Yesterday, I posted about generalized social trust–its importance, and some of the reasons for its recent decline. Today, I want to focus on the role played by ethical behavior–in this case, the lack of ethical behavior–in the distressing and accelerating erosion of social trust.
One of the most obvious ethical principles is avoidance of conflicts of interest. I believe it was John Locke who noted that a person (okay, back then he said “a man”) could not be the judge in his own case, and that is really the heart of the rule against conflicts. Elected officials are not supposed to participate in decisions that will affect them personally and directly.
If a state official approves a purchase of land for a highway, and that highway will run through land owned by members of his family, that’s a conflict of interest. If a United States Senator relies upon information not yet shared with the public to sell stock holdings before the news gets out, that’s a blatant conflict. (And yes, Senator Perdue, we’re all looking at you.) When a President refuses to divest himself of business interests that will be directly affected by his decisions in office, that’s a huge departure from ethical behavior.
It is hardly a secret that the Trump Administration has been brazenly unethical. Last year, Pro Publica noted that the administration itself had reported (quietly) numerous ethical breaches. The report noted that President Trump’s ethics pledge had been considerably weaker than previous pledges, but that the government ethics office found violations of even those watered-down rules, particularly at three federal agencies: the Environmental Protection Agency, the Department of the Interior and the National Labor Relations Board.
Just one example: At the NLRB, Republican board member William Emanuel improperly voted on a case despite the fact that his former law firm, Littler Mendelson, represented one of the parties. (The firm represents corporations in labor disputes, and he also voted to eliminate regulations protecting unions.) Conflicts at the EPA have been widely covered by the media; numerous EPA officials chosen by Trump have come from fossil fuel companies and/or the law firms that represent them, and those officials have rolled back nearly 100 environmental regulations.
Then there’s former Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, who is being investigated by the Justice Department’s public integrity section over allegations he lied to his agency’s inspector general’s office. There are also two separate probes by the Department’s inspector general about Zinke’s ties to real estate deals in Montana and a proposed casino project in Connecticut.
As for Trump, there is at least one lawsuit charging violations of the Emoluments Clause still working its way through the courts–although the current composition of the Supreme Court doesn’t bode well for the outcome.
The White House has refused to impose any sanctions for officials found to have committed ethical violations. That–as observers have noted–has sent a message of tacit approval, not just to the officials violating ethical standards, but to citizens who are aware of the breaches.
It isn’t just government. Cable news companies and social media giants routinely behave in ways that violate both journalism ethics and strictures against conflicts of interest. Facebook employs a rightwing internet site, The Daily Caller, as a “fact checker” despite the fact that the site is supported financially by the GOP. A story originally published by Salon reports that “The Daily Caller has taken tens of thousands of dollars to help Republican campaigns raise money while performing political fact-check services for Facebook.”
The Caller, a right-wing publication co-founded by Fox News personality Tucker Carlson, has also since 2016 sent dozens of emails “paid for by Trump Make America Great Again Committee,” a joint fundraising vehicle shared by the Trump campaign and the Republican National Committee, according to Media Matters.
Media Matters also revealed that The Daily Caller has sent sponsored emails on behalf of a number of Republican candidates this year. Media Matters posted screenshots of the emails, from Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C; Rep. Jim Jordan, R-Ohio; the Senate Conservatives Fund; and the Bikers for the President PAC.
Asking the Daily Caller to fact-check political posts is like asking a wife-beater to evaluate spousal abuse cases.
When ethical principles are routinely flouted by a society’s most powerful institutions, is it any wonder that Americans don’t know who or what they can trust?