Trump, Master Of Rationalizations, Scores A Perfect #4 AND A Perfect #5!

Former District of Columbia Mayor Marion Barry attends a news conference on the steps of Washington's city hall Monday, July 6, 2009. At the news conference Barry's attorney Frederick Cooke said Barry vehemently denies the allegation by Donna Watts-Brighthaupt, and that he's confident the stalking charge will be dropped. Barry, 73, stood behind Cooke but said nothing. (AP Photo/Manuel Balce Ceneta)

Somewhere, Marion Berry is smiling…

This is juuuust the beginning…

I have noted before that our President Elect never expresses any ethical awareness, and uses rationalizations exclusively to explain and justify his conduct. This is typical of say, 12-year-olds, but is less common among professionals in responsible positions.

Trump just authored a classic example, following the expression of concerns about his conflicts of interest, which are massive, unavoidable, and which should have been addressed seriously long ago, like in a Presidential debate, and at length. Unfortunately, Hillary Clinton and various journalists felt it would be more helpful to their cause to spend time talking about what Trump had said about an over-weight Miss Universe and in a private conversation with Billy Bush. How did that work out for you, guys?

Now various lawyers and ethics experts are saying that Trump “must” sell off his business holdings because his company’s myriad business entanglements will cast many White House decisions under a cloud. The President Elect has a neat answer for them, to wit:

“The law’s totally on my side, meaning, the president can’t have a conflict of interest.”

— Donald Trump, interview with the New York Times, Nov. 22, 2016

Bravo! This is a perfect expression of Ethics Alarms Rationalizations #4, and #5

4. Marion Barry’s Misdirection, or “If it isn’t illegal, it’s ethical.”

The late D.C. Mayor and lovable rogue Marion Barry earned himself a place in the Ethics Distortion Hall of Fame with his defense of his giving his blatantly unqualified girlfriend a high-paying job with the DC government. Barry declared that since there was no law against using the public payroll as his own private gift service, there was nothing unethical about it. Once the law was passed (because of him), he then agreed that what he did would be wrong the next time he did it.

Ethics is far broader than law, which is a system of behavior enforced by the state with penalties for violations. Ethics is good conduct as determined by the values and customs of society. Professions promulgate codes of ethics precisely because the law cannot proscribe all inappropriate or harmful behavior. Much that is unethical is not illegal. Lying. Betrayal. Nepotism. Many other kinds of behavior as well, but that is just the factual error in the this rationalization.

The greater problem with it is that it omits the concept of ethics at all.  Ethical conduct is self-motivated, based on the individual’s values and the internalized desire to do the right thing. Barry’s construct assumes that people only behave ethically if there is a tangible, state-enforced penalty for not doing so, and that not incurring a penalty (that is, not breaking the law) is, by definition, ethical.

Nonsense, of course. It is wrong to intentionally muddle the ethical consciousness of the public, and Barry’s statement simply reinforces a misunderstanding of right and wrong.

Trump also is endorsing…

#5. The Compliance Dodge.

Simply put, compliance with rules, including laws, isn’t the same as ethics. Compliance depends on an individual’s desire to avoid punishment. Ethical conduct arises from an individual’s genuine desire to do the right thing. The most unethical person in the world will comply if the punishment is stiff enough. But if he can do something unethical without breaking the rules, watch out!

No set of rules will apply in all situations, and one who is determined to look for loopholes in a set of laws, or rules, or in an ethics code, so that he or she can do something self-serving, dishonest, or dastardly, is likely to find a way. This is one reason why the ubiquitous corporate ethics programs that emphasize “compliance” are largely ineffective. By emphasizing compliance over ethics, such programs encourage the quest for loopholes. Remember that when Enron’s board realized that one of its financial maneuvers violated its Code of Ethics, it made compliance possible by changing the Code.

When an organization or society makes compliance…doing the right thing to avoid unpleasant consequences… the focus of its attempt to promote ethical conduct, it undermines the effort by promoting confusion in the not-infrequent circumstances when doing the right thing hurts. The better approach, and the one promoted by Ethics Alarms, is to teach and encourage good behavior and ethical virtues for their own sake. When the inevitable loophole opens up in the rules, when the opportunity to gain at someone else’s expense is there and nobody will ever know, it is the ethical, not the compliant, who will do the right thing.

The lack of an enforceable law doesn’t mean a President can’t have a conflict of interest. It means that there is no legal way to stop a President from being conflicted, if he insists on it. I am perfectly willing to believe that Donald Trump does not understand the difference, but it is material and substantial.

As Glenn Kessler points out,

Congress assumed that the president could be trusted to do the right thing….It’s quite possible he will face a number of conflicts of interest during his presidency. The law may offer an exemption for the president, but political reality — and perception— often does not.

Trump’s reaction to this, it is fair to say, will be “Whatever.” Kessler also, amusingly, says that

The law assumed that the president could be trusted to do the right thing and take actions to avoid appearance or presence of impropriety — not that the law is “totally” on the president’s “side” or that it would allow the president to use the exemption to his favor…[he] should be more careful about his wording on this point.

Yeah, you tell him, Glenn.

9 Comments

Filed under Business & Commercial, Character, Ethics Alarms Award Nominee, Ethics Dunces, Government & Politics, Law & Law Enforcement, Leadership

9 responses to “Trump, Master Of Rationalizations, Scores A Perfect #4 AND A Perfect #5!

  1. Yep the only appropriate response is to be hyperactive in terms of transparency. Not pretend like it’s no big deal.

    I think the demands to sell off his companies are just disingenuous grandstanding at best and probably political strategy or malice at worst.

    He has to address this. And the only way to address this is all serious decisions or at least all those that could directly affect a prominent revenue generator of his need to be discussed openly and why the decision made was made with no view to improve or damage his holdings.

    • Becky

      I think there’s NOT a chance in hell of that. And that even if he did that, which I think isn’t even in the remotely possible list of things he can actually do, it wouldn’t come close to really avoiding the conflicts.

  2. Steve-O-in-NJ

    Cheer up, Jack, Jill Stein is going to get the election reversed.

  3. As a result of the references to Ethics Alarms Rationalizations, I went and read them. I thought it was a pretty complete and wellstated list. I did try to find when it was written as it referenced President Obama and Hillary in such a way that it made me wonder if there was a bit of personal opinion included. That being said, the date of writing would also determine if the lack of references to Trump was because it would ( at least to me) determine if the reason was it was written before all this Trump stuff started vs after the campaign started. After the start of campaign I would question the exclusion. Trump has rationalized all his actions, with little regard to ethics and has used almost everything on that list but is never referenced . Did that again reflect the personal opinion of the author at the time.
    This posting essentially dispels that thought.
    I completely agree with what is being pointed out. What concerns me is that all of this ( law doesn’t apply to me etc) has been published and made available to everyone. BUT many of his supporters that demonized Clinton for these things don’t see or don’t want to see this is the same. His campaign has been fined, his charity has been investigated and found to be guilty of all the accusations of misuse etc that had been adamantly denied. Tax returns that have been brought to light state that there was wrongdoing. Why then are people still thinking he is the answer?
    And regarding Congress, how could they assume after watching his campaign even consider he would somehow do the right thing?
    Are people blind ? Are they in such a state of denial they refuse to consider they made a mistake trusting this man?
    Lastly, you know what they say about assuming… it makes an ASS of U and ME.
    ( you don’t mind if I use your rationalization list as a guide and point of reference and sharing it,do you? It really clarifies and makes understanding the concepts easily understandable)

    • That’s what its here for: reference. And anytime you realize one of them has popped into your reasoning process, that’s an ethics alarm.

      Actually, I need to purge most of the references that aren’t historical. The list has been added sequentially, and can be tracked using the Search function. Trump hasn’t come up with any new rationalizations, unlike Hillary (“It’s wasn’t the best thing…”)

  4. zoebrain

    A view from Australia:

    http://www.canberratimes.com.au/world/us-election/donald-trumps-family-settle-in-for-the-good-times-20161124-gsx8u8.html

    With that kind of talk in mind, it’s worth pausing to think about Trump’s election win and of what it reveals about the current mindset of American voters.

    Here is a president who used social media to speak to voters over the heads of the MSM – the mainstream media; he was openly contemptuous of the MSM’s clinging to fuddy-duddy principles of political propriety and integrity – what New York Times commentator Ross Douthat this week described as “Timesian sensibilities”.

    But it seems the voters were with Trump – a good number of them are contemptuous too.

    The MSM looks for precise meaning and accountability in what Trump says. But a good number of Americans, for now at least, look for comfort in how he makes them feel. It’s an asymmetrical engagement, one in which the risk of long-term damage to the national political psyche and institutions doesn’t count for a lot because there’s not a lot of respect for those making the argument that these things matter.

    These are rare circumstances in which an unconventional president, who knows all about licensing his brand, may have been licensed by the people to get away with more than any of his predecessors.

    • Should I laugh or cry that the only valuable take away from that article is precisely what people like Michael Ejercito said would be one of the few good things about a Trump presidency…. that we would actually see reporting about the kind of familial corruption going on in politics?

      You know, the exact kind of familial corruption and politics that WOULD. NOT. SEE. THE. LIGHT. OF. DAY. if Hillary was president and engaging in it in exactly the same way as Trump would…?

      I bet you don’t recognize that, though, do you Zoe?

      “it’s worth pausing to think about Trump’s election win and of what it reveals about the current mindset of American voters.”

      No, it doesn’t reveal anything. We’ve discussed this ad nauseum. That you and the rest of the Left don’t want to admit it is further proof of the crippling blinders you’ve donned and the fingers you’ve stuck in your ears.
      I’ll say it again: 1) Don’t run one of History’s MOST CORRUPT CANDIDATES EVER, 2) Don’t let that Candidate perpetuate the same divisive and hateful rhetoric that the Obama administration used to leave National unity in shambles.

      It’s remarkably simple.

      “e was openly contemptuous of the MSM’s clinging to fuddy-duddy principles of political propriety and integrity “

      The fact that you seemingly agree with the assertion that the Mainstream Media believes in political “propriety” and “integrity” pretty well undermines any credibility you have on this issue. I had to stifle a laugh when I read that line…especially when you called it “fuddy-duddy” as though they actually had principles that were being removed by some teenage upstarts.

      Zoe. Please take a step back and really ask yourself if you believe the MSM believes in political propriety and integrity. If you say yes, I’d recommend a long vacation.

      “The MSM looks for precise meaning and accountability in what Trump says. “

      No it doesn’t.

      “But a good number of Americans, for now at least, look for comfort in how he makes them feel.”

      Remarkably easy when he doesn’t characterize entire swathes of the public has sexists, racists, homophobes, and other assorted hateful people when they aren’t.

      Try running a candidate like that… I promise it might work.

      “It’s an asymmetrical engagement, one in which the risk of long-term damage to the national political psyche and institutions doesn’t count for a lot because there’s not a lot of respect for those making the argument that these things matter.”

      No one on the Left gets to say this and then call themselves honest. Not after 8 years of INTENTIONAL division and destruction of American unity. Nope, sorry. Did you actually type that with a serious face or are you trying to elicit a laugh or two?

      “These are rare circumstances in which an unconventional president, who knows all about licensing his brand, may have been licensed by the people to get away with more than any of his predecessors.”

      He. did. not. receive. a. mandate. He. barely. received. a. similar. number. of. votes. as. the. last. republican. candidate.

      Please stop.

      • I really do think that this election gets into the area that non-Americans, even really astute ones like Zoe, can’t possibly comprehend without living here. They really don’t get the Animal House Factor, which I was serious about, and I increasingly believe was the catalyst for Trump’s upset. Again:

        “Americans got tired of being pushed around, lectured, and being told that traditional cultural values made them racists and xenophobes. They decided to say “Screw that!” by electing a protest candidate whose sole function was to be a human thumb in the eye, because he was so disgusting to the people who had pretended to be their betters. Don’t you understand? It’s idiotic, but the message isn’t. It’s “Animal House”! and “Animal House” is as American as Doolittle’s Raid:

        Otter: Bluto’s right. Psychotic… but absolutely right. We gotta take these bastards. Now we could do it with conventional weapons, but that could take years and cost millions of lives. No, I think we have to go all out. I think that this situation absolutely requires a really futile and stupid gesture be done on somebody’s part!

        Bluto: We’re just the guys to do it.

        In Germany, indeed in most counties, The Big Cheese says jump and the Germans say “How high?” In the US, the response to arrogant authority is “Fuck you!” Obama never understood that. He and the Democrats are finally getting the “fuck you!” they have been asking for. I love that about America. And much as I hate the idea of an idiot being President, I do love the message and who it was sent to. America still has spunk.”

        This is what the second amendment is all about. This is what the Tea Party, both of them, was about. This is why Americans respond to The Alamo, The Great Escape, Casablanca, the Marx brothers, McMurphy, Norma Rae, D-Day, Hiroshima and Rooster Cogburn. Yes, and it’s why we invaded Iraq, too. Great strengths are also weaknesses, but the US would not be the US without this particular strength/weakness, and I am grateful for it. There is a growing cultural aberration on the left that would excise that part of the American brain, leaving us predictable, compliant, submissive, boring, and European. To the extent that Trump means that this aberration hasn’t made the inroads it thought it had, GOOD.

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