Yet now is the time, at the moment of presidential inauguration, for that to change. The new president can set the tone by how he reaches out to those who oppose him. Those who will work against President Donald Trump also face a critical choice of how to frame their disapproval — and their own vision for the country.
If leadership is to be more than mere power-wielding, as the political scientist James MacGregor Burns wrote, then leaders must respect the humanity of their followers. Leaders must pursue not only their own interests but, at the same time, work to meet followers’ wants and needs.
But why should President Trump or those who oppose him bother to be more than power-wielders? An idealistic answer might be that our leaders want what is best for the people, and so they will magnanimously cooperate to serve the public interest.
A more realistic answer acknowledges that although the president has a tremendous amount of power, it is not absolute and he must find ways to influence followers beyond his formal power. That is, in order to lead effectively, he must gain and exercise informal power as well, including that which can only be earned through respect given by citizens and other leaders. The power of relationships, networks, and social capital cannot be underestimated.
Further, there is still another kind of power. It is moral authority. It is the power that comes from being on the side of justice and mutual respect. How Trump and those opposing him will appeal to justice is more than a question of idealism — it has to do with the capacity to shape the country’s future. That is why citizens working for causes they believe in play a significant role in the current moment.
So how can President Trump lead us toward a healthy political system, and how can others follow suit? It will require a sea-change in attitudes, words, and actions from all sides. We need not expect the president or congressional leaders from either party to make this shift out of mere goodwill or from some sort of conversion experience. Instead, we can hope that they will realize — eventually — that getting things done in Washington will require exercising both informal and moral power. At the same time, citizens can influence the political process — exercising their own social capital and moral leadership.