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What Created Donald Trump? A Leadership Vacuum, Says Historian Nancy Koehn

Donald Trump speaks at a rally in Council Bluffs, Iowa.
Matt Johnson/Flickr Creative Commons

What created Donald Trump?

It's a question that the Republican Party's establishment is forced to grapple with now that the businessman-turned-politician is dominating in the primary contests and hurtling toward winning the nomination this summer. 

It's also a question that Harvard historian Nancy Koehn—an expert on leadership—has thought a lot about. For her, the answer lies in a lack of direction and leadership on the level of the party itself.

"The Republican Party, in some sense, has been in disarray for at least fifteen or twenty years. It's that vacuum that's not only created room for that Trump engine to get running, but it's also created room for the virulent right, and in many ways, the obstructionist far right to have its way," Koehn said.

She pointed to what she called Trump's main "value proposition"—that is, his unwillingness to take the kind of big money that's become de rigueur in politics today—as an example of an area of public dissatisfaction he's been able to capitalize on. 

"All the people now running for president have been perfectly content to take the money and go. So guess what? We have a real mess," she said.

So what's needed to solve the party's leadership crisis?

"Some kind of even just palpable, viable measuring cup of courage," she said. "Some kind of sense you are following a star that is not just money and which way the political gust seems to be blowing."

"That is in terribly short supply," Koehn said.

Nancy Koehn is the James E. Robison Professor of Business Administration at Harvard Business School. 

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