For or against? Business leaders feel forced to take a stand on Trump: Don Pittis

Extremist views are forcing business leaders to take a stand on whether to support Trump — part of a growing U.S. polarization that may prove dangerous.

But resignations from president's advisory councils may be accelerating a dangerous polarization

U.S. President Donald Trump, speaking to reporters about last weekend's 'Unite the Right' rally in Charlottesville, Va., has only further divided a polarized electorate. (Kevin Lamarque/Reuters)

"It's time to take a stand" feels like one of life's most noble sentiments, but the words also contain a warning. 

Those, or words like them, have been used repeatedly over the past few days, including in support of business leaders turning their backs on U.S. President Donald Trump by resigning from his various business advisory councils.

"As CEO of Merck and as a matter of personal conscience, I feel a responsibility to take a stand against intolerance and extremism," said pharmaceutical boss Kenneth Frazier, the first to step down from the manufacturing council following extremist violence in Charlottesville, Va.

As outlined in a statement issued by the company on Twitter, Frazier was protesting the U.S. president's failure to issue a clear rejection of the hatred and bigotry demonstrated at the Charlottesville protests. 

But taking a stand is not the preserve of a single side in any debate.

"If current trends continue, White Americans will be a minority in the nation they built. It's time to take a stand," said the the website of the white nationalist group Vanguard America, which uses the Nazi racist slogan "Blood and Soil."

Fresh faces, angry slogans

Armed, bearded, leather-clad neo-Nazi demonstrators dressed like bikers are nothing new in the U.S.

But in Charlottesville, the fresh faces gathered beneath their garden candles, their mouths contorted in angry slogans, felt like a new departure.

To take a stand is an allegory from war. It's when you stop retreating. It is when you stop negotiating.

Some fool took the war-like words literally, driving his car into the opposing ranks, killing Heather Heyer and injuring many others. 

What had begun as a debate over whether a statue of a U.S. Civil War general should remain prominently displayed had become an occasion to take a stand.

Clearly standing up for what you believe in is a valuable thing in a democracy. But just now it feels as if we have reached a new point where people are too willing to be intransigent, where every point of view sounds like an online comments section.

Trump's latest outburst Tuesday, accusing the "alt-left" of charging "with clubs in their hands swinging clubs" at the alt-right, did nothing to calm the waters. 

Trump says the 'alt-left' is also responsible for the Charlottesville violence 0:24

A symbol imbued with meaning

Fortunately for us in Canada, the latest battles over memorials to the Civil War are not ours, and no doubt the statue of Gen. Robert E. Lee has taken on a rich patina of meaning in the nearly one hundred years it has stood in its current location. 

But from my reading of U.S. Civil War history, Lee is a poor symbol for either side. Considered perhaps the best soldier in the pre-war United States army, he was no more racist nor more pro-slavery than many who fought for the North, and probably less so than many. He opposed the war, but finally decided he had to fight on the side of his home state of Virginia once it had taken its political decision.

But as U.S. philosopher Eric Hoffer described in his book The True Believer, symbols are always created and imbued with meaning during times of fanatic mass movements.

It feels as if the the U.S. has once again entered one of those times Hoffer describes, aided and abetted by a polarizing president where "mass movements strive ... to interpose a fact-proof screen between the faithful and the realities of the world."

We have entered a time of polarization, when people are being asked to pick their side.  

What we are in danger of losing is not the ability to take a stand but moderation, the ability to make allowances for different points of view that are not our own, reaching out to find a middle ground.

"The opposite of the religious fanatic is not the fanatical atheist but the gentle cynic," wrote Hoffer.
The statue of Robert E. Lee in Charlottesville has become a symbol of division in an increasingly polarized U.S., where white nationalists wearing Nazi-style helmets used it as a rallying point. (Joshua Roberts/Reuters)

While it's hard to condemn business leaders who act on principle, there is something to be said for those members of the business advisory councils who have stayed in place while making their anti-racist opinions known.

While the ones who have left have had a political impact along polarized lines, the ones who stay will have the opportunity to try to moderate Trump's excesses.

As more of the cynical middle are driven to take a stand and leave, there is a danger that the group that forms Trump's closest counselors will be increasingly populated by those less willing to provide the erratic leader with voices of moderation.

Now is a time that the United States needs those voices.

Follow Don on Twitter @don_pittis

More analysis from Don Pittis

About the Author

Don Pittis

Business columnist

Don Pittis was a forest firefighter, and a ranger in Canada's High Arctic islands. After moving into journalism, he was principal business reporter for Radio Television Hong Kong before the handover to China. He has produced and reported for the CBC in Saskatchewan and Toronto and the BBC in London. He is currently senior producer at CBC's business unit.


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