Time for Nonprofits to Step Up and Make America Good Again
January 17, 2017
Although many Americans are skeptical of Donald Trump's ability to handle his presidential duties, a majority believe he is competent to be president. Nevertheless, the charitable sector should be concerned about what his presidency could mean for nonprofit organizations — and perhaps democracy itself.
The incoming administration has claimed an electoral mandate based on false assertions of massive voter fraud. In reality, Trump lost the popular vote by more than 2 percent — over 2.9 million votes. And he owes his Electoral College victory to 75,000 votes spread across just three states: Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin.
It's important to remember these facts as the country prepares itself for an onslaught of executive orders and regressive policy initiatives likely to come out of the White House and the Republican-controlled Congress. Needless to say, many of those initiatives will belie the core values and progressive goals of the philanthropic community.
We know that a majority of Americans support some of President-elect Trump's proposals, including lower and simpler taxes for the middle class; more spending on infrastructure, the military, and veterans' services; and term limits and new ethics rules for members of Congress (although Congress itself opposes the last two).
We also know that most Americans are opposed to Trump's proposals to lower taxes on high-income Americans, build a wall on the border with Mexico (even before Congress said it would cost taxpayers billions of dollars), and deport illegal immigrants without offering them a pathway to citizenship, as well as his preference for fossil fuels over renewable energy sources.
Furthermore, unlike the president-elect and Congress, most Americans want to see Obamacare improved, not repealed and replaced. They want to see government regulations improved, not weakened or eliminated. And while they believe small businesses pay too much tax, they believe corporations pay too little.
What really ought to alarm those who work in the nonprofit sector, however, is Donald Trump's affinity for strongman leaders, an attachment he shares with Russian president Vladimir Putin, a man he greatly admires. Indeed, like Putin, the president-elect is not averse to bullying his opponents, and he encourages such behavior in others. He also has a low tolerance for disagreement and dissent and has little apparent regard for the truth. While, for example, there is agreement in the intelligence community that Putin ordered a multi-faceted effort designed to help Trump win the election, the president-elect seems intent on protecting the Russian president, and himself, by suggesting that his intelligence briefing on the matter determined that those efforts had no effect on the outcome.
The Trump/Putin bromance and their shared affinity for authoritarian leadership pose a real and present danger for nonprofits. Putin has done much to strengthen oligarchy in Russia. Trump, himself a billionaire, has appointed a number of billionaires and individuals with significant wealth to his cabinet, and he seems untroubled by the Republican-controlled Senate's efforts to wrap up confirmation hearings for his nominees before all background checks have been completed.
Moreover, while Trump insists that as president he cannot have any conflicts of interest because he is exempt from ethics laws, he fails to mention or acknowledge other Constitutional dictates, and it is clear that he, his family and his cronies are unlikely to lose sleep over future suggestion of corruption. Just as troubling is the fact that when the head of the Office of Government Ethics declared the president-elect's plan to separate himself from his business empire woefully inadequate, Congressional Republicans called him to a closed-door hearing and threatened to cut funding for the office.
In the weeks and months to come, nonprofit organizations and foundations working to advance the public good are likely to find the president-elect's actions troubling in several ways. Specific policy initiatives that favor the wealthy at no small cost to ordinary people and the environment will create one set of problems. Efforts to privatize government services are likely to create another. And, if Putin's actions are any guide, having an individual in the White House with authoritarian proclivities could well create a third set of problems for the sector — and our democracy.
Indeed, if nonprofit leaders believe that civil society in the U.S. is constitutionally protected in a way its Russian counterpart is not, they should think again. The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled, in Rust v. Sullivan (1991), that government can restrict the free speech and prohibit actions of any charitable organization it subsidizes, and it has declared tax exemption a subsidy in Regan v. Taxation With Representation of Washington (1983). This gives a President Trump the latitude to bully and intimidate charities if he so chooses.
The charitable sector's efforts to serve people and protect the planet depend in large part on its capacity to encourage empathy and speak truth to power. The choice to remain silent, of keeping a low profile and hoping the bully will focus his attention elsewhere, is a recipe for failure.
Instead, charities must increase their capacity for engagement and advocacy, not run from it. Doing so means learning to operate in ways that eliminate traditional divides. For starters, nonprofit organizations and philanthropy should make it a priority to frame and promote specific policies in ways that everyone can understand and appreciate — and that recognize people's very different realities.
They also must be clear that disagreements over policy are not the result of inherent failings in people, regardless of which side of a controversial issue (or presidential contest) they might take. People, especially those who feel unseen and ignored, need to have their value as individuals affirmed and their agency respected.
The nonprofit community should take a lesson from the successful efforts of the Project on Government Oversight (POGO), working in collaboration with other organizations. In the face of congressional Republicans' egregious decision to weaken enforcement of ethics rules meant to rein in lobbyist cronyism, advocacy groups quickly mobilized public action and deluged House members with calls and emails that soon had House leadership working to reverse the ill-considered move even before President-elect Trump could tweet his own displeasure.
For a brief moment, at any rate, the popular outcry seemed to bridge differences between Trump voters, mainstream Republican voters, and those who opposed his election. This was something we all could agree on. And it demonstrated the power of effective organizing and public action when issues are framed in ways that appeal to our sense fairness and the widespread conviction that disrespect, abuse of power, and corruption on the part of the powerful cannot be tolerated in a democracy.
By helping people do the right thing, charities and philanthropy can, as a friend of mine likes to say, make America good again. Beyond fighting for compassionate and sound public policy that benefits all of us, the nonprofit sector must stand up to a self-serving bully whose leadership threatens to further erode public confidence in government and its accountability to voters, not to mention civil society itself.
Mark Rosenman is a professor emeritus at the Union Institute & University. To read more of his posts, click here.