If you’ve ever tried to cram for the SATs after partying all senior year, you know how desperate Donald Trump’s current situation is. He is running for his political life. He’s running out of gas. And he’s running out of time.
Meanwhile, Joe Biden is calm, cool, and collected—and seemingly cruising to victory.
To help understand Trump’s dilemma, I'm reminded of leadership guru Steven Covey's analogy of an "emotional bank account" that explains how you can only maintain positive relationships with others by proactively building trust.
Here’s how it works: “If I make deposits into an Emotional Bank Account with you through courtesy, kindness, honesty, and keeping my commitments to you, I build up a reserve,” Covey explains in The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People. “Your trust toward me becomes higher, and I can call upon that trust many times if I need to. I can even make mistakes and that trust level, that emotional reserve, will compensate for it.”
The opposite, Covey warns, results in your emotional bank account being overdrawn. And that is exactly where Trump finds himself in the summer of 2020. Trump has made significant withdrawals against the nation’s emotional (and physical) bank account.
He’s like an abusive deadbeat dad who misses years’ worth of birthdays but thinks he can make up for it all with one weekend road trip.
Establishing credibility takes years. That’s why he is now (desperately) running for office, while Biden is standing for office.
In truth, Trump’s doing worse than even Covey might predict. When it comes to building and sustaining relationships, “breaking even” isn’t nearly enough. There has to be a lot more deposits than withdrawals. Marriage experts, citing Dr. John Gottman’s “magic ratio,” argue that for a marriage to be sustainable, you have to have five positive interactions for every negative one.
In their book The Power of Bad, John Tierney (listen to my conversation with him) and Roy Baumeister suggest that a more achievable 4-to-1 (positive-to-negative) ratio is sufficient.
Forget 5-to-1 or even 4-to-1: Does anyone think Trump is anywhere close to a positive-to-negative ratio?
While Trump’s campaign coffers might be overflowing, he hasn’t stored up much good will in his social rainy-day fund. In fact, he’s in the red.
OK, Trump’s die-hard base (the people who are, in a sense, “married” to him) frequently have their erogenous zones massaged. But nobody else does, and his base’s 40 percent of the vote isn’t going to be enough.
To complicate matters, not all deposits or withdrawals are created equal. As Baumeister notes, “…it’s not like if you murder someone, four times helping an old lady across the street is going to make up for it.”
Trump has put kids in cages, said there are good people on “both sides” of a racist march and counter-march, attacked a gold star family, mocked a disabled reporter, ordered police to use tear gas to “clear” protesters for a photo op, and suggested that a former congressman is guilty of murder (just to mention a few of the “greatest hits”). These are not offenses like forgetting to put the toilet seat back down or wearing black shoes with a brown belt.
In relationship terms, what Trump has done is the equivalent of, I don’t know, paying off a porn star after having sex with her while your wife is pregnant.
Trump’s multitude of sins (including an economy that is circling the drain) can’t be absolved by a dozen roses… or even a stimulus check with his signature at the bottom.
In a recent column, I argued that Biden might be the only Democrat who could stand up to the “defund the police” nonsense and get away with it. At a time when toughness and confidence are needed, he has earned the right not to pander (particularly when it comes to the African-American community).
Never mind the fact that he served as a loyal vice president to Barack Obama for eight years. Does anyone remember how he launched his campaign for president? It was with a video about Charlottesville. At the time, I thought it was something of a non-sequitur. Today, he looks prescient.
Now, let’s not kid ourselves, Biden is far from perfect. Indeed, he’s utterly gaffe-prone. But as Covey points out, one of the benefits of accruing a large Emotional Bank Account is that you can “even make mistakes and that trust level, that emotional reserve, will compensate for it.” Not only do his past deposits cover a multitude of sins, they also give Biden room to distance himself from the more extreme wings of the Democratic base.
Another Democratic nominee might be jumping off the cliiff right now, but Biden has enough banked leverage to avoid committing political suicide just to appease the left wing of the Democratic Party.
And even with his surplus of social capital, Biden’s still making meaningful deposits, while Trump continues to overdraw his account. On Monday, Biden met with George Floyd’s family in Houston. “He listened, heard their pain, and shared in their woe,” Benjamin Crump, the lawyer for Floyd’s family, said. “That compassion meant the world to this grieving family.”
Like a long-term investor, Biden now has the luxury of living off of the compound interest generated from years of steadily investing in his reputation. Conversely, Trump, who focused on nearsighted, short-term payouts (in the form of immediate-gratification ego boosts from his base), is underwater with most of America. Don’t take my word for it—the polls don’t lie.
For years, Trump seemed to defy the rules. But during this re-election year, Trump has been slammed with the emergency triple threat of health care, economics, and (now) race/policing. He didn’t have the foresight, or discipline or inclination, to establish the requisite credibility or political capital to handle any of these situations. And now, he’s stuck.
Trump may have money, but he’s bankrupt—morally. He has squandered the last three years by alienating swing voters instead of growing his base. If Biden holds on to win this election, it will restore the sense that political gravity has reasserted itself. And it will give an old-fashioned notion a new life.
In the long run, you reap what you sow.