The Brainstorm Long Read: the toxic triangle may explain why conduct and behaviour that would see any other person held to account does not apply here

The case of Donald Trump is a curious one. The man who has held the highest public office in the United States for the last 1,000 days is one who has made a habit of repeatedly undermining, breaching and violating societal values, expectations of standards in public office and quite possibly the US Constitution. The current occupier of the White House has, on the record, admitted to predatory behaviour and sexual assault. Even before 2016, Trump was no stranger to controversy but, despite these facts, he became the 45th president and that's when reality took a decidedly uncomfortable holiday. 

Trump's inaugural speech described a dystopian America, one in which Trump pledged to end what he described as the "American carnage". The language was emotive and pitted American against fellow American. What was being portrayed by Trump was a very dark America that bore little resemblance to what was evident to the rest of the world – America was, and still is a land of opportunity.

But after nearly three years in office, much of it mired in controversy, Trump is still the president. In the words of Michael Moore, how did this happen? Why is Trump still in the White House? The rules by which people are governed and the societal expectations under which people co-exist seem to be temporarily suspended. We are living in a post truth world so all bets are off. What we thought we knew? Turns out we didn’t. Or perhaps we did.

From RTÉ Radio 1's Morning Ireland, Niall O'Dowd from IrishCentral.com on the controversy surrounding the size of the crowd at Donald Trump's inauguration

A 2007 academic paper by Art Padilla, Robert Hogan and Robert B Kaiser entitled The Toxic Triangle: Destructive leaders, susceptible followers, and conducive environments posited an unholy trinity of sorts. This trinity creates a vicious cycle ensuring that when destructive leaders get into power, they are unlikely to be removed from power no matter what they do. The case of Trump fits with this model. Once the toxic triangle gains any momentum, it is practically impossible to dismantle the three dimensions that give the Toxic Triangle life.

Trump exhibits almost all of the characteristics of destructive leaders. He is charismatic. Like it or not, he knows how to win a crowd and his message appeals to his followers. He has, on occasion, engaged in personalised use of power. Leaders with a need for personalised use of power will use their authority to stifle dissent, and will describe rivals in such a manner as to demean, demoralise and dehumanise them whilst at the same time, promoting in-group solidarity and cohesion. His use of Twitter is a prime example of his personalised use of power in which he has referred to the media as the enemy of the people, a powerful way to delegitimise the media.

Trump is also a narcissist. Narcissism operates on a continuum, from healthy to unhealthy. In extreme cases, narcissism can be quite destructive and Trump provides credence to this proposition. Perhaps one of the most critical factors of destructive leaders is an ideology of hate. Trump’s specific brand of ideology of hate is no secret and he has leveraged his ideology of hate against Latinos, people of colour, the Muslim community, the media and the LGBTQ community including serving members of the Armed Forces that are transgender.

The RTÉ Brainstorm podcast on why career advancement may owe much to narcissism, Machiavellianism and psychopathology

The second dimension of the toxic triangle requires susceptible followers to feed the destructive leaders’ ego. Susceptible followers fall into two groups: conformers and colluders. Conformers follow and support the destructive leader out of fear and acquiesce in an effort to protect themselves from their leader’s most destructive impulses. On the other hand, colluders share similar values and beliefs espoused by the destructive leader.

Two further sub groupings for colluders are acolytes and opportunists. Acolytes are "true believers" to the cause. They don't see their leader as destructive or toxic, but as a someone delivering on a promise. The relationship between the destructive leader and acolytes works as long as they place a priority on serving their needs.

The opportunists are a different animal. Opportunists give the impression that they share the same values and beliefs. Publicly, they will advocate for the destructive leader and will support and defends his/her position if called to do so. However, opportunists are politically savvy. They will play the game as long as there is a financial or promotional opportunity by doing so.

From RTÉ Radio 1's This Week, political consultant John Weaver on the relationship between Donald Trump and the Republican Party

The reluctance of the Republican Party to intervene or rein in their incumbent may be reflective of more opportunistic strategies than any form of solidarity with Trump. As evidenced throughout his presidency, it is practically impossible to challenge Trump because of the power bestowed on him through the Office of the President and his narcissistic disposition. Personalised use of power is a tool the destructive leader will use to destroy anyone that does not agree with his vision and rhetoric. This is exacerbated by an environment that enables the destructive leader to thrive: a conducive environment.

The conducive environment has four distinct dimensions: instability, perceived threat, cultural values, and absence of check and balances and institutionalisation. Instability reflects an environment that is unstable or dynamic. Decisions are often made with little or no transparency or scrutiny because time is often of the essence. Over time, decisions are made with little or no consultation, oversight or scrutiny. Under Trump’s presidency, the personal wealth of Americans has grown, personal taxes for the most part have been reduced and he has delivered on what he said he would do when he got into office.

The perceived threat of something is also a catalyst for the destructive leader to both make decisions quickly without scrutiny or challenge but also to motivate followers. The more volatile the perceived threat, the less scrutiny from those in the upper echelons. Perceived threats to the US economy from China, Europe and Canada provide sufficient justification to engage in protectionist policies that have resulted in the potential for trade wars with these countries.

From RTÉ One's Nine News, a report on the escalating trade war between the US and China in May 2019

Destructive leaders can emerge quite easily in organisations where the cultural values have always supported unilateral decision-making and reduced scrutiny. Dark leaders are common in cultures that endorse the avoidance of uncertainty, collectivism and high power distance. Cultures that emphasis cooperation and loyalty, in-groups and out-groups can be referred to as collectivist. High power distance is recognised in cultures where there is a discernible gap between the rich and poor, the highly educated and the less well-educated. In these cultures, destructive leaders can amass significant power. This might explain why the rust belt in the US voted Republican rather than Democrat in the 2016 election. The feeling that they had been ignored and forgotten by the Washington elite only served as a catalyst for Trump to win over this disenfranchised corner of America.

The lack of checks and balances emboldens the destructive leader's power and influence. In countries where there is no separation of powers, totalitarianism and dictatorship are common place. A culture of dependence and apathy will only strengthen the power concentration of a destructive leader and in this vicious cycle, it will lead to greater follower dependency, weakening opposition, dissent and institutionalisation.

What does this mean in the context of Trump? Nobody can deny that he has followers that will never abandon him no matter how extreme his rhetoric. There may be an impeachment hearing, though the US Senate are unlikely to support removing Trump from office as they would lose power and influence in doing so. The conducive environment is constantly being shaped by the actions of Trump and only serve to ensure he may actually be re-elected rather than removed from office.

Power corrupts, absolute power corrupts absolutely and then, there's Donald J. Trump

Is there a slim possibility that he won't be elected? Possibly, if the 25th Amendment to the Constitution is invoked or he resigns. Given the public derailment and Twitter meltdowns we are witnessing, all bets are off. The toxic triangle may help explain why the 45th president of the United States still occupies the White House despite many instances of conduct and behaviour that would have seen any other person held to account. Power corrupts, absolute power corrupts absolutely and then, there’s Donald J. Trump.


The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ