Originally published 04/01/2016 on the Huffington Post
By any measure, Donald Trump is a major crisis of, for, and by the Republican Party. It’s certainly a crisis of its own making. In doing so, the Republican Party has violated every single one of the key tenets of Crisis Management.
Since 1982 when seven people died after taking Tylenol capsules that were laced with cyanide, I helped start the modern field of Crisis Management. Since then, Crisis Management — the systematic process by which organizations and institutions prepare for major events that threaten to harm them, their key stakeholders, and the general public — has developed enormously.
We pretty well know why crises happen and what organizations, institutions, and even whole societies can and need to do to lessen their susceptibility to crises of all kinds. The basic problem is not the lack of fundamental knowledge about Crisis Management, but the lack of will that is critical for its effective implementation.
Early in my research, and that of others, it became clear that there were a number of key activities that organizations and institutions needed to undertake if they were to be prepared before major crises struck. If they didn’t do these beforehand, then often it was too late for them to recover. In a number of prominent cases, organizations and the careers of individuals were destroyed.
To mention only two, they needed to set up specific mechanisms that would pick up the inevitable Early Warning Signals that accompany and precede virtually all crises. Along with this, they needed to actively probe their systems for potential crises and thereby hopefully prevent them long before they actually occurred, the best possible form of Crisis Management.
For another, they needed to design, put in-place, and continually test and update Damage Containment Systems before major crises occurred. If they didn’t, then a crisis would continue to cause unmitigated harm. BP’s oil spill in the Gulf is the classic worst-case example. Before the well was capped, over 200 million gallons of oil were spilled. In other words, merely reacting inevitably makes the effects of crises far worse.
Against this background, the Republican Party couldn’t have done more to cause a crisis for itself, the nation, and the world than if it had intentionally set out to design and promote a candidate for President in the likes of Donald Trump. (Ted Cruz is not far behind.) Indeed, many have in fact accused the Republican Party for doing precisely this.
Since the 1950’s, its unrelenting messages, both coded and uncoded, of division and hate have not only splintered the Party but the country. In short, the Republican Part has created a culture that has directly spawned the likes of Donald Trump, Ted Cruz, etc. In this regard, Trump and Cruz are not aberrations. They are the end result of forces that have been brewing unabated in the system for over 60 years.
One of the worst things that faulty cultures do is that they render Early Warning Signals moot and irrelevant. For months, it was apparent that Trump posed a major threat to the Party and to the country. By the time that Mitt Romney and others stepped in and sounded the alarm, and thereby tried to contain the damage, massive harm was already done. A BP-like oil spill of monumental proportions has swamped the Party, and even worse, threatens the country and the entire world.
In retrospect how many how many different groups does a candidate have to insult—clear Early Warning Signals—before it’s readily apparent that major efforts in Damage Containment are needed? But then, the Party repeatedly deluded itself with faulty rationalizations such as “Trump is just a flash in the pan; he’ll burn himself out; he’ll never be taken seriously; etc.”
(The Donald’s latest gaffe about women who have abortions needing to be punished is only the latest lame attempt in Damage Control, too late and too little after the fact.)
Make no mistake about it. If someone like Trump is elected, the damage will be enormous. The worst fear is that it will not just be long lasting, but irreversible, certainly to the Republican Party, and worst of all, to the entire nation and the world.
Since it did an awful job in preparing for a major crisis, the Party is banking on its last hope of Damage Containment, an open convention. But even if another candidate is eventually selected, the all-too-real fear is that it will only provoke waves of violence from those who hanker for authoritarian leaders such as Donald Trump and Ted Cruz.
One of the key lessons of Crisis Management is that no crisis is ever a single, well contained, and isolated crisis. Instead, if an organization or institution is not prepared for a wide variety of crises, then no matter what the initial crisis, it invariably sets off an uncontrolled chain reaction of other just as bad, and in many cases, even worse crises. In the case of the Republican Party, trying reactively to contain the damage to one crisis threatens to set off even worse ones.
The moral is that the costs of not preparing for major crises are always higher and worse than those of proper prior preparation.