What's Tony Thinking

Further Thoughts on MAGA Demonstrators and Gubernatorial Leadership


In a piece last week, in which I spoke of the various demonstrations pressuring Governors to “open-up,” I argued that core issues of the 2016 remain with us. The demonstrations may be bogus, but underlying issues remain.

I’ve continued to ponder the phenomenon of these protests, which represent a quite small percentage of the population, but one that has gotten a lot of attention. Partly that is due to the new criteria for what is “newsworthy,” cited by Ezra Klein (Vox), “Instead of ‘if it bleeds, it leads,’ it is now, ‘if it’s outrageous it leads.'”

But a deeper analysis is in order. And for that I am taken back to insightful work on leadership done by Edwin Friedman. In his book, A Failure of Nerve: Leadership in the Age of the Quick Fix (published posthumously in 2007, Friedman died in 1996, shout out to Keith Hammer on that updated info) Friedman talks about how highly anxious/ emotionally regressive groups, be they a family, congregation or nation, tend to give way too much attention to their most anxious and least mature members, while undermining sound and principled leadership.

I can testify that this happens a lot in churches. If someone, or a small cadre, is constantly troubled, upset, worried, anxious, angry they tend to get a lot of attention. They can turn an otherwise reasonable deliberative session into an emotional mosh-pit in no time. People rush to “take care of” the upset person by encouraging them to speak, by soothing them, by validating their points, however off-point they may be. As a wise hospital chaplain once said to me, “We have to have neurotics in the church; we don’t have to let them run it.”

Speaking here of a family (Friedman was, among other things, a therapist) he writes,”The herding family [group togetherness at all cost] will wind up adopting an appeasement strategy toward its most troublesome members while sabotaging those with the most strength to stand up to the troublemakers. The chronically anxious . . . family will be far more willing to risk losing its leadership than to lose those who disturb their togetherness with their immature responses.” Again, often true of congregations.

But in the situation at hand, what I’ll call “the MAGA demonstrations” (for want of another term), that means giving air-time and credibility to gun-toting state representatives like Jim Walsh, Matt Shay and Robert Sutherland who call people to “rebellion” and to law-enforcement officers (term used advisedly) like Snohomish County Sheriff, Adam Fortney, who refuses to enforce the current stay-at-home guidelines, claiming their are an infringement of people’s rights to life, liberty an the pursuit of happiness.

But this is one that cuts both ways, that is, at both sides of the current political polarization, right and left. The left has its share of super-anxious, immature people who clamour for air-time and attention and will tantrum if not getting it. Friedman offers this interesting observation about language shifts (remember he writes more than two decades ago).

“One of the most extraordinary examples of adaptation to immaturity in contemporary American society today is how the word abusive has replaced the words nasty and objectionable. The latter two words suggest that a person has done something distasteful, always a matter of judgment. But the use of the word abusive suggests, instead, that the person who heard or read the objectionable, nasty, or even offensive remark was somehow victimized . . .” Terming a word or remark abusive, which is fairly common usage now, certainly ups the ante.

The overall point, however, is the tendency of groups and societies that are chronically anxious and emotionally regressive, as America has become, to give credibility and attention to those who would once have been side-lined, ruled “out of order,” or ignored while undercutting sound, principled leadership. I suspect Governors Inslee, Widmer, De Wine and Hogan, among others, might have an “Amen” to that.

Friedman also argues that “at the head of every dysfunctional organization is a ‘peace-monger,'” that is someone willing to do anything to avoid conflict or tough issues. Which may be a backdoor way of explaining some of Trump’s appeal. He certainly cannot be accused of being a “peace-monger” or of avoiding conflict. He creates conflict, many phony, incessantly. But the point is that if you are weary of the mealy-mouthed, platitude proclaiming and the peace-mongering who don’t face tough issues, a guy like Trump can get traction. He appears tough and decisive. In reality, he’s a whiner, an example of the take-over by the immature.

The answer? Don’t empower the emotionally immature with attention or concession. Support sound and principled leadership, which is now being offered by many Governors amid lots of confusion and uncertainty.



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