Saturday, October 31, 2020

Why I Refuse to Stoop to President Trump’s Level

Biden hugs an attendee of a campaign event in Ames, Iowa (Al Drago/Getty Images)


“Knowing what’s right doesn’t mean much unless you do what’s right.”
-Franklin Roosevelt
 

My friends and my family don’t understand why I refuse to rage against Donald Trump and publicly denigrate him, insult and spew venom at his supporters; which is now de rigeur in all of my friend and family circles.

Many years ago, I was faced with an ugly and untenable situation at work. I had an erratic, nasty and underhand boss. He lied, actively worked to undermine me and regularly took credit for my thinking. He scheduled meetings, so I would not be able to attend. Unaware of his malicious intent, I went to him to understand how I got left out of important client meetings. He claimed the client rescheduled at the last minute and forced him to share the work and he was unable to contact me. I took him at his word because we did have a really difficult, unreasonable and demanding client.

But after this started to happen regularly, I learned from my client that my boss was telling them that I was unavailable for the meeting. Armed with this information I confronted him. First he stood firm and blamed the clients. When I divulged the information I had, he claimed that the client was lying in a bid to undermine my relationship with him.

At this point I decided it was time to go to Human Resources and file an official complaint. They showed concern and listened empathetically, and then offered a solution that amounted to shifting responsibility. They asked that I sit down with the managing director, my boss’s boss, and share my problems with him.

In good faith I went to the managing director. He too listened patiently and at the end of our session stated categorically that my boss’s behaviour was unacceptable, and that it would not be tolerated, but went on to add that the client relationship was tenuous and that rocking the boat might result in losing one of the agency’s largest accounts.

Seeing my crestfallen face, he offered to keep an eye on the situation, saying that he would ask my boss to make sure I was invited to all client meetings. Engulfed with a sense of hopelessness but not being a quitter, I decided seek my father’s professional advice.

My father was my hero and he was a man of unquestioning integrity and principles, one of the wisest people I have had the privilege of having in my orbit. I miss his counsel. He told me two things that I have never forgotten.

He said, “Son, rarely, if ever, in life will you be able to choose the people you work with or have to deal with. If you are lucky you will encounter well-meaning and decent people, but more often than not you will have to deal with liars, backstabbers and dishonest ones. We don’t get to choose who we work with, but you always have a choice about how you react and respond.”

You can sink to their level, respond in kind by undermining them and by being uncivil in return, and even convince yourself that your bad behaviour is justified by theirs. Or you can refuse to compromise on your integrity, decency and professionalism even as you stand up and face bullies like him.” 

The second thing he said is that because we are highly charged emotional beings, we should always step back and assess such situations objectively before deciding on a final course of action. By consciously detaching our emotions it is not that we ignore them, but we give our brains time and space for our rational side to weigh-in, and avoid reacting and making decisions clouded by the haze of emotion.

I took his advice and slept on it. With raw emotion no longer clouding my judgement, I found clarity. I realized that if I walked away, the amazing team of young kids reporting to me would be put in the line of fire. Plus I really enjoyed my job and was not willing to let a bully take that away from me. I had the power to take action, and now I needed a game plan. 

The managing director was well-meaning, but he could not police every meeting. So I would use him strategically for the wars, while starting to document my daily battles. I decided to make myself indispensable to my clients and internal teams, while also collecting evidence to record my boss’s erratic, unprofessional and damaging behaviour. 

My goal was not to make life easier for myself, but to ensure that this man would not be able to make anyone else’s work life miserable. I established a direct line with senior clients, careful never to bad mouth or share my internal problems with them. Most importantly, I was clear that I would never lie, be rude, undercut or undermine my boss or behave like him. I was resolved to do my job to the best of my ability, but keep my eyes open to better navigate obstacles I knew he would put in my way.

After this, my boss’s behaviour started to become even more erratic and hostile, because I refused to engage on his terms, play by his dirty rules or react to things he would do to trip me up. He started sending me late night email missives and leaving drunken voicemails and seemed completely at a loss about how to handle my refusal to take his bait. After a few months he started taking sick days, leaving early and often not showing up to work at all.

It was in that moment that I realised the wisdom of my father’s advice. Had I retaliated, based on how he had treated me, I would have placed myself outside my comfort zone and would be playing by his rules. By not doing this I had also set an example to the young people around me, who could clearly see the difference between professionalism and his unprofessional behaviour.

Had I stooped to my boss’s level, I might have made myself feel better for a few minutes, but I would have done nothing to solve the problem, would have set a poor example and would have felt shitty for betraying my professional integrity.

Six months later I was able to go back to HR with evidence in hand. They put my boss on official notice, pending a three month probation period. At the same time they found an opportunity for me on another business. It was a promotion and a better career opportunity, but I was ready to move because I had stared down a bully, on my terms, and done the hard work to ensure he would never do this to another person at my company. A month after I moved off the business, I heard they fired my boss.

So what does all this have to do with Donald Trump?

President Trump is a bully. Over the years I have dealt with many bullies; from bosses to clients to colleagues, but never once did I compromise my integrity and sense of decency in standing up to them.

There have been times when my job has been on the line, but for me it is not about the cost or the outcome, but about who I am. I would rather lose, than win by behaving in a manner that requires me to conduct myself in ways I don’t respect in others.

I will always stand and fight but never treat those who have hurt, harmed or insulted me with the same lack of dignity they have shown me. That is the difference between me and people like that and it is a line I will never cross, no matter the cost; career, family, country or life.

This is why I support Joe Biden. He has been clear that he will not play by Mr. Trump’s rules and will never stoop to the President’s level by insulting him personally or denigrating his supporters. Win or lose, Mr. Biden has a line he will not cross because if he does, he understands that he can no longer claim a difference between his and the President's behaviour.

By refusing to take the bait and attack Mr. Trump personally, unlike Mrs. Clinton, Mr. Biden has also succeeded in pushing the President outside his comfort zone. The President does not know how to respond or fight back, and we can see his desperation growing. Mr. Trump has become even more erratic and self-destructive. Whether it is begging suburban women to vote for him, or saying that he is no longer willing to negotiate a stimulus deal, something that will hurt him and cost him more votes than Mr. Biden.

For me the bottom line is this: the day we start to justify our bad behaviour and forego our sense of decency based on Mr. Trump, or anyone else's bad behaviour, is the day people like that can truly claim victory over us.

Saturday, September 26, 2020

Justice Ginsburg, Our Democracy and Doing the Right Thing

Supreme Court Justices Antonin Scalia and Ruth Bader Ginsburg ride an elephant in India.

(Image: Collection of the Supreme Court of the United States)

 

"Sometimes it helps to be a little deaf."
-Ruth Bader Ginsburg

I was deeply saddened to hear of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s death, but have become more concerned with the effect it will have on our ailing democracy. The political battle to fill her seat will provide fuel to an out-of-control partisan fire, forty-five days before what is already one of the most divisive and contentious elections in our history.

Even before RBG’s body was laid to rest, the battle lines were drawn along the predictable partisan lines. Mitch McConnell sounded the Republican battle cry by releasing a statement the same evening intimating that he would ensure Mr. Trump’s nominee received a floor vote on the Senate. Conservative media followed suit with a chorus of approval and a stark warning for their elected leaders that they must procee“because the Democrats intend to crush us if they can, and if the GOP wimps out, our voters will melt down.

Liberal media too came prepared for battle. A Pulitzer Prize winning New York Times columnist opined that “if Republicans do give Ginsburg’s seat to some Federalist Society fanatic, Democrats must, if they win back the presidency and the Senate, abolish the filibuster and expand the court, adding two seats to account for both Garland and Ginsburg.” The paper’s editorial board followed with an attempt to rile the liberal base saying “Senate Republicans, who represent a minority of the nation, and a president elected by a minority of the nation, are now in a position to solidify their control of the third branch of government.”

I too felt the anger and moral outrage being expressed by my liberal tribe, and dismay at Mr. McConnell’s hypocrisy. In 2016, he refused to even hold hearings for President Obama’s nominee, saying that it was too close to an election. Now even closer to an election, he is marching forward only because his party has the advantage.

We live in an age where we feel pressure to constantly react on social media, before our brains have time to process, reflect and thoughtfully consider information. We know that our brains function best when we take the time to consider complex issues, rather than react in the moment. Studies show that the more time we spend on social media the more it leads to Groupthink, described by Irving L. Janis’s in his 1970’s book as the “deterioration of mental efficiency, reality testing and moral judgment that results from in-group pressures.”

This time I decided not to react. I turned off social media, read what the constitution mandated, looked for historical precedents and spent time reviewing arguments from both sides.

Article II, Section 2, Clause 2 of the United States Constitution empowers the president to nominate any individual he or she chooses. The nominee must then face hearings before the Senate Judiciary Committee, which votes to send the nomination to the full Senate for confirmation. We can argue about nominating someone so close to an election, but there is nothing in the constitution that prohibits this.

In 1968 President Lyndon Johnson found himself in a similar predicament when he nominated a Supreme Court justice after stating that that he would not seek a second-term. His announcement all but guaranteed that Richard Nixon would win the upcoming election, since the Democrat’s best hope to beat him, Robert F. Kennedy, had been assassinated.

Despite Mr. Johnson’s lame duck status the Republican minority leader Everett Dirksen went against his party and supported the nomineebecause he respected his legal brilliance and said it was the right thing to do. Even Nixon who had made appointing law and order justice’s a campaign promise did not oppose it, saying he “would not interfere with the Senate’s right to decide on the nomination.” In the end majority Southern Democrats joined by minority Republicans managed to filibuster the nomination which led Johnson to withdraw his nominee.

In 1992, Joe Biden, then Chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, forcefully argued that if President Bush put forward a Supreme Court nominee during an election year, his committee would "seriously consider not scheduling confirmation hearings on the nomination until after the political campaign season is over". Much like Mr. McConnell explained how the situation in 2016 was different, Mr. Biden too had an explanation for his changed stance after being accused of similar hypocrisy.

Biden had also argued in 2016 that the Republican senate’s reluctance to fill the vacancy could “lead to a genuine constitutional crisis, born out of the dysfunction of Washington…”. This outcome is more likely now with a contentious election that might end up in the courts, especially since we have an incumbent President who refuses to say if he will accept the election result. With eight justices it is possible the court will become deadlocked, which means the decision would default to a lower court ruling.

Democrats also need to accept responsibility for the hyper-partisan nomination processes that we now routinely witness. In 2013, when Democrats controlled the White House and Senate, Harry Reid the Senate majority leader used the ‘nuclear option’ to change a long-standing rule that required 60 votes to overcome a filibuster, to a simple majority. He did this for all executive appointments and judicial nominations, excluding the Supreme Court. The move was considered short-sighted and criticized by scholars, pundits, current and former politicians on both sides. Republican Senator John Thune begged Mr. Reid not to proceed and warned him “What goes around comes around.” In 2016, Republicans back in control of the Senate returned the favour by invoking the nuclear option to appoint Justice Gorsuch to the Supreme Court.

Interestingly, I came across a 2016 New York Times interview with Justice Ginsburg, where she unequivocally states that it is the President’s duty to fill a vacancy and the Senate’s job to take up the vote. She adds “there’s nothing in the Constitution that says the president stops being president in his last year.”

There are many things to admire about Justice Ginsburg but her fearlessness and independent-mindedness are what I most admired. Even though she was a liberal icon, she was never afraid to break from the tribe and stand against the majority view.

She publicly defended Brett Kavanaugh and Neil Gorsuch, saying they were both " very decent and very smart individuals".  She was staunchly against a growing chorus in the Democratic Party that wants to pack the courts. She reiterated this position last year saying that "If anything would make the court look partisan, it would be that – one side saying, 'When we're in power, we're going to enlarge the number of judges, so we would have more people who would vote the way we want them to.” Never shy to express an opinion, she did not agree with Colin Kaepernick’s racial justice protest, saying in 2016 that kneeling for the national anthem was dumb and disrespectful.”

At a time when a Pew Research survey finds that only 45 percent of Democrats and 38 percent of Republicans say they share any “values and goals” with members of the other party, we need to remind ourselves of her close friendship with Antonin Scalia. Two people who could not have been further apart on the ideological spectrum. As a tribute, Justice Scalia’s son shared a string of tweets showing how deeply his father cared for ‘Ruth’. The late justice once challenged by someone about the fact that his friendship with Ruth had not resulted in any support from her on the bench, responded by saying, “some things in life are more important than votes".

I believe Justice Ginsburg would want us all to remember that we are not warring enemy factions but an opinionated and cantankerous democracy. When a family of four cannot agree on pizza toppings, why do we expect 330 million people to agree on far more contentious issues?

The point is that we need to respect and celebrate not just diversity of skin colour but also of our wildly differing viewpoints. Like every family, we do not have to agree on everything but we do need to find ways to compromise and live together under the same roof. If we continue to blindly default to preset partisan positions, and think of ourselves as us and them, we will only serve to weaken our union and allow adversaries like Russia to exploit these divisions.

At a time when the future of our union is in danger and the credibility of our democratic institutions continues to be imperiled by increasing political polarisation, I believe we the people need to break this cycle of tit for tat partisan escalation.

There is no evidence that Republican-appointed justices destroy the ‘liberal way of life’. In fact, the opposite is true. The data and evidence shows that Democrat appointed justices remain solidly liberal while Republican appointed justices shift leftwards over time. Sandra Day O’Connor and Anthony Kennedy, both Reagan appointees moved solidly leftwards, as did John Paul Stevens, who was appointed as a moderate. David Souter, a George H. W. Bush appointee, considered to be solid conservative, became a reliably liberal voice on governmental powers, social justice and equal protection issues. Even Antonin Scalia’s views liberalized from his extremely conservative positions of the late 1990s. More recently, Chief Justice John Roberts has routinely sided with the liberal wing on high profile cases, much to the dismay of Conservatives.

Also, polls show that the Supreme Court remains one of the most trusted institutions, even after Trump’s two appointments, with nearly 70 percent of respondents in an Annenberg Civics Knowledge Survey saying they trust the court to “operate in the best interests of the American people”. Contrast this with Congress’s approval rating, which stands at 18 percent.

Democratic Senator Christopher Murphy said in 2016 that “The president fulfilled his constitutional obligation today, now the Senate must fulfill ours ... If Senate Republicans refuse to consider the president’s nominee, they will be willingly violating the spirit of that sworn oath”. Republicans had zero justification to block President Obama’s nominee. It was nothing more than an unprincipled and calculated political maneuver. But the same holds true now and two wrongs don’t make a right. For this reason, my conscience will not permit me to block hearings and a vote on President Trump’s nominee because unlike Mr. McConnell and his Republican colleagues, I am no hypocrite.

Doing the right thing is never meant to be easy, convenient, or done only when a desired outcome is guaranteed. Following Justice Ginsburg’s advice I am going to be a little deaf to the din of my liberal tribe baying for revenge and break the cycle of partisan vengeance.

I believe it is the right thing to do for the future of our democracy. Some things are more important than political victories.