The white sheet has been taken off the head of the White House and it was called out yesterday by an unlikely group: President Donald Trump’s corporate colleagues. What’s transpired is both historic and consequential for policy, politics, and national security.
The President’s contention on Tuesday that there are “very fine people on both sides” of the Charlottesville KKK/Neo-Nazi rally and opposition protestors strained the sensibilities of many, but for business leaders like those on two presidential advisory councils, it was a bridge too far.
In 1981, President Ronald Reagan famously spoke about racism and the KKK saying that “A few isolated groups in the backwater of American life still hold perverted notions of what America is all about.” President Trump, by equivocating on issues surrounding the Charlottesville rally/protests and death of one anti-Klan/Neo-Nazi protestor and injuries to many more, has spawned a renewed sense of vigor into this lurking force and given them permission to leave the backwaters and migrate to main streets.
The decision of many business leaders to resign from presidential advisory councils, followed by the dissolution of the panels is historic in that the business community rarely, if ever, has bailed from a president—much less a president like Mr. Trump who claims to be simpatico with business leaders. These are his homies. He has said he’s friends with “all the best” business leaders. Not so much as of yesterday after the dismantlement of two councils. The President essentially front run the councils and said (as he is wont to do from his reality TV program) “your fired” before they all quit—even though half of them had already quit. It was a breach of professional courtesy for those who had given their time to the President. It was also a smarmy action, as were his comments about some of the departing CEOs—calling them grandstanders, for example—in the days preceding the dissolution. The President’s blunders and hair-trigger tweeting tirades from his Twitter bellicose bully pulpit are increasingly creating roadblocks to progress. And, a return to neither the 1860s or the 1940s is what most of us associate with “Making America Great Again.”
Policy—I have worked in several administrations. To be fair, these types of councils in most administrations are little more than ceremonial and the participants typically serve as presidential potted plant props for photo ops. It’s a co-branding sort of thing, in which the CEOs can be seen with access to a president and the president can be seen in a cordial, thoughtful, listening mode with successful businesspeople and world leaders in their own rights. That mutually beneficial marketing and a lesser amount of policymaking are now at least temporarily hampered. Business’s reassessment of the risk-reward equation and resulting step back from the President’s brand on racism, bigotry and white nationalism is laudable and appeasing to the vast majority of shareholders, employees and consumers. Time will reveal the implications for pro-growth policies that the business community, and many others, had hoped might come to fruition. These include, but are not limited to, tax reform and infrastructure improvements—both policies which could help fuel-inject the economic engine of our democracy. As anyone who has worked across the partisan political aisles can attest: all relationships matter, some more than others. The President has squandered some of those important relationships and therefore stifled his ability to call upon some business leaders to assist in potential progress related to his economic agenda.
Significant and to be watched closely are the markets which have been on a tear since the November elections—reaching more than 20 record highs, over a dozen since the inaugural on January 20th. Part of the market speculative buoyancy has been due to the anticipation of $1 trillion in infrastructure investments, tax reform and even opportunities to enhance The Affordable Care Act (Obamacare). While corporate profits continue to be fairly strong, as do some key economic indicators (like growth), it’s hard to imagine that a lot of the bubblicious euphoria of markets—filled with some Trump hot air—won’t begin to seep out of markets now.
Politics—Business leaders are fairly risk adverse in that they avoid taking political or partisan positions that negatively impact their bottom line. Incumbent politicians are even more risk adverse in some ways. Their risk assessment begins at swearing in and is measured by how many votes are gained or loss from the election count. Seven months in from January, the calculators in the Swamp are searing. Rumblings from within the cloakrooms and from behind closed doors are seismic and the frustration level increases exponentially weekly.
Dante famously wrote, “The darkest places in hell are reserved for those who maintain neutrality during times of moral crisis.” In particular, both House Speaker Paul Ryan and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell have disappointed many in their own ranks for their failures to be more direct in their criticism of the President.
A small but impressive group of responsible elected and former officials, including several from President Trump’s own Republican Party, have called the President out by name for his weak criticism of the KKK/Neo-Nazi protestors, and there is equal pressure on world leaders to do so. Increasingly, leaders are mustering the political courage and moral conviction to speak the same language in press releases that they speak in the cloakrooms behind closed doors. And there is the practical and basic math: if Republican leaders do not step up to define and reclaim what the party of Lincoln stands for in 2017, the Alt-Right/ KKK/Neo-Nazi/White Nationalists will. Complicity is a zero-sum game that sacrifices votes from the all important independents and from the moderate wing of the Republican Party itself. Tolerating domestic terrorism and violence against communities at large, silence or milk toast in the face of torches and hoodless Klansmen will not preserve the House majorities through 2018, anymore than bullying Senators will deliver a bulletproof majority in the Senate.
This is a struggle for the heart and soul of the Republican Party. As a result of the President’s actions, it’s more likely than ever that (if not impeached) he will face primary opposition leading up to the 2020 presidential election.
National Security: Global leaders continue to be gobsmacked by President Trump’s perceived utter ineptitude. Allies are disheartened, nations like South Korea terrorized and our detractors and enemies giddily entertained by the US chaos broadcast around the world.
Our global esteem, prestige and credibility as a moral nation are in rapid decline. The failure of the leader of the free world to speak out more immediately, forcefully, unequivocally and clearly against the extremists incites similar right wing elements across Europe.
The apparent shock and concern among senior advisors standing with the President in Trump Towers was palpable. Many in the media are provocatively suggesting if not downright recommending the resignations of those who disagree with the President. On simple moral grounds, I understand the arguments. It is increasingly obvious that the threats to our nation’s security are both foreign and domestic. Sworn to uphold the Constitution of the US and in the case of the President’s Chief of Staff, General John Kelly, against both foreign and domestic enemies, the threats to national security haven’t been as serious in decades. Who would replace such an honorable soldier and leader, a true patriot who has sacrificed his own son in defense of the very civil liberties and freedoms that our current Commander in Chief dismissed so lightly? The affronts to those who died fighting Nazi Germany, veterans and active military alike, keep mounting up. On the one hand, they see a manipulative, media maven game show host who enhances his own brand and credibility by surrounding himself with generals and veterans, and then discards them and their service on his morning constitutional tweets in less than 140 characters. On the other, he has been elected by the American people and is the President. And yet another, they have a military code of honor to uphold.
We owe them incredible debts of gratitude for their service in a most difficult, untenable situation. I am very much hoping our Generals, in particular, stay right where they are.
Since the election I’ve tried to look at President Trump in a positive light. Like the business leaders and a few noble politicians, however, I’ve crossed a Rubicon here. It’s just too much. Can things change for the better? Sure. Keep hope alive. But, the patterns and practice of the President aren’t particularly promising. He isn’t going to be re-wired at this point. As Green Day sings, “We live in troubled times,” and it seems hard to go any lower.