This week I had the pleasure of giving a talk to The Reuters Society — an alumni club of sorts for my favorite news organization. As I explain in these remarks my loud opposition to Donald Trump in my post Reuters years would have been inconsistent with the values of Reuters Editorial that I adopted and proudly defended during my years as CEO.
I made many friends in my 19 years in Reuters Group PLC (and its successor company Thomson Reuters Corp.); learned a great deal and greatly enjoyed the company culture which, to me, mixed principled journalism and a global outlook with an affinity for technology and a commercial edge.
One aspect I very much took to heart during my time as chief executive was never to publicly express my own political views. While this might not have been strictly necessary given the separation of church and state at Reuters, nonetheless I felt it was important as people might not make the fine distinction that the CEO was speaking in his personal capacity and not as a representative of Reuters Editorial.
This was trying at times such as during the aftermath of 9/11 when I had to explain to the then head of Reuters America why he needed to take down the American flag then displayed on the large electronic billboard atop the building because statelessness was important to our independence and there should be other ways in which we could express our support for the people of NY. As one wiser head counseled me: “How would we like it if Saddam ordered the Baghdad bureau to fly the Iraqi flag.”
So, given this history and my own actual disinclination to politics, I largely stayed out of the political debate until riled and offended into action by one Donald J. Trump. Can there be a more execrable human being on the face of this earth? For me, Trump was the antithesis of every admirable quality I seek in fellow men – intelligence, tolerance, worldliness, respect for history, science, the truth and hard work. I need not go on to list all his miserable traits.
This was not a new aversion for me. I had grown up in New York and seen his racism, misogyny and buffoonery up close. What I truly resented was the way in which he routinely stiffed hundreds of contractors, carpenters and artisans on their bills and then counter-sued them if they dared try to collect. Bankrupting five companies only represented his economic violence writ large.
This perhaps explains why I not only publicly and financially supported Hilary five years ago (although she was far from the ideal candidate), but why I kept it up on my blog, on Twitter and elsewhere for five years
So, this finally brings me to my topic today, how American business has found its political voice in these last few weeks. Talk about burying the lede!
While there have been some notable exceptions, American business largely either welcomed or at least tolerated the first three Trump years. Yes, there were some noble voices like Ken Frazier, the brilliant African American CEO of Merck, who resigned from one of the presidents councils in the wake of his racist both-sides-ism concerning the Charlottesville mob; however, in general CEOs stayed mum and welcomed the corporate tax breaks and deregulatory agenda.
That began to change in the lead up to the election and changed for good once Trump told the Big Lie: That he had actually won the presidential election, and won it in a landslide, for that matter. Trump and his loyal henchmen like Rudy Giuliani and the Fox So-Called News anchors roused the Republican base to “Stop the Steal” and launched over 60 frivolous lawsuits to challenge perceived fraud and irregularities in elections in the key swing states of Arizona, Georgia, Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin. Not a single one of these courts, including those recently stuffed with conservative Trump-appointed judges, found there was any cause to overturn the results. After multiple recounts and audits, Trump’s own consigliere, William Barr, declared there was no fraud and Chris Krebs, the well-respected Director of the government’s Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (or CISA), declared it the “most secure” election ever.
None of this, however, would deter President Pinocchio. As the days ticked down toward Congressional certification of the election results, Trump and team grew more desperate and CEOs, timidly at first, and then more bravely began to add their voices to the journalists, academics and former government officials warning about a threat to American democracy.
One such effort was led by Professor Jeffrey Sonnenfeld of Yale School of Management, who enlisted me to help rally the troops. In a series of Zoom meetings straddling the January 6 insurrection at the Capitol, 40 to 50 prominent current and retired CEOs found their voices. There were parallel efforts by the Business Roundtable and National Association of Manufactures, among others.
As any of the journalists on this video will know, CEOs are notoriously shy to get dragged into what they perceive to be partisan politics. This is not crazy. We don’t want to offend employees with different politics, we don’t want to piss off customers and we are afraid of government retribution. Others like me might have an editorial justification for keeping quiet; still others just feel that they should stick to business issues and not grandstand on the political stage.
My argument to the reticent executives was that Trump’s threat to the rule of law and outright incitement to violence went way beyond the confines of normal politics and had, in fact, become a core business issue. To wit: Respect for the rule of law was not some abstract civics notion — it was the very foundation of a market economy. Businesses rely on the enforcement of contract and property rights, the predictability and stability of judicial review and enforcement, and the peaceful transition of power. The United States benefits greatly from the reserve currency status of the dollar, but this is not some aspect of so-called American Exceptionalism destined to be maintained for all time. Rather, it rests on the strength of the American economy and the pillars of a constitutional democracy. There is a reason so many businesses are organized and listed on US and UK stock exchanges – even Russian oligarchs know this is where you set up shop if you want to avoid the kleptocrats.
Thus, I argued it was incumbent on all of us to raise our voices, but public virtue-signaling was not enough. Davos-like speeches and proclamations have their place, but we needed to hit the political opportunists who were enabling Trump in the only place they cared about — their campaign wallets. So, many of us committed personally and pledged to encourage our companies to no longer contribute to the political campaigns of any of the 140-plus Congressmen who opposed certifying the clear election results. Cynical opportunists such as Ted Cruz and Josh Hawley were singled out. These elite products of Harvard Yale and Oxford, were not just Tea Party yahoos — they knew better, but reasoned they had a free option to pick up the Trump base for their presidential bid aspirations at no cost to them. They knew that the challenge to certification of the election results would fail to pass the Democratic-controlled House, and likely the Senate as well, so there would be no cost to these opportunists. We swore to impose such a cost.
So if this is beginning to sound like some adoring elegy to the CEO class —apologies. I believe we did the absolute bare minimum that responsible leadership requires and that many of us waited far too long to reach this decision. However, with trust in media and government at all time historical lows according to the influential Edelman Trust Barometer, all members of civil society need to raise their voices.
As Ben Franklin is rumored to have replied to an attendee of the Constitutional Convention who asked what form of government was contemplated, a monarchy or a republic. Dr. Franklin famously replied: “A republic – if you can keep it.”
There is some doubt as to whether Franklin actually spoke these words, but there is no doubt after the failed Trump experiment that Americans, even the CEOs among us, have learned this lesson.