The reaction to the fall of National Security Advisor General Michael Flynn is just the latest example of Trump passing the buck – and not acting like a leader
By Austin Sarat / The Guardian / February 16, 2017
President Harry S Truman famously adorned his oval office desk with a sign that read: “The Buck Stops Here.” This sign was Truman’s way of signaling that he would accept personal responsibility for the decisions he made and for the consequences of those decisions. He understood that accepting responsibility was part of being an effective leader – and that it was an essential ingredient of a healthy civic life.
Anyone who has observed President Trump’s behavior, or listened to his words, knows that accepting responsibility will have no place in his Oval Office.
Trump is not the first president or politician to play the blame game. He is, however, turning blaming others and evading responsibility into an art form. From Truman to Trump, it seems as if America has moved from “The Buck Stops Here” to passing the buck.
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The reaction to the fall of National Security Advisor General Michael Flynn is just the latest example of Trump passing the buck. Speaking at a joint news conference with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, the president called Flynn a “wonderful man” and complained that: “It’s very, very unfair what’s happened to General Flynn, the way he was treated, and the documents and papers that were illegally, I stress that, illegally leaked.”
How odd that Trump, who heaped praise on Wikileaks during his campaign, would now tweet that “The real scandal here is that classified information is illegally given out by ‘intelligence’ like candy. Very un-American!” Instead of taking responsibility for appointing someone with a well-known reputation for being volatile and self-serving, the president blamed the leakers.
And, predictably, Trump pointed an accusing finger at what he called the “fake media” and complained that the furor over Flynn’s behavior was the fault of “people…trying to cover up for a terrible loss the Democrats had under Hillary Clinton.”
Trump has blamed immigrants for crime, even though there is little evidence to support his claims. He blamed judges on the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, who struck down his immigration ban, rather than accepting responsibility for a poorly conceived and drafted executive order, and he blamed massive voter fraud for his popular vote loss, rather than acknowledging that he is a governing with a limited mandate.
Accepting responsibility is a sign of emotional maturity and psychological resilience. We see none of that in Trump.
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Political leadership involves making decisions and doing things that sometimes do not turn out well. In a well-functioning democracy, leaders do not to habitually shirk responsibility for those decisions and the results they produce.
Taking responsibility acts as a brake on recklessness and invites caution of the kind that may prevent future mistakes. George Washington Carver captured one of the unfortunate consequences of refusing to do so when he observed that “99% of all failures come from people who have a habit of making excuses.”
The real danger of Trump’s persistent refusal to accept responsibility is not just that it will lead him to make more bad decisions and encounter more failures of the kind exemplified in the case of General Flynn. As Supreme Court Louis Brandeis reminded us almost one hundred years ago: “The government is the potent, omnipresent teacher. For good or ill, it teaches the whole people by its example.”
If Brandeis is right, Trump’s example will have corrosive consequences for our political and civic life, exacerbating trends of hyper-partisanship and social scapegoating and leading Americans to believe that deflecting responsibility is the new norm.
When political leaders shirk responsibility and blame others, they weaken and undermine the fabric of social relations. Unfortunately, this is one of the legacies that Trump will leave in his wake.
Austin Sarat is Associate Dean of the Faculty and William Nelson Cromwell Professor of Jurisprudence & Political Science at Amherst College