January 04, 2016

In the Time of Trump, Philanthropy Must Find Its Voice

Justin Sullivan, Getty Images

The neo-Nazi website Daily Stormer calls Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump "the ultimate Savior," citing his immigration proposals.

January often starts for me with Christmas tunes still ringing in my head from the holiday season. You know how it goes: Bruce Springsteen’s "Santa Claus Is Coming to Town" plays from car radio to home stereo to holiday party, and soon you can’t clear it out of your mind.

What’s playing back this month, though, isn’t a tune. It’s a quote from, of all things, World War II-era fascist Europe. It’s that famous admonition from the German Protestant leader, the Rev. Martin Niemöller:

"First they came for the socialists, and I did not speak out — because I was not a socialist. Then they came for the trade unionists, and I did not speak out — because I was not a trade unionist. Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out — because I was not a Jew. Then they came for me — and there was no one left to speak for me."

Pastor Niemöller — who was mortified for the rest of his life that he had not opposed fascism at its beginning — bequeathed to civilization his stark warning about failing to speak out against hate and oppression.

I know it is wise for the president of a community foundation to eschew commentary on partisan politics, and I do not usually intrude myself or my foundation into that arena. But I think the almost daily demagoguery served up by leading Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump goes far beyond partisan politics. It is part of the current political dialogue, to be sure. But it is much more than that in its tendency toward the fascistic: It is a threat to civility, to civil discourse, and to public trust.

Some of my foundation colleagues dismiss Mr. Trump as just the latest presidential-election demagogue in a long line of performers. Those of us managing big philanthropies and nonprofits should not, they say, draw any more attention to him than he already is getting. Our job is to be the adults in the room, stay above the political fray, and concentrate on solving big problems and investing in big ideas.

I understand the caution, but maybe my colleagues missed a telling website screed at the end of 2015: Mr. Trump has snagged the Hitler vote.

The neo-Nazi website Daily Stormer venerates Mr. Trump as "the ultimate Savior" on its website and in its endorsement of him for president, giddily citing immigration policy proposals such as his plan to deport 11 million Mexican immigrants. It just makes me wonder how many leaders in 1930s Germany and beyond had the same "above-the-fray" attitude about similar rhetoric coming from political performers — until it was too late.

Our job in building the strength of the communities we serve is to develop the understanding and trust needed to enable the various factions in our regions to find solutions for the most pressing problems we face. In a political environment in which those important qualities — understanding, trust, respect — are mocked and denigrated, it is far less likely that we will be able to advance the power of community.

Mr. Trump is an accomplished performer, and he has taken his acting skills from television to the hustings to great effect, attracting a large following and stirring this presidential-election cycle into a ferment of accusation and vituperation. He has been condemned by most of the other candidates for president, Republican and Democrat, and by much of the media. But his following is not diminished; it is growing. In the latest national polls, he leads the second-place candidate, Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, by double digits.

What Donald Trump represents is a threat to the very idea of community. The normal discourse of politics can produce a sharing of ideas and perspectives that leads to common ground and facilitates communal action. Historically in this country, this common ground has been the basis for solving our most persistent problems.

Mr. Trump has gone beyond criticizing or contradicting his opponents: He has vilified them, calling the other candidates and most of the media fools and miscreants and, more recently, "scum." He has disrespected and mocked Hispanics, African-Americans, Muslims, women, and people with disabilities. He has shown clearly — and reveled in the fact — that he has virtually no respect for others or for their perspectives.

At his rallies, which sometimes are marked by violence against those who speak against him, he stirs his supporters in ways reminiscent of fascists from the past. Most of us in philanthropy understand the danger: Mr. Trump’s brand of demagoguery is a threat to a democratic society. It is a threat to our Bill of Rights and the freedoms affirmed in our Constitution.

Most recently, Mr. Trump has taken after the First Amendment, suggesting that our guarantees of religious freedom and tolerance can be suspended. He is advocating a "total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States until our country’s representatives can figure out what is going on." Mr. Trump suggests that the threat to the United States from jihadist terrorism can best be met by excluding from our country a significant part of the world’s population based solely on religion. This cuts against the First Amendment and the Constitution — in fact, against the very reason that the founding fathers birthed our nation.

The First Amendment, of course, guarantees that Donald Trump has the right to say what he wants. But the rest of us must be careful about offering support to someone who shows little respect for the rights of others. It is the First Amendment he is coming after now. But what other amendments might he later find annoying and inconvenient? What about the Constitution itself?

"First he came for the First Amendment, and I did not speak out ..."

When political dialogue gets to the point of threatening the democratic process, that’s when Pastor Niemöller’s admonition matters most.

I want a society that offers the most open, vibrant, and varied political dialogue imaginable. But I want a society that respects and protects the rights of Hispanics, African-Americans, Muslims, women, those with disabilities — and everyone else.

I want America.

Maxwell King is chief executive of the Pittsburgh Foundation.