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Pseudotransformational Leadership in Action

On June 18, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) declared all discussion concerning admitting Puerto Rico to the Union to be socialism. This rhetoric was fascinating for at least three reasons. First, Puerto Ricans are American citizens and have several times voted for statehood in island-wide plebiscites. Second, their current nonvoting delegate to Congress is a Republican. Third, the 2016 Republican Party platform, like its predecessors since 1940, embraced that aim. Nonetheless, McConnell argued that members of the Democratic controlled House of Representatives might try to make Puerto Rico a state in a move that “would give them two more Democratic senators.”[1] He went on to assert, “this is full bore socialism on the march in the House, and, yeah, as long as I am majority leader in the Senate, none of that stuff is going anywhere.”[2]

Readers might be forgiven for scratching their heads, searching for any connection between possible statehood for the island and socialism. In fact, there are compelling reasons to consider admitting Puerto Rico to the union and none of them raise any concerns linked to socialism, as indeed, the Republican Party has recognized for nearly eight decades. Nevertheless, it seems that McConnell did not care if his statement was nonsensical if it could associate Puerto Rican statehood with socialism, a trigger word for passionate GOP partisans. That McConnell’s remarks bore no relation to reality and contradicted his Party’s long-standing policy stance likely was not the point of them. Instead, he sought to link Puerto Rico and its residents with an age-old bugaboo of the Party’s base, while also implicitly encouraging GOP followers to consider the question of their status and standing vis-á-vis this fearful “other” with trepidation and anxiety.

In this orientation, McConnell echoed President Donald Trump who never indicated much interest in the suffering of the island’s residents following the devastation wrought by Hurricane Maria, a Category 5 storm, which hit the island squarely in late September and early October of 2017. Instead, Trump blamed them for the woes they did not create.[3] Trump’s rhetorical strategy othered that population and sent a message to his followers that these citizens—who were a different color and who spoke Spanish—were not really Americans and could and should be treated with contempt. According to Trump’s message, real U.S. citizens should fear for the social and fiscal costs the Puerto Ricans’ existence implied, if these individuals were not kept in their place. As Trump tweeted recently when he again criticized Puerto Rico as another hurricane, Dorian, threatened additional damage to the island:

We are tracking closely tropical storm Dorian as it heads, as usual, to Puerto Rico. FEMA and all others are ready, and will do a great job. When they do, let them know it, and give them a big Thank You - Not like last time. That includes from the incompetent Mayor of San Juan![4]

The President also suggested that the island had received $92 billion in federal assistance for the damage caused by Hurricane Maria that Congress had “foolishly” provided and that Puerto Rican officials and residents had “squandered away.”[5] None of this bore any relation to reality. In fact, the island has received $13.5 billion in aid to date against damage estimates exceeding $139 billion and there is no evidence that assistance has been wasted.[6] But, for Trump, as with McConnell, the facts concerning Puerto Rico and its people do not really matter. He is signaling his supporters to be anxious and angry about “others” of another skin color and language who were taking from them and misusing that support. That he lied was not the point, just as fact had nothing to do with McConnell’s screed about Puerto Rican statehood as connoting the advent of socialism. The intent of both lies was to roil and to reinforce the self-righteous fury of GOP supporters against a convenient and vaguely exotic scapegoat.

Trump recently added to the injury he had previously heaped on Puerto Ricans as they have struggled to rebuild in Maria’s aftermath. When Mexico and Congress did not provide funds to build an unneeded and unworkable wall along the U.S.-Mexican border, as he had long promised his supporters would occur, Trump ordered the Department of Defense (DOD) to reallocate construction funds to that project. DOD announced on September 19 that it would defund $3.6 billion of already approved projects, of which $402.6 million, or approximately 12 percent, had been targeted to Puerto Rico, for the proposed border wall.[7] Again, the symbolism was clear: Puerto Rico did not really critically need the support appropriated to rebuild its (U.S.) military facilities, while it was essential to build a wall. This was so, notwithstanding that Trump’s call for a wall first arose as a throwaway claim in his stump speech. Then, when it struck a chord with the GOP base, it became a central plank of his efforts to stoke fear among his supporters of immigrants as dreaded “others” who could and would usurp native citizens’ birthright, if permitted to do so.[8]

This brief review underscores two points. First, much of the rhetoric now fueling the GOP and sustaining its most ardent followers consistently reinforces concerns amongst those supporters that they are unjustly losing their rightful place atop the social hierarchy to interlopers and takers. Second, the costs of these lies for the populations targeted for scapegoating are real. However surreal and mendacious their rhetorical claims, these Republican officials have been consistently willing to visit suffering, injustice and cruelty on those they victimize in the name of political power.

Given this reality, it is instructive to note that leadership scholars have turned in recent decades to analysis of what has been dubbed “pseudotransformational leadership.”[9] Transformative or transformational leadership has dominated leadership studies since publication of James McGregor Burns’ classic book developing that construct in 1978.[10] In sum, Burns argued that,

In contrast to transactional leadership, transformational leadership is the process whereby a person engages with others and creates a connection that raises the level of motivation and morality in both the leader and the follower. This type of leader is attentive to the needs of followers and tries to help followers reach their fullest potential.[11]  

This model surely requires that leaders possess charisma, but it also assumes, indeed demands, that those in positions of official responsibility exercise that capacity in the best interests of those with whom they work. Scholars interested in Burns’ conception have recognized that some individuals who have possessed charisma have led their followers in precisely the opposite direction called for by his theory. These analysts coined the term “pseudotransformational leadership” to describe such leaders, who include, perhaps most famously, Adolf Hitler. As the author of the leading text on theories of leadership has recently defined the term, pseudotransformational leadership “… refers to leaders who are self-consumed, exploitive and power oriented, with warped moral values.”[12] These individuals are destructive and their charisma is deployed to garner personal power and to feed their narcissism and personal gains.

Nevertheless, these people cannot gain and maintain power without followers, and scholars have suggested that pseudotransformational or destructive leaders must have susceptible followers of two sorts to ply their schemes and secure power: conformers and colluders. Conformers “go along with destructive leaders to satisfy unmet needs such as emptiness, alienation, or need for community.”[13] Colluders, meanwhile, “may respond to destructive leaders because they are ambitious, desire status, or see an opportunity to profit.”[14]

This scholarship suggests that Trump, who constantly seeks attention, cannot abide criticism of any sort and attacks individuals and institutions who dare question his constant lies and missteps, but who apparently is viewed as charismatic by his followers, is a pseudotransformational and destructive leader. McConnell is a colluder in these terms, who sees alignment with Trump’s hatemongering and othering of minorities and immigrants as a tool to mobilize the Republican base to maintain personal and Party power. This analysis raises a profoundly important question on which I find myself reflecting constantly, since the costs to democracy and to targeted populations of this form of leadership are so high: How can one reach at least the conformers and help them realize they are being used and that their leaders really do not care about them or about the common good, but only about themselves and their power and neediness?

Nobel Prize winning economist and New York Times columnist Paul Krugman is pessimistic on this count. In a treatment of Trump’s recently launched attack on California’s long-time effort to regulate automobile emissions in the state, which has 15 million cars and trucks, by revoking its capacity to do so, Krugman noted:

I’m on a number of right-wing mailing lists. … Lately, I’ve seen dire warnings that if Democrats win next year, they’ll try to turn America into (cue scary music) California, which the writers portray as a socialist hellhole. Sure enough, Donald Trump this week effectively declared war on California on two fronts. … [Despite this rhetoric California] has the second-highest life expectancy, comparable to that in European nations with much higher life expectancy than America as a whole. … That is, as I said, California’s reality. But it’s a reality the right refuses to accept, because it wasn’t what was supposed to happen. … What is happening instead, of course, is that the usual suspects are trying to portray California as a terrible place - beset by violent crime and rampant disease - in sheer denial of reality. … What should we take from Trump’s war on California? First, it’s yet another illustration of the intellectual imperviousness of the modern right, which never, ever lets awkward facts disturb its preconceptions.[15]

In the context of the scholarship I highlight above, those aligning with Trump’s latest attacks on California—the most populous U.S. state, with the fifth largest economy in the world by itself—as “other” without questioning the provenance or factualness of his statements, are conformers. As with his ongoing attacks on Puerto Rico and Puerto Ricans, his claims concerning California apparently feed into his supporters’ fears of dispossession and a changing way of life, as does the use of the looming evil of the never-defined socialism represented by the populations of both Puerto Rico and California.

Both conformers and colluders can be defeated at the polls, as can demagogic pseudotransformational leaders. Nonetheless, for the long-term civic health and legitimacy of the Republic, it is critical that those among our nation’s leaders who are deeply aware of the dangers of this form of mobilization find a way to reach at least the conformers. The colluders—amoral hangers-on and lusters after power and status—we shall always have with us. The nation’s non-pseudotransformative leaders must find a pathway to present conformers with the truth and the facts that contravene the lies they so fervently support and in a fashion that occasions their reflection and not simply anger. They must do so not only for the personal edification and integrity of those they target, but also for the alleviation of the anti-democratic social cruelties and human rights abuses that group’s support has unleashed, and which Trump and the GOP are clearly content to deepen if it means maintaining power.



[1] Nichols, John. “ Mitch McConnell calls Puerto Rican statehood ‘Full-bore socialism,’” The Nation, June 18, 2019,, Accessed September 19, 2019.

[2] Nichols,

[3] Santiago-Arroyo, Cristian. “As Hurricane Dorian loomed over Puerto Rico, Trump turned to insults, not support,” CNN, August 30, 2019,, Accessed September 19, 2019.

[4] RealDonaldTrump. (2019, August 28). “We are tracking closely tropical storm Dorian as it heads, as usual, to Puerto Rico. FEMA and all others are ready, and will do a great job. When they do, let them know it, and give them a big Thank You - Not like last time. That includes from the incompetent Mayor of San Juan!” [Twitter post]. Retrieved from

[5] RealDonaldTrump. (2019, July 18). “A lot of bad things are happening in Puerto Rico. The Governor is under siege, the Mayor of San Juan is a despicable and incompetent person who I wouldn’t trust under any circumstance, and the United States Congress foolishly gave 92 Billion Dollars for hurricane relief, much of which was squandered or wasted never to be seen again.” [Twitter post]. Retrieved from

[6] Santiago-Arroyo, Cristian. “As Hurricane Dorian loomed.”

[7] Sonne, Paul. “At half-ruined Puerto Rico base, hurricane recovery funds pulled for Mexican border wall,” The Washington Post, September 19, 2019,, Accessed September 19, 2019.

[8] Anderson, Stuart. “Where the Idea for Donald Trump’s Wall Came From,” Forbes, January 4, 2019,, Accessed September 19, 2019. 

[9] Bass, Bernard M. “The Ethics of Transformational Leadership,” in J. Ciula, (Ed.) Ethics: The Heart of Leadership, Westport, Connecticut: Praeger Publishers, 1998.

[10] Burns, James McGregor. Leadership. New York: Harper and Row Publishers, 1978.

[11] Northouse, Peter. Leadership: Theory and Practice, 8th ed. Los Angeles: Sage Publishers, 2019, pp. 164-165.

[12] Northouse, Leadership: Theory and Practice, p. 165.

[13] Northouse, Leadership: Theory and Practice, p.345.

[14] Northouse, Leadership: Theory and Practice, p. 345.

[15] Krugman, Paul. “Trump declares war on California,” The New York Times, September 10, 2019,, Accessed September 19, 2019.