’re almost there, but in addition to understanding personal and positional power, there’s one more kind of power you need to know about. Let’s call it malignant power. It is malignant because it views power as a zero-sum game. Those who use it aim to take power from others to gain power for themselves.
Malignant power comes from things like this:
- Fear mongering
- Physical abuse
- Mental abuse
- Physical domination
Whereas positional power has the potential to be a corrupting influence on personal power, malignant power is an absolute corrupting influence on personal power. It eats personal power for lunch. Or at least tries to.
Malignant power is real, but the method and objective are rotten. Rather than influencing with reason or skill, it’s an exercise in undermining personal power. The objective is not for some greater good, but rather the accumulation of power itself, which in turn leaves others depleted of any ability to contribute productively.
Some people work hard to keep malignant power (esp. money) out of politics because they know that it’s an extremely effective tool for influencing people, but it’s never used to help the American people. The objective is purely selfish. When you bribe someone else, you are buying their power, thereby taking it from them for your own purposes. In a democracy we want power to empower others. Malignant power does the opposite.
Examples of malignant power abound. On a national scale, consider Mao Zedong’s Great Leap Forward, and on a smaller scale think of a socialite who has influence solely because of her wealth. Malignant power is based on a lie, wielded by a nitwit, and perpetuated by the morally and intellectually bankrupt.
As soon as someone surrenders to the temptation to use malignant power they are exposing their lack of personal power. As they continue to resort to malignant power, it becomes increasingly obvious that they possess no personal power. This eventually spins out of control.
Like positional power, malignant power is also removable. You can’t do that with personal power because it is inherent to the individual. Generally speaking, once someone has experience or knowledge, it’s not going anywhere (barring some sort ailment or accident). So people with positional and malignant power will always feel threatened by personal power.
What then is a Dear Leader to do when he continues to be harassed by people with personal power, pestering him with things like facts, science, and objective reasoning?
Well, if you’re the likes of Mao or Stalin, you use brute force to suppress, oppress, and kill off thousands upon thousands of people in an attempt to erase history and knowledge.
Or in a case a little closer to home (at least for the time being) you delegitimize facts, science, and knowledge altogether by assailing the press, academia, and research institutions. While you’re at it, you start manufacturing your own version of the truth (i.e., “alternative fact,” fake news, etc.).
Malignant power is based on a lie, wielded by a nitwit, and perpetuated by the morally and intellectually bankrupt.
Which brings us to you know who.
Obviously Trump’s power is malignant, relying almost exclusively on just three tools: money, threats, and fear mongering.
Imagine the entitled boy, born into wealth, and inheriting a tremendous estate. As he comes of age, his wealth buys him access into all the right social circles. Eventually he attracts the attention of a devilishly smart lawyer who shows him how someone with enough money can intimidate and threaten competitors or would-be partners out of their power. Moreover, this talented lawyer (here’s your example of how personal power is corruptible) shows him how he can use his great wealth to weather many accusations or litigation from those he swindles.
Trump went on to use these tactics to great effect. So great, in fact, that he was able to establish a coveted brand that more than made up financially for his failure as a businessman. Using this hollow brand and his wealth, he pursued the most powerful position in the world in order to reinforce his power. He won that position by adding fear mongering to his repertoire.
The foreigners are coming to rape and murder us. All of our current leaders are fools and thieves out to take away our money and rights. Violent crime is out of control and it’s getting worse.
That’s some scary stuff and for folks who are vulnerable, it’s highly effective at getting their attention and support. Never mind that none of it is actually true.
His success in using malignant power now places him in the White House, and that, my friends, ain’t nothin’.
Here we have someone who has been consistently rewarded for using malignant power who is now the leader of the free world. Add to this the fact his paucity of personal power is virtually complete and we have got one desperate individual. As he continues to call on his positional and malignant power his deficiency in personal power will become more and more apparent, and he will do whatever he can to protect his power knowing that with his party’s control of the House and Senate he has the U.S. budget and military at his disposal. It is the perfect storm.
I will leave you with two thoughts. The first is this quote from the grandad of leadership theory, John Gardner.
“We must not confuse leadership with power. Leaders always have some measure of power, rooted in their capacity to persuade, but many people with power are without leadership gifts. Their power derives from money, or from the capacity to inflict harm, or from control of some piece of institutional machinery, or from access to the media. A military dictator has power. The thug who sticks a gun in your ribs has power. Leadership is something else.”
The last thing I’ll leave you with is this little reminder:
Positional and malignant power can be taken away.