Since Inauguration Day, I have been troubled by abdication of moral responsibility on the part of business leaders who have lent their reputations to President Trump. So congratulations to Merck chief executive Kenneth C. Frazier on his resignation from Trump’s American Manufacturing Council over the president's manifestly inadequate response to Charlottesville. Interestingly, the president lashed out by tweet at Frazier, who is African American, for resigning. He did not lash out at Disney CEO Robert Iger or Tesla and Space X chief Elon Musk, who are white, when they resigned from his Strategic and Policy Forum because of the president’s decision to pull out of the Paris climate accord.
The New York Times's Andrew Ross Sorkin gets it absolutely right when he asks why there have not been more resignations from Trump’s various advisory councils. As I’ve discussed before, the president has again and again traduced American values of international cooperation, of integrity in government and of human decency. No adviser committed to the bipartisan American traditions of government can possibly believe he or she is being effective at this point. And all should feel ashamed for complicity in Trump’s words and deeds. I sometimes wonder how they face their children.
After this weekend, I am not sure what it would take to get these CEOs to resign. Demonizing ethnic groups? That has happened. Renouncing international agreements that have supported business interests? That has happened. Personal profiteering from the presidency? Also happened. Failure to deliver on ballyhooed promises? That has happened as well.
Of course, business leaders might argue that while they also loathe all that is wrong with the Trump administration, they can be more effective by remaining involved. Give me a break. Anyone who thinks that by attending a meeting less than monthly with 30 people in a room they are moving the nation is engaged in egotistical self-delusion of a high order. Yes, technical advice on specific issues might be a valuable contribution. But there is no reason providing such advice requires lending one’s prestige or that of one’s company to Trump. Does anyone doubt that even if he resigned from the Trump council, any official at the Treasury, Fed or SEC or for that matter in the White House would be happy to take Jamie Dimon’s call? Or that the head of the Commerce Department would take a call from Jim McNerney, the former CEO of Boeing? Or that GE Chairman Jeff Immelt would not be able to “participate in the discussion on how to drive growth and productivity in the US” (his rationale for failing to resign) without being on Trump’s manufacturing council?
There is another argument I have heard CEOs make: “My company cannot afford to alienate the president and face retaliation.” They should note that Merck’s stock price rose yesterday (despite the president’s disparaging tweet) as an indication that this fear is overblown. But more importantly, if this is what corporate America’s leaders believe, it is a damning indictment of the president and of their own cowardice. If a substantial group of CEOs resigned en masse, what realistically could the president do other than tweet his frustration and hopefully ultimately take a lesson.
There is a long tradition in American history of business leaders as statesmen and moral leaders. Business played an important role in the passage of the Marshall Plan. Business leaders provided important support when the Supreme Court has upheld affirmative action. Business has long been a supporter of cooperation with other nations to promote prosperity. Most CEOs were strong and effective supporters of the Paris climate agreement. At the local level, business leaders have fought to strengthen public schools and to resist discrimination against minorities.
This is the tradition that needs to be honored today.
In the Obama administration, I frequently counseled that “business confidence is the cheapest form of stimulus.” I resisted populist rhetoric that vilified corporations, instead favoring approaches that emphasized accelerating economic growth and competitiveness for the benefit of all. I still favor such an approach. But given the cravenness now on display in CEO-world, I fear that on the current path, a massive backlash against business is all but inevitable. Such a backlash would be highly unfortunate but not difficult to understand. Every member of Trump’s advisory councils should wrestle with his or her conscience and ponder Edmund Burke’s famous warning that “All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.”
Since writing this post, Under Armour CEO Kevin Plank has decided to step down from the president's American Manufacturing Council as well. I applaud this decision and hope that many other CEOs will follow suit.