Even Donald Trump is learning that nice guys don’t always finish last

If you want to get ahead, be nice to receptionists. As life rules go, it’s certainly simple, but should you happen to be a thrusting young wannabe tech entrepreneur it’s also potentially rather lucrative. Last week the American tech investor Eileen Burbidge confessed to operating what she cheerfully called a “no assholes allowed” rule; she won’t put money into any startup, no matter how hot the concept, if the founders are rude to her receptionist when they come in for a meeting. Nice guys, it seems, don’t always finish last.

It’s easy to see why spiky personalities could be considered a business risk, given the bitter and expensive personal disputes between founders that have dogged some of Silicon Valley’s biggest startups. But Burbidge’s receptionist rule seems to be about more than that. To grow a business, she explained, you have to be able to attract people – staff, customers, other investors – and that means treating others with respect no matter who they are. “We don’t tell people how to behave but do believe one’s talents will go further when combined with good manners and decorum.”

As starchily old-fashioned as the words “manners and decorum” always sound, what Burbidge is saying could hardly be more contemporary in a world increasingly obsessed by notions of power and responsibility, of how the big shot treats the little guy. Like the age-old advice never to marry a man who is rude to waiters, the receptionist rule is less a test of good manners than a chance to see how people behave in circumstances where they think they have power over others – even if it’s just the person bringing them a coffee.

Natural bullies, given half a chance, will invariably be tempted to throw their weight around to make themselves feel important. Natural leaders, by contrast, should seek to do the opposite. Twee as it sounds, that makes common-or-garden pleasantness a useful way of telling the difference between those who talk the talk about standing up for the little guy, and those who actually walk the walk. And that’s probably as good a way as any of understanding quite what’s going on in the American presidential race at the moment.

Just when you thought nothing Donald Trump said could shock you any more, last week he delivered what’s probably as close as he will ever come to an apology.

It was possible, he conceded at a rally in North Carolina, that sometimes in the heat of the moment “you don’t choose the right words or you say the wrong thing. I have done that. And believe it or not, I regret it – and I do regret it – particularly where it may have caused personal pain”.

Since he didn’t specify which of a potentially rather long list of offensive zingers he regretted, the whole thing may need taking with a pinch of salt. But whether or not he meant it, what’s significant is that Trump nonetheless felt obliged to say it.

Lagging in the polls, he no longer has supporters queuing round the block for his rallies in quite the same way. The swaggering, hectoring tough guy act that proved so attractive to millions of Americans who felt themselves downtrodden – so long as he was bullying people they didn’t like, from Mexican immigrants to Hillary Clinton to female reporters asking difficult questions – seems to be wearing thin, now the supposed scourge of the establishment has taken to attacking people such as the parents of Muslim soldiers killed in Iraq.

The trouble with cheering on a bully is that there’s always the lingering fear that he might turn on you when he runs out of other victims, and that’s the fear the Clinton campaign has begun exploiting, with campaign ads highlighting the damage ordinary Americans feel Trump is doing. One, featuring the parents of a child with spina bifida talking about how it felt to see a would-be president publicly mocking a disabled reporter for his disability, has the father saying that it “showed me his heart. And I didn’t like what I saw.”

It’s not just the little things that resonate for politicians but the treatment of the little guy, which is why the former chief whip Andrew Mitchell had to resign when accused of being rude to a policeman at the Downing Street gate – no matter how murky the allegations turned out to be. And why people who couldn’t have cared less what the ex-cabinet minister David Mellor once did in bed with an actress cared very much when a tape surfaced of him pompously haranguing a London cabbie over his choice of route. (“You’ve been driving a cab for 10 years, I’ve been in the cabinet, I’m an award-winning broadcaster.”)

Whatever else he got wrong in that infamous “traingate” video, Jeremy Corbyn was at least careful to praise Virgin staff as he sat on the floor of the train attacking their employer.

Strength has always had the capacity to become a weakness, especially when used against the wrong people. But perhaps the current rage against anything that could reasonably be called a powerful elite (alongside much that reasonably couldn’t) simply enables us to see it more clearly than usual. How ironic, if the very emotional backlash that gave us Trump in the first place was eventually to contain the seeds of his destruction too.

Facebook Comments