Truth and Consequences

Key Takeaways

  • Leaders owe the people the truth.
  • The divide in politics is between reality and delusion, not liberal and conservative.
  • In the political world, decisions based on delusions lead to disaster.

As Joe Biden begins his presidency and we close the book on the Trump years, speculation has turned to the future of American politics and the Republican Party. Maybe Trump retains his hold on the Republican Party (the rest of the country has rendered its verdict), or maybe Republicans develop a convenient amnesia and the country, as we often have, just moves on.

Whether Trump stays relevant, though, is less important than whether or not we can overcome the real divide in American politics: the gap between reality and delusions. The only way we can reach unity or bipartisan consensus is if leaders in both parties fight misinformation. This means they must be willing to take on (and maybe even punish) members of their own party who insist on peddling delusions to voters.

A delusion makes for a lousy business model. The lesson of the Trump presidency is that it also makes for lousy governance. In the end, reality intrudes and cannot be spun away. Indeed, the recent violence at the Capitol is a direct result of deluded political rhetoric.

Trump told many lies as president, but none were weirder or more emblematic of his presidency than his lies surrounding election certification. Congressional certification of the electoral college is usually a non-event. It is a ceremony, with some occasional Congressional grandstanding, that does not affect the outcome.

But Trump became convinced that Vice-President Pence had the power to decide to throw out the electoral votes of states Trump lost. He repeatedly encouraged Pence to exercise that power — and then excoriated him when Pence did not act on his behalf. A violent mob of Trump supporters ransacked the Capitol in an effort to overturn the election. In addition to hunting for members of Congress, the crowd tried to find Pence so that it could lynch him in retribution.

The violence is horrific, of course, but I would like to focus on the absurdity of January 6: The vice-president does not have any authority by statute or under the Constitution to unilaterally decide an election. His role in certification is to open envelopes, announce the count and chair the meeting. The lynch mob that descended on the Capitol was angry because Pence did not do a thing that he does not have the power to do.

As a political scientist, I have found the post-election months bizarre. In reality, once the states certified results there was no legal way to overturn the election. All of Trump’s efforts (recounts, audits, lawsuits, blocking certification) were doomed. The last-ditch effort to blame Pence made no sense at all.

But it does make sense in the context of the last four years. If you look at the failures of the Trump administration you almost always find dishonesty, often absurdity. Whether it was the large scale disasters like its response to the epidemic or trivial things like Sharpiegate, there was a consistent pattern where President Trump made something up, everyone else scrambled in response and disaster often ensued. The January 6 riot is just the latest example.

Unfortunately, it is not just Trump. Un-reality has pervaded our public discourse in ways that have crippled public policy. For example, at the beginning of the pandemic Ohio Governor Mike DeWine received praise from most observers (including this one) for his handling of the pandemic. Since then, he has been besieged by members of his own party (taking their cues from Trump) who have driven out his director of public health and looked for ways to limit his power on public health issues. In undermining DeWine, Republican leaders influenced Republican voters because partisans take cues from their leaders. As a result, the governor has struggled to get Republican voters to take the epidemic seriously. The consequences have been deadly.

To his credit, DeWine has not bowed to these forces and tried to fight misinformation on the epidemic. Politicians often have trouble speaking truth to voters if it is truth they do not wish to hear because it endangers their elected positions. But, as the last year has shown, ignoring reality creates disasters. The difficult ongoing task for political leaders moving forward will be recentering truth in public discourse.

To do so, political leaders must not only speak the truth but be willing to call out those who do not and punish them for their bad-faith representations. This task is made harder in a system like ours, where party leaders cannot simply dictate to their members. However, politicians can take steps to marginalize members who peddle delusions by stripping them of committee assignments, withholding campaign funds (corporate America is ahead of politicians in this regard) or even expelling members of Congress who will not operate in reality.

In his inaugural address, President Biden called for unity, and that unity is possible. The divisions between liberals and conservatives are manageable. Honest liberals and conservatives can (and should!) disagree but can (and should!) come to reasonable compromises on public policy. However, there is no reasonable bipartisan consensus between reality and delusions.

Policies and politicians soaked in delusions are not compromise solutions. The “unity” political leaders should seek must be a unity based on science, facts and a shared reality. Anything else is just a disaster waiting to happen.

Subscribe to receive weekly leadership insights

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Plain text

  • No HTML tags allowed.
  • Lines and paragraphs break automatically.
  • Web page addresses and email addresses turn into links automatically.
CAPTCHA This question is for testing whether or not you are a human visitor and to prevent automated spam submissions.


January 28, 2021 at 2:32 pm

This is a 1 sided, intellectually dishonest argument; no mention of any of the lies that happened on the left (Harris calling Biden racist, then running with him; Biden denying allegations against his son then the FBI launching an investigation; Democratic party railroading Tulsi Gabbard who refused to bow her knee to the hypocrisy she saw).

The divide is not reality vs delusion. It is the left's intolerance of any dissenting opinion. These calls for unity are better interpreted total agreement with the left. Any dissenting opinion doesn't seem to be welcome. Politicians, nor business schools, do not own truth. Calling opinions you disagree with delusions doesn't justify your position. All should have seat at the table, including conservatives who have concerns about our current process and censorship.

February 10, 2021 at 9:06 am

Absolutely Mike. Absolutely. It is not unity that is desired, it is the complete abandonment of conservative principles and policies. And, to couch that true requirement in vague and intolerant jabs at people and leadership with whom the writer disagrees is the real dishonesty. Being conservative is not a character flaw. It is a policy position. And, it should be respected as such.

February 10, 2021 at 11:21 am
Nicholas Denton

Recall that the author is not denying hypocrisy from liberals/conservatives nor claiming that different political ideologies on how to handle gun control, the economy, foreign trade, etc. that are conservative are also delusional. The author is pointing out that delusion regarding the credibility of the election and the powers of Vice-President Pence (which have been disproven dozens of times over by both liberal and conservative experts), resulted in insurrection. In addition, America's poor COVID-19 early response was also fueled by delusion against the truths regarding the need to wear masks and quarantine that were provided by bipartisan experts in infectious disease and epidemiology.

The author is merely reminding the readers that everyone is entitled to their own opinions, but not their own truth. Having a different approach to solving America's problems is not cause for expulsion, however, it is questionable whether congress members of any party can be considered fit to represent the American people if they are not operating in the reality that is supported by bipartisan experts.


Here at Lead Read Today, we endeavor to take an objective (rational, scientific) approach to analyzing leaders and leadership. All opinion pieces will be reviewed for appropriateness, and the opinions shared are solely of the author and not representative of The Ohio State University or any of its affiliates.