Ruined Reputations: Trump’s Fault or Weak Boundaries?
Two opinion pieces both gave credit to the Commander in Chief for co-opting leaders and wrecking their reputations.
Neither piece mentioned the concept of boundaries, but both refer to what I consider to be the ultimate case study of weak professional boundaries.
See “Strengthening Personal Boundaries in Professional Settings” for an explanation or refresher course.
In a nutshell, boundaries help you protect and manage your emotional energy, personal identity, intellectual integrity, moral groundedness, and sexual appropriateness. Boundaries can keep you safe from abuse.
The health of professional boundaries are defined by the level of integrity of your individual identity and separateness while maintaining interactive working relationships.
Let’s look at the two op-eds that I think missed the mark in their analysis of the self-sabotaging behavior of the many past and current members of the Trump administration.
First published was James Comey’s New York Times op-ed “How Trump Co-opts Leaders Like Bill Barr” on May 1, 2019, where he describes the deterioration of Attorney General William Barr’s professional integrity.
Comey describes how Barr and Rosenstein slipped into the clutches of the president:
“Accomplished people lacking inner strength can’t resist the compromises necessary to survive Mr. Trump and that adds up to something they will never recover from.”
Glasser offers a similar argument, putting the blame on Mr. Trump:
“In his short time in politics, Trump has managed to shred the careers, professional integrity, and dignity of many of those who worked for him.”
I beg to differ.
Donald Trump did not shred anyone’s career or diminish their integrity. Regardless of what else he’s done, he doesn’t have the power to destroy someone’s reputation as they innocently watch from the sidelines. These individuals must take full responsibility for their own professional and moral disgrace.
He’s not a wrecker of reputations.
Trump is a magnet for weak-willed self-seekers, who hold the foolish notion that if they grovel at the feet of an authoritarian, they’ll gain power and finally get the approval they’ve been seeking their entire lives.
What is this we’re seeing? Romantically captivated individuals who watched their new beloved be unfaithful and abusive to past partners but are in deep denial that it will happen to them? This time it’ll be different?…that they have the ability to please him where others have failed?
“Just as striking as Trump’s own crude efforts to humiliate, however, are the numerous examples of those who seem to abase or degrade themselves in their efforts to curry favor with the President.”
“Such behavior, of course, has long been a bipartisan feature of life in Washington, where access to power can do bad things to the character of those who seek it.”
Yes, the U.S. government has seen its share of brown-nosing on both sides of the aisle, but she’s off the mark characterizing this current behavior as the same old bipartisan D.C. business as usual, and that this extreme behavior is the result of access to power.
Glasser’s explanation, in a nutshell, is that seeking power destroys character.
But the behavior we’re witnessing from the Trump sycophants isn’t simply a result of them seeking power.
There’s more to it.
Susan Glasser goes on to ask the question on everyone’s mind:
“Barr’s whole performance, in fact, was so over the top, so Trumpian, that it immediately led to an array of tweets and op-eds wondering why Barr, a once-respected figure in conservative legal circles and a relatively uncontroversial Attorney General during the Presidency of George H. W. Bush, would choose to end a distinguished career in such a fashion. After all, Barr, like Graham, hadn’t even liked or supported Trump when he ran for President.”
The so-called “lack of inner strength” mentioned by Comey is one simple way to describe these Cabinet members, but how could those who have climbed the ladder of political and corporate success be so lacking in their inner strength?
Some will argue that “boundaries” is merely another term for “inner strength” but a discussion of the characteristics of weak professional boundaries can help us understand the subordinates of the 45th president.
Weak boundaries are a symptom of the dysfunctional condition of Codependency. Anyone with abuse in their background will suffer some degree of codependency.
When a child is abused and their boundaries are violated they can develop a compulsion to try to (finally) please and gain the approval of the abuser. That gets played out with the people in their adult life.
In this scenario, emotional and intellectual boundaries are most relevant.
It’s common to experience a re-creation of family dynamics in our work environment. It’s uncanny how we are drawn to and hired by bosses who have characteristics similar to one or both of our parents or an early life caregiver.
This happens because we’ve developed an attraction and attachment to certain familiar personality types. Of course, that often happens with intimate partners also.
A key element of codependency is our lack of choice. With our inclination to replay the dynamic we feel powerless to choose a different, healthier response to the people we are drawn to.
And we allow ourselves to be abused.
Neither Comey or Glasser offered a substantial hypothesis on why these members of the administration would throw out every morsel of self-dignity to do the dirty work of someone who will toss them aside in a micro-second.
I’ll give a pass to the early adopters. To some degree, they had no way of knowing the eventual reality (though there were plenty of red flags).
Comey also said:
“Amoral leaders have a way of revealing the character of those around them.”
It’s true that unethical leaders are a bad influence and can provoke some degree of out-of-character behavior. But we can’t solely blame a bad-boy boss for the extreme deceit, manipulation of facts, and outright obstruction that we witnessed from members of the Trump administration.
What’s to blame is weak boundaries. A healthy adult is capable of self-management and good judgment. But with boundaries that are weak and permeable, one becomes easy prey.
Abusers and authoritarians are experts at recognizing who can most easily be violated and therefore on-boarded to be complicit.
While reading the list below, imagine how an unethical bully can exploit weak boundaries.
Signs of Weak Professional Boundaries…
- Going against personal values or integrity in order to please others
- Trusting Untrustworthy people
- Letting others define you
- Feeling bad or guilty when you say “No”
- Not speaking up when you are treated poorly
- Getting attached to those who are unkind
- Taking responsibility for someone else’s behavior
- Covering for someone else — Lying for them or minimizing their misdeeds
- Covering up for someone — Risking your reputation to protect another
- Accepting behavior that you are uncomfortable with and don’t want
- Not trusting your own judgment
- Difficulty making your own decisions
- Overstepping and invading the boundaries of others
- Blaming others rather than taking responsibility for your choices
- Not recognizing when you’re being manipulated
One long-term Cabinet member had healthy enough boundaries to maintain a decent level of autonomy and navigate the relationship without submission.
“Once Trump finished touting his administration’s accomplishments, he turned to several of his newly-minted Cabinet secretaries like Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue. Each of those Cabinet secretaries lavished praise on Trump, which he accepted without comment but with a broad smile.” — CNN
Chief of Staff Reince Priebus was over the moon: “On behalf of the entire senior staff around you, Mr. President, we thank you for the opportunity and the blessing that you’ve given us to serve your agenda.”
CNN’s Chris Cillizza continued:
“The whole thing reminded me of a scene directly from the boardroom of “The Apprentice.” A group of supplicants all desperately trying to hold on to their spots on the show by effusively praising Trump — each one trying to take it a step further than the last. And Trump in the middle of it all, totally and completely pleased with himself.”
Cabinet members fell into lockstep like the Stepford Spouses they seemed to have become…
Except for Jim Mattis. I watched the video clip of the meeting when it originally aired in 2017 and noticed the glaring difference in the message of General Mattis.
James Comey noted:
“Mr. Mattis never actually praises the president, always speaking instead of the honor of representing the men and women of our military.”
“But he’s a special case, right? Former Marine general and all. No way the rest of us could get away with that. So you praise, while the world watches, and the web gets tighter.”
I disagree with Comey that being a former Marine allowed Mattis to “get away with” not sucking up and lying to the world about the president. Mattis had healthy boundaries and he had the awareness and skill to chose his words with integrity.
For the record, the Director of National Intelligence, Dan Coats had his boundaries intact as well as he said: “Good morning Mr. President. The intelligence community has never faced such a diversity of threats to our country and we’re going to continue to provide you with the very best intelligence so that you can formulate policies to deal with these issues.”
Surely the rest of these high-level government officials aren’t the pathetic boot-lickers they appeared to be? Or are they?
Mattis, referred to as the “last adult in the room,” stayed as Secretary of Defense as long as he could tolerate it.
When the general’s integrity reached its limit he exited without hesitation. And once again chose his words wisely in his brilliant resignation letter — crafted to tactfully call out the president’s errors and shortcomings without directly pointing a finger.
The president tweeted stating Mattis was “retiring with distinction,” but a few days later he sent a tweet claiming that the retired Marine general had been “ingloriously fired” by President Obama and that he (Trump) had given Mattis a second chance.
That tweet, however, seemed to have zero impact on the reputation of General Mattis. That’s because of how he handled himself all along — Healthy boundaries do pay off!
Comey’s conclusion seems to be a lack of inner strength, and a lack of character implied by comparison to the character of General Mattis.
Glasser concludes it’s simply D.C. business as usual — the power-hungry willing to do what it takes.
Why do these Cabinet members stay on as long as they do, tolerating the daily humiliation and yet not hesitating to pull out alternative facts to defend their Commander in Chief?
Lack of inner strength?
A history of abuse?
All of the above?
We can only speculate…at least until the “tell-all” books are published — maybe one of them will have the awareness and the courage to share their motives (maybe their regrets…and hopefully lessons learned)
In the meantime, the ex-cabinet members can get a few tips from this article:
6 Common Traits of Narcissists and Gaslighters — How narcissists and gaslighters emotionally manipulate and exploit victims. See #4 Rule Breaking and Boundary Violation
And for their summer beach reading, they’ll want to check out the in-depth, Boundaries After a Pathological Relationship.