The country is reeling from an ethical cancer that is overtaking the new administration, its cronies, and supporters who are willing to forgo standards of ethics in order to win victories on a slate of issues. This lapse in ethical standards may lead to far greater changes than just a policy platform. The road to a modern-day form of fascism starts with manipulating the media and dismissing election results—just as President Donald Trump has done.
The ethical lapses are everywhere. A recent headline read “Trump Repeats Lie About Popular Vote in Meeting with Lawmakers.” Trump claimed 3-5 million illegal immigrants voted for Hillary Clinton. He lied repeatedly about the size of the crowd attending his inauguration ceremony. When the media exposed these lies, the Trump administration responded by calling the media “liars” and the “opposition party.”
Trump’s business empire has significant global interests with potential conflicts for US foreign policy. Yet the American people had no opportunity to review the tax returns of candidate Trump. The conflict-of-interest laws that apply to other government employees do not apply to a president or vice president, so no blind trust was created and no laws have been broken. Nevertheless, the financial entanglement of Trump’s business is disconcerting. The many ethical lapses are evident and ominous.
President Trump hired his son-in-law, Jared Kushner, to be his senior advisor, with the help of attorney Jamie Gorelick who served as deputy attorney general under President Bill Clinton. (Notably, Gorelick defended BP after the Deepwater Horizon oil spill.) Another Trump appointee, Monica Crowley, had to withdraw her nomination for deputy national security advisor after it was revealed that she had plagiarized part of her book, various op-eds, and her Ph.D. thesis.
In a society based on laws and democratic principles, citizens choose to obey not just laws but also many ethical norms, codes, rules, and traditions. These norms bring us together, cementing our responsibilities towards our fellow citizens, in a sphere much larger than that proscribed by our legal code. Implicit in these standards are honesty, integrity, virtue, duty, compassion, and honor. Many groups and professional organizations have codes of ethics to advance these norms. Some of these norms have been enshrined in laws as the basis of our civilization from the time of the Hippocratic Oath.
Ethical norms that are not enshrined in law are left for the voluntary compliance of citizens, including our government officials. When this voluntary adherence is threatened, so are our civil liberties. If government officials and society at-large attend only to laws and nothing else, we will have anarchy. Our civilized society will cease to exist, replaced only by individuals fighting for their own basic interests.
The actions of the new administration have called into question our basic beliefs about government institutions and protections. We may complain about bureaucracy, but we expect that our government should be protecting us from bad drugs, dirty water, and toxic chemicals in our food. Our public schools have struggled in many areas, but we know they form the basis of our democratic society, and so we should work to make them better and more effective, not gut public school systems. And we know that, as the most powerful nation in the world, we must wield our power carefully, not with bluster about suggestions that we should have taken Iraqi oil. These are not statements that make Americans safer.
No one goes to jail for plagiarism, and many violators of conflict of interest (or the appearance of a conflict of interest) escape punishment. Those bullies with a general lack of respect for others, or scoundrels who are less than truthful (except during judicial or government investigation proceedings) escape significant consequences as well. But can you imagine how our society would function if bullies and scoundrels are the norm?
The president is a role model for our entire country. When lies are routine and ethical standards are violated in every arena we would be deceiving ourselves to imagine that such malevolence will not invade every corner of American life.
Insisting on ethical standards in every arena will help to minimize the impact of the administration’s actions. The media must not legitimize, and we must never accept, the promulgation of the administration’s lies. Nor must we accept diminished standards of integrity from top officials. Many Americans have adopted new habits since Trump took office—attending daily demonstrations after work, making daily phone calls, and sending postcards. This must be just the beginning salvo of resistance. We can insist on holding onto our American way of life using every democratic means available: not just mass demonstrations, email, and phone campaigns, but also national strikes, massive boycotts of businesses aligned with Trump policies, and alternative media when necessary. Americans can encourage the international responses we have begun to see—whether it is the dismissiveness of other national leaders or a snubbing of Trump brands.
Trump’s actions to date have introduced a powerful malignancy into our American way of life, sickening our democracy and our values. The institutional acceptance of such a change by our citizens changes us forever. Before irreparable harm is done to our country, we must act quickly to save ourselves and the America that we leave to our children.