The American View: Two Out of Three Ain’t Cutting It

The Trump Campaign’s spectacular “voter fraud” press conference – the one held behind a landscaping business in suburban Philadelphia rather than in the lobby of a swanky luxury hotel – has proven to be the gift that keeps on giving. The company has, according to the Guardian, started selling branded merch with Trump-related puns on it to leverage its unexpected time in the national spotlight. As Victoria Bekiempis wrote: “‘MAKE AMERICA RAKE AGAIN’, read one sticker on sale on the company website on Monday. It also featured the phrase ‘LAWN AND ORDER!’” Simply brilliant. 

Funny as it is, the American press have been dying to know as to how this sort of unforced error occurred. How did a team of professional campaign staffers confuse a well-known hotel in downtown Philly with literally anything else? It took me less than three seconds to find the right venue with nothing more than a search engine, so … what the hell really happened? 

At time of writing we still don’t know. Erin Vanderhoof wrote in Vanity Fair: “… in typical Trumpworld fashion, nobody associated with the campaign or the White House has stepped in to explain exactly why they wound up in front of an industrial garage door for their Waterloo. Someone must have screwed up, but no one will admit how or why …”

I … ah … have my suspicions. To be clear, I don’t personally know anyone on the Trump Campaign Team. I’ve confident that I’ve never met Rudy Giuliani. I’m certainly not a “Washington insider” (whatever that is).  That said, I believe there’s something awfully familiar about how these high-profile teams have been staffed that strikes me as 100% on-brand for traditional American business hiring practices of all possible political persuasions.

No single political party has a monopoly on bad decisions or poor leadership. That’s not to say that some aren’t indisputably worse than others, but … 

To support my assertion, consider the so-called “White House COVID-19 Supply-Chain Task Force” from back in March. Experts had warned that the United States desperately needed to stock up on personal protective equipment – like gowns and masks – because much of the supplies in the “national stockpile” had expired. Rather than turn to expert civil servants, President Trump put his underwhelming son-in-law Jared Kushner in charge of organising the replenishment project. Critics rightfully pointed out that this made no sense; Jared had neither medical nor procurement experience. He was utterly out of his depth and brought no useful skills to the process. 

Jared’s assignment could have been nothing more than a high-prestige sinecure. Make him the notional “head” of a team of seasoned experts and he’d be able to bask in praise and glory without having to perform any real work. Annoying, but acceptable. That’s not what happened. 

Jane Mayer described task force volunteer Max Kennedy Jr.’s peculiar experience in The New Yorker thusly: “On his first day, [Max] showed up at the headquarters of the Federal Emergency Management Agency and joined around a dozen other volunteers, all in their twenties, mostly from the finance sector and with no expertise in procurement or medical issues. He was surprised to learn that they weren’t to be auxiliaries supporting the government’s procurement team. ‘We were the team,’ he said. ‘We were the entire frontline team for the federal government.’ The volunteers were tasked with finding desperately needed medical supplies using only their personal laptops and private e-mail accounts.”

As terrifying as that is, it helps make my point. President Trump had no idea how to fix the PPE shortage problem and didn’t trust his experts, so he delegated to a trusted aide: Jared. Jared, in turn, had no idea how to fix the PPE shortage problem either and also didn’t trust the experts, so he delegated the work to a coterie of old school chums. Every delegation degraded command-and-control while it diffused responsibility until the whole project ended in humiliating failure. I’m not particularly interested in the particulars of task force debacle so much as the insane business practice that it illustrates: what happens when senior decision makers delegate authority to unqualified, inexperienced chums rather than to qualified strangers. Or, why leaders in the hot seat gamble their reputations on dangerously unqualified chums when there are plenty of qualified professionals around who are ready and eager to do the job right. 

This is the entire point of a professional civil service: maintain a cadre of experienced and apolitical experts to get the work of government done. 

It is, I submit, all about deeply irrational mistrust, a staggering lack of vision with a huge measure of Dunning-Kruger Effect. It’s not just simply cronyism, as it’s in one’s enlightened self-interest to hire and empower qualified cronies. Heck, having a new executive bring along their entire coterie to a new company is standard operating procedure for American corporate life. Competent people recruit and retain other competent people as a matter of practical survival. No, the problem I’m on about seems to manifest most often when incompetent people find themselves Peter Principle’d far above the last of their professional competencies.

On a side note, I’m assuming that this isn’t a uniquely American habit. I’d like to think that it’s less prevalent elsewhere, although I shouldn’t be surprised to confirm that it’s a universal human failing. What I can say with confidence is that the practice is rampant in American organisations. 

As another example, a major tech company that I worked at some years back was renowned for its self-sabotaging cronyism. I’d only been at the organisation for a month when I learned that many of the critical process improvement projects our team had been tasked to implement were indefinitely stalled because the director of the service desk would neither implement reforms nor enforce performance standards. The division’s entire tech support operation was weighed down by one crucial weak link in the supervisory chain. This seemed odd … at first.

When I asked why this director was allowed to remain in her position whilst processes under her remit were consistently failing, our leader let slip that the service desk director was a prior help desk worker herself. She’d never been a supervisor, let alone a manger. She’d had zero leadership experience when she was catapulted out of the cubicle farm and into a directorship. Set up for failure, really; she was a lovely woman in all respects, but she was in way over her head and couldn’t appreciate what she was screwing up. She wasn’t a fool; she simply lacked perspective.

To be clear, I thought the forever anonymous director was an absolutely delightful person. She never meant anyone harm and strove to do her job well. She’d committed no sin by getting promoted above her capabilities; the VP sinned against all of us by over-promoting someone who wasn’t ready and then left her to founder without training, mentoring, or support. 

I asked why the poor woman had been over-promoted and the truth came out: her husband – also a director in our division, it turned out – was an old golfing buddy of the divisional vice president. When the VP needed trusted leaders to fill his many open director billets, he hired his personal friends rather than promote the most-qualified experts in each department. When he ran out of friends, he hired his friends’ spouses. To be fair, some of these hires were quite effective … by happenstance, not by design. The overall effect was to hamstring the entire division. It also made it impossible for anyone who wasn’t already a close personal friend of the VP to promote past manager. Operations suffered and customers were irritated for the VP’s comfort level. 

Once the arrangement was made clear, I wasn’t particularly surprised. Back when I was still in the military, a senior officer described this process to me as “hiring on Cs” … specifically, selecting key leaders based on their likely Compatibility with the local culture (first and foremost), their personal or professional Connection with the next-higher leader next, and their professional Competence least of all. Junior positions might require high marks in all 3 Cs, since the work had to get done, whereas the number of Cs required for a senior leadership billet dropped off sharply the higher up in rank you climbed and the closer you got to the Big Boss. At the top of the hierarchy, compatibility was king. The Big Boss’s comfort was more important than any other factor … which led to some awful scandals and not nearly enough dismissals. 

Still, this was how Things Are Done Here for many units (and, later, businesses) that I visited. The higher up the hierarchy you went, the more alienated from the line workers the leader got until their anxiety, paranoia, and mistrust consumed them. While it wasn’t universal, I met far too many senior leaders who flat-out didn’t trust their subordinates not to betray them. To mitigate their fear, they placed trusted confidents in key roles as overseers. More administrative prison guards than leaders. Those key cronies, in turn, did much the same, exacerbating the gulf between the functioning workmen and the dysfunctional bosses. 

That’s what I suspect happened behind the scenes with the Trump Campaign Staff. The key leaders at the top of the team were selected – Kushner style – for their cultural compatibility rather than for basic functional competence. Hence, the inexcusable (and side-splittingly funny) gaffe of booking the wrong “Four Seasons” establishment for a crucial public appearance. Someone competent would have doublechecked the booking and fixed the error. Someone inexperienced, gormless, and overconfident likely assumed they were right without checking and created a public relations own-goal that will titillate history students for the next century.

“Wait, really? They couldn’t tell the difference between a swanky downtown hotel and a tiny gardening shop on the city’s outskirts? Were they drunk?”

If we’re going to assign blame to anyone for this, I blame Meat Loaf. Not that the pop superstar had anything personal to do with the state of modern American business (as far as I know). Rather, because a huge number of senior leaders who are currently holding power grew up singing along to Meat Loaf’s epic power ballad Two Out of Three Ain’t Bad during their influential youth. [1] Generations of someday power-brokers must have memorised that line “two out of three ain’t bad” and mis-applied it decades later to their hiring practices. 

Of course, I might be wrong here; Meat Loaf’s timeless hit could be entirely coincidental. This internationally embarrassing practice of leadership self-sabotage might just be the logical result of oblivious incompetence begetting greater incompetence through an inability to distinguish between camaraderie and capability. A simple, preventable, and obvious human failing that should have been caught and corrected long before the first camera crews arrived at the car park between the crematorium and the adult novelty shop. Thankfully, it wasn’t … and the campaign team’s disingenuous voter suppression effort died feebly on the fertilizer-stained asphalt. 


[1] Famous for its Elvis-satirising chorus: “I want you … I need you … but there ain’t no way I’m ever gonna love you … don’t be sad … ’cause two out of three ain’t bad.”

Pop Culture Allusion: Jim Steinman (writer) and Meat Loaf (singer), Two Out of Three Ain’t Bad (1978 song)

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