When “American Carnage” is the Tone at the Top
I was having a pretty good day yesterday, full of minor but meaningful personal and professional accomplishments, and then all hell broke loose in Washington, DC. I pushed the news of it away as best I could, so I am less informed than I otherwise would be, but I am sad, angry, and ashamed nonetheless.
Per Philip Rucker in The Washington Post:
The “American carnage” that Donald Trump vowed to end at the dawn of his presidency was revived in terrifying, treacherous form at its sunset Wednesday, as Trump made a fiery last stand and incited his supporters to storm and sack the U.S. Capitol as part of an attempted coup.
I don’t even know how to comment on this event without seeming glib, but I feel compelled to say something anyway.
I am, by trade, an auditor. One thing auditors are trained to investigate is called “tone at the top,” which represents the values expressed by the top management of a company which are expected from everyone who reports up to them.
After auditing for years, I have discovered that “tone at the top” is almost everything you need to know about an organization to get an idea how well and how ethically it is operated. Ethics and decency from the top of an organization really do trickle down all the way to the bottom and permeate it entirely. Moreover, they are strongly indicative of the organization’s solvency—its ability to hold together as a going concern over time.
When the “tone at the top” is selfish, vain, petty, petulant, aggrieved, unethical, amoral, and violent—as Trump’s has been—that tone trickles down to the whole organization, and pollutes the thoughts and corrupts the actions of the people within it. Unfortunately in this case, the “organization” is not just the Executive Branch, not just the federal government, and not just the Republican Party: it is the entire United States of America. What’s more, because the U.S. is a vastly influential country, the corruption and willful deceit at the head of it spills over into the rest of the world.
I feel like I have known this from the beginning—before the slow-moving coup even started—because I understood what the “tone at the top” was, and knew that it was vitally important. Knowing this, sadly, is not enough, because in a democracy a majority of people need to know this for things to turn out better. Being able to know this, like being able to discern the “tone at the top” as a new auditor, is a rare gift. It requires a trait that is not easily acquired, but is so difficult to teach and to learn that it is often considered to be innate: shrewdness.
That’s because “tone at the top” isn’t always as blatantly obvious as Trump’s vitriolic tweets and shambolic rally speeches. Understanding what the “tone at the top” really is, it requires a combination of healthy skepticism, decent powers of observation, and the knowledge of how things are supposed to work. You have to understand both context and subtext; subtext is much harder to grasp than context, but is often the more important to the two. You have to interpret people’s words and actions, and compare them to each other to see if the actions follow the words. You also have to have some kind of ethical foundation—which may be laws of the state, societal norms, or virtue ethics— on which to base your conclusions.
The human mind has evolved to do a lot of this analysis automatically. Consider that establishing whether you trust another person is, and always has been, an essential part of human interaction. But, like a lot of thought processes that are largely automatic, many times mental shortcuts are taken and the wrong choice is made. To be able to second-guess these automatic thought processes takes intellect, some degree of guidance, and a willingness to think a little harder.
I would not be surprised to learn that many of the people trying to unlawfully overturn the election—not counting the elected officials who are operating out of cynical self-interest—really do think they are making an ethical decision, and really do think they are doing the right thing. They just trusted the wrong person, or made the wrong decision about voting for or supporting, because they lack the shrewdness and imagination to discern that the “tone at the top” really does matter, and that bad words from a lazy president really will lead to riots in the streets.