Much of the United States has reacted swiftly and strongly to President Trump’s grotesque suggestion that there is a moral equivalence between the white supremacists who converged last weekend on Charlottesville and those who protested against them. But the delayed, qualified and mealy-mouthed reactions of many in America’s leadership class tell a disturbing story about the country’s elites — and the reason we are living in an age of populist rebellion.
The least respected of today’s leaders are, of course, politicians. The public largely views them as craven and cowardly, pandering to polls and focus groups. And that is how too many Republican officials have behaved in the face of Trump’s words and actions. With some honorable exceptions, men and women who usually cannot stop pontificating on every topic on live TV have suddenly gone mute on the biggest political subject of the day.
I know. They worry about the base, about primaries, about right-wing donors. But shouldn’t they also worry about their country and their conscience? Shouldn’t they ask themselves why they went into public service in the first place? And if they see someone at the highest level trampling on the values of the country, shouldn’t they speak up — directly, forcefully and without qualification?
Business leaders, meanwhile, are still among the most respected and envied people in the United States. They run vast organizations, get paid on a scale that makes their predecessors from just 25 years ago look middle-class, and live in a bubble of private planes, helicopters and limousines. In other words, they have all the wealth, power and security that should allow them to set standards and lead.
Again, with some honorable exceptions, business leaders have been cowards. Most of them surely think Trump is a charlatan, a snake-oil salesman. In the past, some chose not to do business with him because they believed he was unethical. Others were initially amused by his candidacy but regarded his rhetoric on trade, immigration and refugees as loathsome. And yet, almost none spoke out against him. Few even distanced themselves after Trump blamed “many sides” for the violence in Charlottesville. Had Merck chief executive Kenneth Frazier not resigned from one of Trump’s advisory boards and Trump not doubled down on his initial comments, it is unclear how many other CEOs would have spoken out. And even then, some jumped ship from the advisory councils only when it became clear that there was really no alternative.
The United States’ technology pioneers might be the most admired people on the planet. They are viewed as smart, innovative and successful. Many are not just rich but also claim to be wise beyond words, prophets of the future who opine on space travel and artificial intelligence. Can they not see what is going on right here on Earth at the White House and condemn it?
Where are evangelical Christian leaders on a matter of basic morality? While some have made their voices heard, it is striking how many have not, or have even endorsed Trump’s comments. Do they have a burning moral duty to speak out against transgender bathroom access but not neo-Nazi violence?
The United States once did have more public-minded elites. But they came from a small, clubby world, the Protestant establishment. Not all were born rich, but they knew they had a secure place atop the country. They populated the nation’s boardrooms, public offices and best schools. This security gave them greater comfort in exercising moral leadership.
Today we have a more merit-based elite, what is often called a meritocracy. It has allowed people from all walks of life to rise up into positions of power and influence. But these new elites are more insecure, anxious and self-centered. Politicians are likely to be solo entrepreneurs, worried about the next primary or fundraiser. CEOs live with the constant fear that they might lose their jobs or that their company might lose its customers in an instant. Religious leaders worry that they will lose congregants. These groups may not think they have the luxury to be high-minded, but they do. They are vastly more secure than most people in America, or in human history. If they cannot act out of broader interest, who can?
The public figures who deserve the most praise this week are the military brass. In a remarkable act of leadership for people who actually work under the president, the heads of five branches of the armed forces independently issued statements unequivocally denouncing racism and bigotry. Perhaps this is because the military has been the institution that has most successfully integrated the nation’s diverse population. Perhaps it is because the military remains an old-fashioned place, where a sense of honor, standards and values still holds. The military chiefs have shown why they still command so much respect in the country. America’s other elites should take note.
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