The Fall of the Big Men

by | Jun 5, 2020

This article is part of our Scenarios Week series, exploring and expanding on the Long Crisis Scenarios. You can find the other articles in the series on our Scenarios Week page.

Like so many, I’ve spent three years wondering how Donald Trump won the Presidency; he’s never served in public office, has a track record of business failure, and an estranged relationship with the truth. The pundits talk about campaign strategy, social media, the tainted Clinton brand and contempt for the political ‘establishment’. There is merit in all of the above.

The simple truth is this: he won because we didn’t think politics mattered anymore.  

Until recently, he seemed to be heir to Tony Blair’s ‘Teflon’ crown; gaff after obscenity after cock-up and still he stood, Republicans unwilling to speak out and Democrats unable to land their punches.

Things are changing thanks to a perfect political storm where three weather fronts meet: protest, Presidential overreaction and the preceding COVID-19 crisis.


I couldn’t bring myself to watch the video of George Floyd’s murder, but I was sickened and angry. The protests that followed have moved me. On Saturday, we stood on the corner outside our apartment building as hundreds of cars drove past, horns honking and protesters of every color, creed, and background spilling out of windows with fists raised. My eyes filled and my arm lifted in solidarity.

I spent Sunday collecting together examples of leadership that gave me hope this protest might be different and bring lasting change. Erika Shields, Atlanta police chief on the streets speaking with protesters to ensure they felt heard. Genesee County Sheriff, Chris Swanson, who asked protesters what they wanted him to do. “Walk with us,” they said, so he did. Killer Mike, a rapper who cried in pain, imploring his fellow Atlantans to stop burning their own houses down and instead plot, plan, strategise, organise and mobilise. Atlanta Mayor, Keisha Lance Bottoms, who talked to her city as a black mother.

Presidential overreaction

And then came Monday. In a speech in the Rose Garden, Trump declared himself the President of Law and Order, name checked the second amendment, and invoked a 200 year old law to impose military force on Americans exercising their first amendment rights. Minutes beforehand, his Attorney-General casually sauntered into Lafayette Square, open shirt, hands in his pockets, kicking the grass as he oversaw orders to the assembled police and military to fire tear gas and rubber bullets on protesters to clear a path for the President to pose with a bible outside a church in a nod to his Evangelical base.

These are the words and actions I have seen from tyrants in ‘other’ countries. We all know where this can end.

“We all know where this can end…”

We turned off the TV, put on our shoes and stood on the same corner we’d watched the protesters on Saturday. My eyes again filled with tears – of fear rather than hope. I spoke only to ask my husband to hold me.

And then a funny thing happened. The divide and conquer tactic favoured by ‘Big Men’ like Trump, which he’s used so effectively for three years, had the opposite effect.

That evening, Rahul Dubey, a DC resident was sitting on his stoop when protesters were cornered by police on his street. He did something he had never done before; he let 80 strangers into his home so they wouldn’t be arrested for breaking the curfew, helped them wash tear gas from their eyes and ordered in pizzas. We will see many more Rahul Dubeys in the weeks ahead.

“This fight belongs to us all”

The protests are growing and it’s estimated over one million could gather in DC on Saturday. Common ground has been forged by gun-toting libertarians opposed to federal government overreach, Christians appalled by a blasphemous stunt, and fair-minded Americans rocked at the sight of fellow citizens being beaten and choked exercising their first amendment rights.

Finally, in the last couple days, the quiet Generals have spoken: a chorus of concern for the Constitution and the future of American ideals led by heavyweights like Mathis and Clapper

What started as a protest for the civil rights of black people has become a fight for all our civil rights. ‘Black Lives Matter’ remains the slogan we rally behind, but Trump helpfully demonstrated why this fight belongs to us all.

Preceding COVID-19 crisis

These events are not just happening against the backdrop of 400 years of injustice; they take place as a global pandemic grips the country.

A virus that started in Wuhan, China succeeded where an Access Hollywood tape, an impeachment, and the countless examples of failure and nepotism have failed; his approval ratings are down, he’s trailing in the polls, Lindsey Graham is in danger of being unseated, and Republicans worry Trump will not only lose them the Presidency, but the Senate, too.

That COVID-19 disproportionately impacts black communities in terms of infection, mortality, and unemployment is a factor in what’s happening, and 40 million out of work Americans swell the ranks of those available to report to the protest frontline, day after day after day.

The underlying reason that coronavirus finally dislodged Trump’s Teflon crown, though, is because crisis exposes poor leadership.

Let’s turn to Trump’s natural stomping ground; the boardroom. Ground breaking work by Deborah Pretty shows that the only factor determining whether a company wins or loses following a corporate crisis – whether a plane crash, product contamination, human rights abuse or oil spill – is the quality of its leadership. Counterintuitively, companies with exceptional leadership see their fortunes grow during a crisis.

“A crisis offers the rare opportunity for a company’s stakeholders to see the leadership perform”

The explanation is simple: a crisis offers the rare opportunity for a company’s stakeholders – investors, partners, clients – to see the leadership perform. In the good times, their perceptions are informed guesswork. In the bad times, they get to see what the CEO is made of.

The scale of this leadership ‘dividend’ is staggering and growing over time; in Pretty’s original 2000 study, the crisis winners gained 10% of shareholder value, doubling to 20% by 2018. The losers lost 15% in 2000, also doubling to 30% by 2018.

Where crisis is concerned, you win big – or you lose bigly.

Pretty showed that the winning leaders – just like those examples I gathered on Sunday – respond immediately and decisively, gather the facts so they don’t have to correct themselves later, acknowledge what they don’t know, are open, and make amends for their mistakes.

“Where crisis is concerned, you win big – or you lose bigly”

We saw none of these leadership traits in Trump’s response to the coronavirus. 

Trump won in 2016 because we had given up on politics. The coronavirus made us all sit up and pay attention again. Like investors watching a CEO, Americans observed in horror a response characterised by denial, deflection of blame, false claims about ‘miracle drugs’, refusal to lead by example, the appointment of a son-in-law with as much chance of bringing peace to the Middle East as solving PPE supply chain issues, and daily outbursts at reporters asking reasonable questions.

The protests on US streets are uniquely American; the plight of black Americans is shocking and must be addressed as a matter of the highest priority. But the bigger story of which they are a significant part is universal and quite literally playing out in every country in the world simultaneously.

We have known for generations that our old models of leadership are not fit for purpose. A once in a multi-generation pandemic offers a global leadership control experiment and we’ve seen what we like, and what we don’t. The winners are rising to the top – the losers are showing the limitations of their Big Men style. If only Jacinda Ardern could run for President…


  • Rachel Briggs OBE is a distinguished researcher and writer on issues of national security, working with companies, governments and civil society. She is Chair of the Board of Directors of the Global Center on Cooperative Security, an Associate Fellow of Chatham House and a member of Jim’s Legacy Advisory Council at the James W Foley Legacy Foundation. She was founding Executive Director of the nonprofits Hostage US and Hostage International, which provide support and care for hostages and their families. Rachel was awarded an OBE in recognition for services to hostages and their families. Read her blog at

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