Seeking Loyalty over Competence

Good Decisions Require Thoughtful Deliberation

During my days leading organizations of various sizes and complexity I often had the responsibility to recruit and hire people who would manage program units crucial to our mission. I always took the time needed to make sure all personnel decisions were weighed thoroughly, carefully and with deliberation. It seems logical to me that education, training, experience, social compatibility, competence, vision, and a reputation for impeccable integrity should always be reviewed before putting someone in a critical position.

Such diligence in seeking demonstrated excellence is not, however, part of President Donald Trump’s search criteria. His first requirement is unflinching loyalty to him, second is unflinching loyalty to him, and third …ibid.  Education Secretary Betsy DeVos is a good example. Her qualifications to head the nation’s education department include being a high-wealth individual with deep ties to the far-right Christian movement and being a generous contributor to Republican campaigns.  Her experience in public education is limited to subverting it by transferring public funds from local school systems to either vouchers or direct funding for private, religious and charter schools.

DeVos is not alone. The Trump administration is made up largely of people who have contempt for government, many of whom have spent their professional lives trying to destroy it. Former corporate lobbyists serve in positions that set policies for their former clients, thus feathering the nest they will fly off to when their time in government ends. From the White House to the agencies, from regulatory reform to the sale of deadly arms, from trade policies to the environment­­­––– it is self-interest and loyalty rather than national interest and competence that prevails.

We Are Now Harvesting the  Fruits of the America First Policy

“America’s standing in the world is at a low ebb. Once described as the indispensable nation, the United States is now seen as withdrawn and inward-looking, a reluctant and unreliable partner at a dangerous moment for the world. The coronavirus pandemic has only made things worse.

“President Trump shattered a 70-year consensus among U.S. presidents of both political parties that was grounded in the principle of robust American leadership in the world through alliances and multilateral institutions. For decades, this approach was seen at home and abroad as good for the world and good for the United States. In its place, Trump has substituted his America First doctrine” which critics describe as “as nationalistic, populistic, isolationist and unilateralist. The president has demeaned allies and emboldened adversaries such as China and Russia.” Dan Balz, July 26, The Washington Post

 We Are a Mess at Home––But There is Hope

Just one in six Americans in a poll last month was ‘proud’ of the state of the country, and about two out of three were actually ‘fearful’ about it…Yes, our nation is a mess, but overlapping catastrophes have also created conditions that may finally let us extricate ourselves from the mire. The grim awareness of national failures––on the coronavirus, racism, health care and jobs––may become a prelude to fixing our country.  The last time our economy was this troubled, Herbert Hoover’s failures led to Franklin D. Roosevelt’s election with a mandate to revitalize the nation.” Nicholas Kristoff, July 16, The New York Times

 Kristoff points out that a disastrous  depression created a synergy that opened the door to initiatives not  previously  considered politically possible: “the New Deal, Social Security, rural electrification, government jobs programs and a 35-year burst of inclusive growth that built the modern middle class and arguably made the United States the richest and most powerful country of the world.”

Kristoff’s words brought to mind a book I read in graduate school, Sun Tzu’s The Art of War.  Written in the fifth century BCE the book offered thoughts on military strategy and philosophical truisms. One such truism has stayed with me all these years: “In the midst of chaos there is also opportunity.”

Each of the national failures on the list above is a potential disaster, and combined they threaten chaos.  Chaos can lead to the disintegration of a nation––or, it can become fertile ground for new growth.

Almost every American has been touched in some way by at least one of our national crises. Millions have suffered (or know people who have suffered) from health threats, loss of jobs and wages, death of a friend or relative, the graphic depiction of American racism, the closing of schools and businesses.   This simultaneous intersection of several seemingly impenetrable challenges just might create the fertile soul from which a new and adventurous American spirit emerges. Perhaps the blinders that keep us from seeing possibilities will fall away to reveal opportunities previously considered out of our reach, or even impossible.

Maybe a new vision will emerge in which we can see a nation that rises to the challenge and  embraces a new American agenda: a national  commitment to early childhood education; universal health care; living wages and paid family leave; a Green New Deal-like response to climate change;  the enactment of a new voting rights act; and, legislation that mandates and funds  a guarantee  to every American child that they will have equal access to high-quality education.  As it happened for Franklin Roosevelt in 1932, perhaps an election mandate this November will give us an opportunity to revitalize our nation.