What Trump’s Success Says About America

If we believe in the American Dream for ourselves, we absolutely must believe in it for others.

For many, many weeks (ok, months), I’ve wanted to write about how bad Donald Trump is for America and why he is not qualified to be President.  My interest in this topic is about more than just a fascination with politics and civic issues.

In fact, I think the issues raised by Donald Trump’s success are of fundamental importance for all of us in the business world.  Trump and others are the canaries in the coal mine telling us that America has a deep, dangerous illness that we must address.

I’ve been under the delusion that Trump would eventually do something so offensive that he would blow himself up in the campaign, but since that has not happened yet, let’s make sure we are clear on a few points:

  • Donald Trump is the Vince McMahon of politics and has turned the Republican Party into his own, personal WWE Smackdown series.
  • He consistently makes fascist remarks that are offensive to women, minorities, immigrants, and basic American principles, while demonstrating a megalomaniac ego that supports bullying as an appropriate means to personal ends.
  • His policy proclamations are offensive, lack specificity, are unlikely to be approved by Congress, and reveal a profound lack of knowledge in many areas.
  • As a business leader, he has demonstrated that he lacks the ethics and moral character to be a CEO much less the President of the United States.

In a time of turmoil, it is difficult to imagine someone less suited for such an important leadership position.  Although I loved Marco Rubio’s rant about Trump (see video below), I’ve concluded that calling Trump out misses the more important point.

The real problem we have is not Donald Trump (or Bernie Sanders or Ted Cruz or Hillary Clinton) – the real issue in our country is that many, many Americans are isolated, disillusioned, and downright angry.  Trump (and Sanders to some degree) have tapped into this subconscious vein of hatred and explicitly mined it to generate interest and votes.  I call this phenomenon the “Inequality Illness,” and it is this disease that should scare all of us in business and spur us to urgent and persistent action.

The symptoms of this illness first came to light with the “Occupy Wall Street” movement and then spread to include racial tensions and biases, religious persecutions in acts and laws, domestic terrorist recruitment, and a lopsided recovery from the Great Recession (see chart below)

In part, this disease is an economic malady where you are either “in or out”, but I believe it runs deeper than that.  People are downright angry that the deck seems fundamentally stacked unfairly and prevents them from changing their circumstances.  When they don’t see any light in the tunnel, when they believe that the system is rigged, when they give up hope – the only possible action is to lash out.

And when a politician or community leader tells them that their problems are caused by blacks/Hispanics/whites, women, Muslims, the rich, the government, transsexuals, or some other group they can demonize, people channel their anger accordingly.  Candidates who prey on people’s understandable fears and anxieties are just not qualified to lead our country.

Instead the business community needs to support leaders who actually have practical ideas that will address the foundational issues that are systematically dividing our country. The knee jerk reactions to “tax the rich more” or conversely “get the government out of my hair,” don’t hold much hope for actually addressing the fundamental problems.  Instead we must focus on the causal issues that are at the heart of the problem:

1. Capitalism Is Alive but Not Well

I am a firm believer in the basic tenets of the capitalist model – and that this model is superior to any other economic approach in the world.  But we have allowed our economic equation to get out of balance in dramatic ways.

Tax reform is desperately needed to return simplicity, transparency, and fairness to the system, and sacred budget cows need to be addressed so that the country has a sustainable business model.  Minimum wage schemes across the country have fallen behind marketplace realities and do not provide for a living wage.  CEOs who have lost sight of their ethical obligations need to be held accountable, and corporate boards must address the unjustified pay disparities between the top and the bottom of the organization.

Instead of demonizing capitalism, we should address the biases and abuses in what is a great economic system.

2. Education and the Job Market

Roughly 20% of teens in America will not graduate from high school.  Without that basic level of education, they have little hope for a living wage job and even less hope to improve their quality of their life. Even if students graduate from high school, it’s not clear they have the skills required for the new economy.

We need to recognize that not everyone needs to go to college to have a living-wage skill set.  Associate degrees and vocational certifications are a better path for many and have the added benefit of not leaving them tens of thousands of dollars in debt.  We need quality in our education system and a focus on skills that lead to living wage jobs.

3. Start the Innovation Engine

America is a land of creativity and innovation – and we demonstrate that in pursuit of profit and reward regularly.  It is high time we applied those same skills to the persistent inequality issues we face – the question before us is how we marry the wealth of creative thinking led by our business community with the needs we have in our civic institutions?  Can we take our innovation DNA and apply it to the civic issues that are going to re-shape our country over the next twenty years?

In my book Xbox Revisited: A Game Plan for Corporate and Civic Renewal, I call this work Civic Engineering – applying all of our skills and talents to problems that affect our local, state, and national communities.  If we could create an “army of civic engineers”, where would we apply their talents?  To borrow from the world of venture capital, we must explore disruptive approaches to change the course of our civic institutions so that they serve their customers more effectively.

4. More Than Government

Although Washington, DC mostly has been paralyzed to address this illness, the problem is much bigger than congressional and presidential dysfunction.  All of these issues are multifaceted and intertwined so the idea that one idea or one organization is going to unravel that string successfully is highly suspect.

Instead, we need government agencies, community non-profits, and businesses to work together to address these systemic issues.  Building partnerships across communities allows groups with different skill sets and capabilities to apply their superpowers in appropriate areas.  It also brings people together to work toward a common cause which is a benefit in and of itself.  When supported consistently and across time, this process of Collective Action can bring hope and transform communities.

5. Go Local

Leaving endless election debates aside, the people who matter the most…the ones who can drive productive change and improve our circumstances most effectively…lie in our local and state organizations.  Regardless of how you feel about the specific issues, the $15 minimum wage movement and the recognition of gay marriages were undoubtedly driven by local initiatives.

Independent of how you vote for President (and I may just leave that spot blank), it is your willingness to get involved in local issues and your vote for local leaders that really matters.  Take action – don’t end up like Mississippi or my home state of North Carolina.

Even these ideas don’t answer a core question:  why should small businesses, labor leaders, trade organizations, young professionals, and those looking for their next career advancement care about the Inequality Illness?  I’d like to believe that we should all want to help others and provide for equal opportunity – but that is both too easy an answer and sadly one that won’t generate a sufficient response.

The underlying truth is that our democracy, our economy, our ability to innovate, our very economic well-being is fundamentally premised on social stability and the belief in a fair contract.  Apathy, disenfranchisement, anger, and social displacement all eat at the very foundation of our American fabric.  If we allow them to set in, we sow the seeds for a massive upheaval that will set off a destructive chain reaction of events.

In a capitalist, democratic system, the business world must take on these issues directly – from the CEO all the way down to the entry level employee.  This is certainly about social justice but it is absolutely about our self-interest and economic well-being as well. If we believe in the American Dream for ourselves, we absolutely must believe in it for others.

The bottom line is that we are all better than Donald Trump – hopefully as business people but certainly as citizens.  I know that supporters appreciate Trump’s frankness and candor – both admirable characteristics.  It is high time the rest of the business community stand up and be frank and candid about what ails our country and what we can do to cure the patient.