Ultimately, we are the ones who decide what we will demand from the people we put into power. Which is why we will always get what we deserve.
To get a job as a journalist or a judge, a minimal standard is that you do not have demonstrable conflicts of interest. As the old saying goes, “It’s okay to fuck elephants, just don’t cover the circus.” The absence of clear conflicts of interest does not mean you have any skills; it does not mean you are the right person for the job; it does not mean you will be good at the job; it just means that you are a member of the pool of minimally qualified people who could be considered for the job. It is in fact the lowest of many standards that one is required to meet in order to take a job that comes with even a modest amount of public trust.
Then, there’s the presidency of the United States, which is considered the single most powerful job on earth. For this, we have apparently decided that it is wise to have no standards at all. We have apparently decided that the best course of action is to allow the person we are installing into the world’s most powerful position to have bald conflicts of interest that would disqualify anyone from working at a local newspaper. We have decided that it is okay to allow a president to further pick a team of cabinet members who also have their own clear conflicts of interest. We have decided that to require our most powerful elected leaders to cede control of their vast fortunes before being handed the keys to our nation’s army and prosperity is an undue burden on them.
Who has decided this? We have. We either have and enforce standards, or not. If not, we get what we have now.
A president with a global business empire that he will leave in the hands of his children, constituting an easy path to foreign bribery and influence-peddling. A president whose family members sit in on advisory meetings as he forms his cabinet while simultaneously operating for-profit businesses. A president who will himself appoint the regulators at the IRS and the NLRB who will presumably be tasked with regulating the parts of his own business empire. A president whose labor secretary is a fast food CEO whose company’s value is strongly affected by labor regulations; whose secretary of state is an oil CEO whose company has billions of dollars at stake over sanctions that he will now decide the fate of; a president whose pick for the head of the National Economic Council is a Goldman Sachs executive who personally made more than $50 million as a direct result of this president’s election.
This is not a discussion of whether or not we like or agree with Donald Trump’s policies. This is a discussion of what we require in exchange for the public trust. The nation’s highest job should carry the highest burden of purity. Not as a way to ensure that the president makes decisions that we agree with, but to ensure that the president’s motivations are pure. The plain existence of conflicts of interest makes that impossible. Even if you support Donald Trump, you will never, ever be able to know that he is acting to further the interests of the public, rather than the interests of himself, his family, and his allies.
The public is the body with the power to insist that our leaders do not have conflicts of interest. To insist means to make it a non-negotiable condition of conferring legitimacy upon these leaders. If we don’t care, opportunists with power will certainly not care on our behalf.
Think of what we require of U.S. soldiers. Think of what we require of low-level government regulators. Think of what we require of law enforcement officers, and firefighters, and diplomats in danger zones. Being president should require more, not less. Being president should require a complete and total demonstrable commitment to the public good. To witness how far we have come from that standard should make you weep no matter what your political affiliation is.
I can’t believe we’re even talking about this.