Ethicists and President Trump: Providing Moral Leadership for Vigilance and Resistance
Thomas Massaro, S.J
These are challenging times for ethicists in North America. The early weeks of the Trump presidency find many of us trying to make sense of a disturbing political environment the likes of which few of us (not even those who read Sinclair Lewis’s 1935 political novel It Can’t Happen Here) has ever seen or imagined. This essay is not the venue to consider the substance and content of what North American and especially US ethicists should be saying and doing but allow me to sketch some reflections on how members of our profession may best contribute to a national discernment on the Trump challenge. How do we, precisely as ethicists, contribute to principled resistance when vital societal values are at stake? My hunch is that, if ethicists can derive any benefit from Trump’s time in office, it will consist of gaining a greater measure of clarity about the unique role we play in academia, the church and the wider society.
In the parlance of political life on the national level, “ethics” generally refers to a rather sharply circumscribed function: compliance with regulations and procedures managing potential conflicts of interest for those holding public office. Government employees are bound by specific federal ethics regulations such as those contained in Title 5, Section 2635.702 prohibiting an employee from using “public office for his own private gain.” Congressional ethics committees and offices of ethics in federal agencies serve as watchdogs to monitor compliance with applicable laws and investigate all credible charges brought against those accused of violating them.
With the advent of President Trump (and his family members intertwined with the affairs of state in unprecedented ways), we have broken new and ominous ground, calling for greater ethical vigilance than ever. We are witnessing not some subtle and indirect overlapping of private interests and the affairs of state but blatant nepotism and corruption involving direct private benefits derived from government activities. In refusing to divest himself of assets in appropriate fashion (e.g., blind trusts, as previous executives have done), the president has failed to insulate himself from the charge that the Trump financial empire is poised to profit greatly from the public office held by its head and chief executive. Ethicists are rightly sensitive to issues of forthrightness and disclosure; again, Trump fails to meet even the lowest of ethical bars. His refusal to release tax returns during the campaign and now establishes a pattern of noncompliance and lack of transparency even when potentially embarrassing revelations surfaced.
But that is only the tip of the ethical iceberg. The narrow understanding of governmental ethics opens up into myriad moral concerns about the substance and overall direction of Trump’s policies. The early weeks of his presidency have supplied dozens of matters (most prominently the executive order establishing an odious travel ban on unfairly branded groups) on which ethicists should be weighing in with moral leadership. But how? In what forums? With what style of intervention?
There is no single answer to these questions and little expectation that ethicists will form a consensus on how to speak and what to say in offering principled opposition to Trump. But we are well positioned to engage in a careful division of labor, with an eagerness to contribute the most distinctive gifts and resources we have at our disposal. While lawyers and politicians use their expertise to resist Trump’s objectionable policies by the institutional access they possess, ethicists should use our expertise in a wide range of forums to engage public discourse about the ethics of governance. The opportunities for activism are many.
The most obvious outlets for our energies and insights lie in scholarship. From op-eds to blog posts to timely journal articles, there are ample opportunities to share the fruits of our reflection and to encourage vigilance against ethical violations by the current administration, both in its conduct and public policies. Nothing comes more naturally to ethicists than writing up our considered reflections on public affairs, and I suspect all of us can identify policies and courses of action that are ethically superior to what we have seen coming from the Trump White House.
Opportunities for creative ethical engagement cross our desks daily. For example, Commonweal magazine sent a February 9 email message to its subscribers announcing a renewed effort to energize its “Commonweal Local Communities,” a program of face-to-face gatherings already operating in 40 cities, providing a forum to discuss vital issues in our church and world. Surely the upcoming meetings of these circles of faith-based dialogue would benefit from the presence of an ethicist or two! Similarly, those on the email lists of Tikkun magazine and its “Network of Spiritual Progressives” hear from founder Rabbi Michael Lerner about many opportunities to join like-minded citizens eager to subvert Trump’s agenda. If you are horrified by Trump’s plans to resume construction of major oil pipelines, consider the invitations of Catholic Climate Covenant and other environmental advocacy groups to assist in training sessions that form leaders for ecological protection. There are innumerable potential outlets for activism well suited for ethicists to make a distinctive contribution.
Finally, we can look to the Society of Christian Ethics for an example of courageous moral leadership. North America’s premier professional organization in our field released a February 4 Presidential Cabinet statement on “Protecting the Nation from Foreign Terrorist Entry into the United States” (https://scethics.org/resources/news/society-christian-ethics-presidential-cabinet-statement-%E2%80%9Cprotecting-nation-foreign) opposing the Trump administration’s selective travel restrictions on refugees and asylum seekers. As SCE President David Gushee explained in a February 8 email message to the membership, public policy statements from SCE have been rare and hotly debated; this exceptional act of public engagement deserves praise. The brief but powerful SCE statement is one example of how we, precisely in our capacity as ethicists, can make a difference in these unsettling times for politics, as well as ethics, in North America and beyond.