For many nonprofit and foundation leaders, concern about Donald Trump has been policy-oriented. What will happen with tax cuts including and beyond impact on the charitable deduction, or to the mission of groups that work on the environment, women’s issues, civil liberties, immigrants’ rights, domestic and international security and so many other vital causes?
What is being overlooked is the danger to charities posed by Trump’s belief in strongman leadership, a view he shares with his much-admired Russia’s Vladimir Putin. Charities will need to be strategic in the face such behavior by Trump and be on the alert for challenges to the First Amendment – the right to speak out and to program as they choose – that undergirds the entire nonprofit world. In one of his very first executive orders, he just denied support to family planning nonprofits that might counsel clients about abortion even in programs not funded by federal dollars — it’s know as the “gag rule.”
People have much less confidence in Trump’s abilities than they had in predecessors, and he is losing people’s faith already. Yet, the incoming administration has asserted an electoral mandate as justification for strongman leadership based on false assertions of massive voter fraud. In reality, Trump lost the popular vote by over 2 percent – more than 2.9 million votes. He won the electoral college because of only 75,000 votes spread out in Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin.
It is important to remember these facts since strongman leadership will bring policy initiatives pursued aggressively with the domineering winner-take-all mentality of the Republican Presidency and Congress. Many of those efforts may well belie or counter fundamental values and principal goals of the philanthropic community.
Like Putin, President-elect Trump bullies his opponents and encourages such behavior in others. He aggressively quashes dissent and tells big lies with little regard for the truth. Although there is agreement across intelligence communities that Putin directed a consequential and multi-faceted effort to help Trump win the election, our President-elect protects Russia and himself by suggesting that the intelligence briefing he received said that those efforts had no effect on the outcome. He even bullied the press when it sought to question him on the subject.
This Trump/Putin collusion, their affinity as strongman leaders, presents a real danger for nonprofits well beyond national security concerns. Putin models an oligarchy where the very wealthiest rule. Trump emulates him by appointing billionaires and others of great wealth to his cabinet and elsewhere. In fact, the federal government’s own watchdog agency said it is unprecedented that the Republicans were trying to ram through Trump’s nominees before background checks were complete even when they know there are unresolved ethical issues.
While he absurdly insists that as President he cannot have any conflicts of interest, Trump fails to acknowledge Constitutional dictates; it is already clear that Trump, his family and his cronies – the new American plutocracy – do not mind being seen as corrupt. In fact, when the head of the Office of Government Ethics declared that Trump’s announced break from his business empire was woefully inadequate to requirements, Republicans called him to closed door hearing and threatened its funding – and then the designated White House Chief of Staff bullied him.
Nonprofits working for the common good are likely to find the President-elect’s actions troubling in several ways. Specific policy proposals that favor the wealthy at cost to most ordinary people and the environment create one set of problems. More general efforts to turn government services over to corporations so that they might profit create another set of difficulties. And, finally, a strongman government that might bully and undermine the nonprofit world the way Putin has in Russia, creates yet another set of fundamental problems for philanthropy and democracy.
If American nonprofits think of themselves as more secure and constitutionally protected from a strongman government than their Russian counterparts, they are wrong. The US Supreme Court has already ruled that government can restrict the free speech and actions of any charitable organization it subsidizes, and it also has previously declared tax-exemption itself a subsidy.
Nonprofit efforts to serve people and the planet – and to protect themselves – depend in great part on their capacity to spread truth and to spur compassion so that both public policy and personal actions work to make things better for all of us. The price of silence, of keeping a low profile and hoping that the bully will pass by, is to accede to failure.
Charities must increase their capacity for advocacy work, not run from it. This requires operating in ways which might obviate traditional divides. Nonprofit organizations and philanthropy should place a priority on framing and promoting policy issues, and their own worth, in ways which can hold such appeal. Everyone involved in the nonprofit world, however, must understand that when fighting for the common good, disagreements do not arise because too many people are evil or mean-spirited, no matter what side of a controversial issue or presidential campaign they might take.
One good example of this kind of effort in the Transition has been the Project on Government Oversight (POGO) working cooperatively in coordination with other organizations. In the face of Congressional Republicans’ egregious decision to weaken enforcement of ethics rules that rein in corrupt lobbyist cronyism, nonprofits quickly mobilized public action and deluged the Congress with a flood of calls and emails that had elected officials immediately working to reverse the ill-considered move long before Trump tweeted his own opinion on the matter.
The popular outcry seems to have bridged differences between Trump voters, mainstream Republican voters and those who had opposed his election. It demonstrates the possibility of effective organizing and public action when issues are framed in ways that evoke feelings of decency, fairness, and a conviction that abuse, disrespect, and corruption by the powerful must be moderated.
And it shows how the nonprofit world can go beyond fighting for compassionate and sound public policy — how it can stand up to bullying, self-serving leadership that seeks to undermine civil society and intimidate its way out of accountability. By helping people to do the right thing, charities and philanthropy can, as a friend of mine says, make America good again.