In the wake of Trump’s presidency, I have been very concerned about the loss of respect for truth and integrity. The discussion I had with my accountant, which I wrote about in my last blog post, did nothing to allay my fears – not because my accountant is without integrity, but because he was unwilling to acknowledge a difference between Biden and Trump when it comes to that quality. My accountant said, “They all lie.” And since they all lie, he concluded, not in these these exact words, “Democrats are being unfair to Trump, Biden is just as corrupt.”
I do not accept that. I believe all politicians ‘spin.’ They present things in a way that reflects most positively on their ideas and actions. They leave out counterarguments. They cherry pick facts. Politicians of all parties do that. We need to distinguish that practice, which is distasteful (but apparently an effective communication strategy in a world beset by short attention spans), from lying and corruption. I will grant that there can be a slippery slope between spin and lying, but we need to examine the rhetoric and call it out when it crosses the line. We cannot throw up our hands and say, “They all do it,” and accept it.
I worry about our capacity for discernment especially after listening to Bill Browder’s assessment of Putin’s reign of terror in Russia and the war in Ukraine. Browder was interviewed by Preet Bharara on his podcast Stay Tuned. I highly recommend listening. Browder has 22 years of experience working with Russia and has seen first-hand Putin’s brutal management style. He described a Russian state hollowed out by Putin’s corruption. In setting the tone at the top, taking his percentage from all the oligarchs the way the head of a crime family does, Putin has not only robbed the country of assets and resources, but has created a culture where everyone along the line does the same. Everyone takes a percentage up the chain of command. In doing that, the essential structures of governance, the paving of the roads, the maintenance of fighter jets, the stores of fuel, have been compromised. Browder suggests that the poor performance of the Russian army is related to this culture.
One of the ironies of the war in Ukraine is that Zelenskyy was elected on a platform of fighting corruption. Ukraine was recognized as having a major problem with it and the people were fed up. Zelenskyy offered a different message. Putin is more comfortable with neighboring countries that either have a puppet as its leader or at least someone corrupt enough to be manipulated.
Corruption in the United States is also a problem, but I don’t think it is endemic to the system. Influence peddling has always been practiced. We have not rooted it out, but politicians have been forced out of office, they have been charged and jailed for their offenses. We have laws against it. I am worried that corruption can become the norm if we aren’t vigilant. I see a straight line between the practice described by Browder, that approach to aggregating power, and Trump. I believe Trump subscribes to a philosophy aligned with Putin, he has as much as admitted it. It is entirely about individual power and wealth – there is no concern for the greater good. Trump cloaks his desire to be the most important, powerful person in the world in patriotic rhetoric. Nothing he has ever done suggests that his patriotism is genuine or reaches beyond his narrow self-interest. To be clear, I am not suggesting that Trump is a murderer, as Putin is.
Some of Trump’s self-interest resulted in policies that benefited the economy, at least according to some analysts. To the extent that this is believed, those folks support Trump. But the grave danger isn’t in those policies (I would argue that those policies aren’t good for the country either, but that is not my point here). The greater long-term danger is in the underlying culture. Policies can change relatively easily. A tax cut can be reversed. Culture is more difficult to meaningfully transform.
In my academic and professional life, I took courses and training in internal auditing. The purpose was to give us tools to evaluate whether existing policies and procedures ensured the integrity of a given operation (in my case the efficacy of New York State funded programs). In every training that I received or delivered, the main message was the importance of ‘tone at the top.’ This was management’s essential responsibility – modeling the behavior and setting the expectations. That’s why I put so much emphasis on this when assessing the risk that Trump represents. The Republican party must reject Trumpism and instead nurture new leadership – people that offer core values of honesty and ethical behavior. I believe that many in leadership positions in the Democratic party do that, most importantly, Joe Biden – but not all of them. When Democrats fail to meet that standard (i.e., Sheldon Silver, Charlie Rangel, etc.), they too need to be cast aside. If you are a Republican and believe that Democrats are as guilty of corruption and lying, then I implore you to not accept that – make sure the Republicans put forward a worthy presidential candidate so that person can be elected. Please cast Newt Gingrich aside – I don’t know why he still merits attention, he gets trotted out on national media platforms as a spokesperson as he was just this past weekend. Why does he still get to weigh in when he has no standing to comment on issues of honesty and integrity?
My accountant asked me about Hunter Biden. I replied that if Hunter Biden did anything illegal, he should be prosecuted. If there is evidence of criminal behavior, he should be investigated. The investigation should follow the evidence and if it implicates Joe Biden, then he too should be prosecuted. The Bidens and Trumps should be held to the same standard. I would like to hear Trump supporters say the same thing about Don Jr, Ivanka and Jared – and about the January 6th insurrection. It is important that we continue these investigations until we uncover the truth and assign accountability. We can’t just sweep their actions under the rug and say it is time to move on. The precedent that sets, the message that sends, is dangerous to our country’s future as a democracy.
We cannot close our eyes to corruption and lies. We cannot let it become the norm. We need to redouble our efforts to expect and enforce ethical behavior at all levels – in government, in business, in media, in our relationships. We must be truthful, and we must call out lying. This is the slippery slope that allows authoritarianism to creep up on us.