Corporate leaders who have been dithering about whether or not to rebuke President Trump on racism have just been served with a new, bottom-line justification for raising their voices. Over his final months in office, President Trump has enlisted the powerful resources of this office to wage a racially charged fight against the results of the 2020 U.S. general election, leaving the U.S. leaderless as a massive cyberattack struck federal agencies and businesses, too.
The president’s history of using race to raise his public profile has been well documented, and corporate leaders have been largely silent every step of the way. In 1989, Trump positioned himself as a law-and-order advocate by calling for the death penalty in the case of a white female jogger who was allegedly raped by a gang of teenagers. Five young Black teenagers, ages 14 to 16, were subsequently convicted and jailed for the crime, only to be exonerated and freed in 2002.
The five men received a $41 million settlement from New York City in 2014. By then, Trump, and his wife Melania Trump, had moved on to focusing the law-and-order theme on another Black man, then-President Barack Obama.
The Trumps became leading proponents of the “birther” conspiracy which, despite every fact to the contrary, held that Obama was not a natural born citizen of the United States and therefore not constitutionally permitted to hold the office of U.S. President.
Trump’s fixation on the birther conspiracy intensified in 2011, when Obama humiliated him in widely reported remarks during the 2011 annual White House Correspondents Association dinner. That reportedly set the stage for Trump’s decision to campaign for the Oval Office, beginning in the summer of 2015.
All during the 2016 general election cycle, Trump’s campaign rhetoric was marked by a running attack on various ethnic groups and immigrants. He drew support from people aligned with white supremacy and anti-immigrant ideology, and his focus on coal jobs reflected a long history of racial tension in an industry dominated by white males.
The pattern continued through his term in office, starting with the infamous “Muslim ban” and continuing through to first presidential debate in September, when white supremacists took encouragement from his now-infamous “stand back and stand by” comment.
Many high profile business leaders did protest the Muslim ban, family separations and other racially charged policies, though some had to be prompted by employee activists and other organizations. However, as a group they refrained from connecting the dots to overt racism, even when Trump ramped up his law-and-order rhetoric on the heels of the Black Lives Matter protests last summer.
The racism and law-and-order themes came full circle in the run-up to the November 3 general election. In widely reported remarks, Trump and his allies preemptively and repeatedly claimed that the election would be riddled with fraud. After the Associated Press called the race for Joe Biden on November 7, they continued to pursue these claims through 60 unsuccessful legal challenges, pivoting on a theme of massive fraud perpetrated mainly by Black voters.
Meanwhile, high profile corporate leaders refrained from directly rebuking Trump on his race-based election challenge strategy, with only a handful of exceptions.
A red flag came on November 17, when Trump summarily fired Chris Krebs, the director of the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency in the Department of Homeland Security, after Krebs affirmed that there was no widespread election fraud.
The firing raised concerns that a key cybersecurity office would be left rudderless during the sensitive presidential transition period.
Those fears were borne out three weeks later, on December 8, Kevin Mandia, CEO of the cybersecurity firm FireEye, revealed that the U.S. had been hit by a widespread, state-sanctioned cybersecurity attack impacting both government agencies and private sector firms.
“Recently, we were attacked by a highly sophisticated threat actor, one whose discipline, operational security, and techniques lead us to believe it was a state-sponsored attack,” Mandia wrote, adding that “We are actively investigating in coordination with the Federal Bureau of Investigation and other key partners, including Microsoft.”
The story continued to unspool over the following days with a focus on Russia as being behind the cyberattack. On Sunday, Reuters reported that “hackers believed to be working for Russia have been monitoring internal email traffic at the U.S. Treasury and Commerce departments.”
By Monday, the extent of the cyberattack began to take shape, with the email systems of the Department of Homeland Security and the National Institutes of Health also involved, with possibly many other government offices and private firms victimized.
The hack was apparently spinning out for weeks if not months before its discovery by FireEye - which means that Trump fired Krebs even as the nation was under this long cyberattack.
As of this writing, it is unclear how much damage has been done, and Trump has yet to acknowledge that a cyberattack of this scale took place on his watch. What is clear is that corporate America has adopted a business-as-usual approach to the Trump administration that fails to account for a president who is far from usual, and the security of the nation is now under threat.
Business leaders were forced to reexamine their own policies as the Black Lives Matter movement reenergized, but they never dug deep enough to force the president to stop fostering racial strife and start focusing on actual crises, including the COVID-19 outbreak and climate change in addition to matters of national security.
It is not too late to speak out, as the president apparently plans to enlist the resources of the entire Republican party to continue harrying and harassing the nation all throughout the Biden administration, leading up to a possible run for a second term during the 2024 election cycle.
Unfortunately, a new report focusing on the high profile financial institutions Vanguard and BlackRock from the organization Majority Action indicates that some business leaders are still not ready to act more forcefully on racism, despite all the recent corporate pledges on racial justice this year.
“The report finds that these institutions largely voted their proxies to shield companies from responsibility for harm to communities of color caused by major corporations,” Majority Action stated in an email.
The report also indicates that powerful financial institutions use their proxies to support the status quo among boards with no Black directors. According to Majority Action, BlackRock voted to support the entire boards of 163 out of 178 S&P firms that had no Black directors as of their annual meetings, and Vanguard voted to support the entire board at 166 companies.
In addition, the report found a pattern of voting against shareholder activists demanding more transparency.
“BlackRock and Vanguard voted to shield management from shareholder efforts to improve corporate disclosures of lobbying activities and political contributions,” Majority Action said, adding that “Corporate policy influence has substantial direct and indirect impacts on communities of color, including on issues relating to economic inequality, civil rights, and environmental justice.”
Those votes can make all the difference. Majority Action took note of 20 shareholder resolutions that could have passed with support from BlackRock, Vanguard and a third firm, State Street.
President-elect Joe Biden will take office as scheduled on January 20, but U.S. business leaders should not presume that the racial divisions sown by Trump will fade away, especially not if Trump continues to grab the media spotlight and radicalize his supporters.
Now more than ever, corporate leaders need to call Trump out on racism, insist that he buckle down and do his job, and push back vigorously against any future plans he may have for fostering a race war in this country.
Image credit: PxHere
Tina writes frequently for TriplePundit and other websites, with a focus on military, government and corporate sustainability, clean tech research and emerging energy technologies. She is a former Deputy Director of Public Affairs of the New York City Department of Environmental Protection, and author of books and articles on recycling and other conservation themes. She is currently Deputy Director of Public Information for the County of Union, New Jersey. Views expressed here are her own and do not necessarily reflect agency policy.