Country Club Groupthink Is Running The Country

Country Club Groupthink Is Running The Country


Leonard Zwelling

There’s a marvelous op-ed in The New York Times on January 19 that tries to explain Donald Trump.

Now there have been a plethora of articles written in the past year about this very subject. Some have called the president crazy or mentally unstable, but his doctor has now ruled that out because Mr. Trump knows what a camel looks like. So, in this piece by Michael Goldfarb, Mr. Trump’s obvious and oft-expressed bigotry is explained not as a result of his dysfunctional brain, but as a consequence of his class. He’s a nouveau riche country club Republican and that is how they think and talk in the locker room and bar according to Mr. Goldfarb.

There may be some truth to this.

It is far easier for me to see the opinions expressed by the Chief Executive of the land as being bigoted boy talk just as his expressed misogyny was what many ignored as “boys being boys” when caught on the Hollywood Access tape. Apparently that makes it OK to his supporters.

The danger of excusing this kind of groupthink or group talk as acceptable is that, well, it becomes acceptable. Just as the use of foul language and derogatory slurs were considered acceptable when speaking about black Americans when I got to Duke in 1966 (I was refused housing off-campus because one of my roommates was black), the language and the sentiment can become pervasive and undermines the best of intentions among the less bigoted.

And that’s the point.

Understanding that Donald Trump is just a rich, entitled spoiled brat doesn’t excuse his use of awful language when speaking about foreign countries or immigrants. Where are his manners? An explanation is not an excuse and now that it has been pointed out, it has to stop. Not that it will. It is the rare bigot who changes his ways even when not putting on the 18th green or sitting on a stool in the 19th hole.

This piece did remind me of one of the major tenets of the book I wrote called Red Kool-Aid, Blue Kool-Aid and which is about to be re-issued in an updated form as Congressional Malpractice (look for it March 1). That is the power of groupthink.

The article by Mr. Goldfarb situates Mr. Trump’s bigotry in the setting of private country clubs where the privileged go as a refuge from reality where they can say what they want and do what they want free of the norms of proper public conduct. My concern about groupthink is that it tends to spread and be used as an excuse for all sorts of awful behavior. “If everyone is doing it, why can’t I. If everyone is saying it, why not me?” It is the essence of moral relativism where right and wrong are situationally defined by people with highly magnetized moral compasses.

One of the great challenges of leadership is to prevent bad groupthink from taking hold in the organizations being led. It was always my argument and, unfortunately, my battle, that the leadership above me when I was vice president was ethically compromised making my job of trying to keep the faculty coloring within the federal regulatory lines very difficult indeed.

Dr. Pisters will have the same challenge. He and his leadership team will need to set the ground rules for conduct that is respectful and mindful of the true purpose of organizations like MD Anderson. Counter to what some might think, the purpose of MD Anderson is not to see the most patients possible to make the largest amount of money. What the true purpose of MD Anderson will be must be articulated by the leadership. Making Cancer History is a nice phrase, but it is not one that serves as a touchstone for faculty behavior. Dr. Pisters must establish what the real mission of MD Anderson is to be and how the strategy to accomplish his vision will inform the actions of everyone who works there.

Whether you agree or disagree with Mr. Trump’s policies, his behavior is commonplace nouveau riche country club stuff and his words even more so. This gives rise to a very mean-spirited approach to policy as is his stance on immigration, the Wall, and the Dreamers.

Words matter. Decorum matters. How you do things matters. Let’s hope this is remembered at Anderson for it has been lost on the White House.

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