Trump, the golden calf and leadership pitfalls

April 26th, 2016

As the Republican convention draws near it’s clear that Trump is a force to be reckoned with. But what sort of leader is he? A bully, yes. An egomaniac, yes. An outsider, yes. One who seems to speak for a certain segment of American society, yes.

But at the risk of being tagged #loser, I’d like to mention another kind of leadership he represents. One that we persons of faith can learn from. Trump is a Moses knockoff. An Aaron. A fabricator of a 21st century golden calf.

You remember Aaron, brother of Moses. He’s the designated communicator for Moses — who has some sort of speech impediment. A leader in his own right, Aaron holds down the fort while Moses meets with the LORD for 40 days and 40 nights atop Mount Sinai. Meanwhile, the Hebrew people, newly freed from slavery, await at the base of the mountain. They have fasted, purified themselves, even abstained from sexual relations to be ready for whatever message Moses might bring back to them.

But Moses is gone a long time, “shamefully long” and his absence is keenly felt by the newly freed slaves. The people, fearful and anxious, “assemble against Aaron” and demand that he make them “a god who will go before us” because Moses, “the man who brought us up from the land of Egypt, we do not know what has become of him.” Aaron tells the men to collect gold from their wives, sons and daughters. They do and he forms it into a molten calf, a common symbol of the deity in the Ancient Near East. Upon seeing it, the once fearful people are psyched! “This is your God, O Israel who brought you up out from the land of Egypt.”

Meanwhile, Moses, two covenant stones in hand — including the injunction against worshipping graven images — descends the mountain with bad news ringing in his ears. God has clued him in about what’s happening at the base of the mountain. A party with a golden calf, an idol, at the center of it. He’s already talked God out of destroying these people and starting over with Moses-clones. “You want everyone to think you’ve brought us out of Egypt just to destroy us?” He argues for their safety and wins. He’s a uniter with a calm head.

But by the time he arrives at camp he’s angry too. And here I paraphrase: “What were you thinking? What happened here, Aaron?” Moses asks. “I told you I’d be back. You were supposed to help the people wait for me and stay in a purified state.” “Sorry, bro,” Aaron says. “They wanted it. And I gave them what they wanted.”

This sort of “give the people what they want” leadership approach was a chief concern of the British when it came to American self-rule. They worried people wouldn’t have the decency or civility or good sense to self-govern. Trump’s success seems to prove them right.

On the other hand, Trump’s supporters, like the fearful Hebrews, have some legitimate beefs. The Hebrews were fearful and seemingly leaderless and they demanded certainty. Trump supporters, meanwhile, have found that the economic recovery has passed them over. The world is changing faster than they are used to. Even though Moses didn’t abandon his people, Trump’s primary supporters — blue-collar, white Americans without college degrees — feel as if they have been abandoned. Fueled by their fears and anxieties and anger — plus over the top media coverage — Trump has given these people what they seem to want: unadulterated anger toward Muslims, immigrants, women and those who dare to disagree with him. Abandoning “political correctness,” he has become the mouthpiece for a toxic stew of racism, xenophobia and sexism.

Even so, there are still things we can learn from him. Namely, what not to do. Here are five leadership pitfalls we can learn about from Trump, Aaron and other Moses knock-offs.

  1. Don’t be fooled by glib communication. Just as Aaron was the dedicated communicator for Team Moses, Trump’s talking points have dominated and shaped the Republican campaign. He speaks at a fourth grade level with words and mottos that are catchy, easy to repeat. What’s missing is truth. 
  2. Lies are not leadership. The 2015 Lie of the Year award was bestowed upon Trump. Not for one whopper mind you. There were too many to choose from. They lumped all of Trump’s prevarications together. Together, the bunch is staggering. And award-winning. Likewise, Aaron told Moses upon his return — The calf simply emerged from the fire! He left out his role in shaping and creating it. 
  3. Weak leadership preys on people’s vulnerabilities. Notice it wasn’t Aaron who was to free the slaves. He was just supposed to say what Moses told him to say. But left alone to fill the leadership gap, his limited capacity for leadership was illuminated. Likewise, Trump is preying on the vulnerabilities of the economically passed over. And those who fear change. 
  4. The best leadership doesn’t just give people what they want. Like Moses, they balance needs and wants with the greater good. Leaders are responsible to a higher calling, a higher vision, a higher authority. They have a responsibility to do what’s best and not necessarily what’s easy. Aaron had let fearful people in camp run wild and get out of control. His “give them what they want” approach actually kept people from dealing productively with their questions and fearful anxiety. Similarly, Trump’s approach puts a stamp of approval on people’s desire to scapegoat instead of work for real change. 
  5. People-pleasers like Aaron don’t make great leaders. Bullies, the flip side of people-pleasing, don’t either. 

America has some real economic and racial problems. But funneling that into “fear of the other” is not going to solve our problems. Any more than killing off Jews in Europe solved German financial woes. It’s not clear if there is a Republican Moses at this time. But one thing is clear. It ain’t Trump. At the very least, he’s a Moses knockoff. At worst, he might be the golden calf itself.

Rebekah Simon-Peter blogs at She is the author of The Jew Named Jesus and Green Church.

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