The latest news out of Michigan — in which the current occupant of the White House has not only summoned Republican legislative leaders to meet with him but pressured two members of the Wayne County Board of Canvassers into attempting to rescind their votes to certify the election outcomes, potentially disenfranchising thousands of legitimate votes — makes clear that Donald Trump and his minions have opened a trap door in the foundation of democracy and are diving into an abyss of raw power and violence that none of us may escape. Joe Biden’s administration will have to grow brass knuckles to deal with what’s coming. Business and civic leaders, in the large corporations and the elite universities, should grow some brass knuckles, too. Other news of recent weeks makes one wonder if they will.
Thirty important CEOs of major corporations logged into an early morning, off-the-record Zoom meeting on Nov. 6 to explore responses to Donald Trump’s defiance of democracy. One of those was Robert Iger, the 69-year-old executive chairman of the studiously apolitical Walt Disney Company. He and the other chief executives, including three former U.S. cabinet secretaries, convened with Jeffrey Sonnenfeld, the peripatetic maestro of confidential executive conclaves and business-leadership programs who is a professor of management at Yale and a founder of the Chief Executive Leadership Institute.
The virtually assembled CEOs had been shaken by Trump’s delusional White House briefing room pronouncements about the election. So they listened intently as Yale historian Timothy Snyder, a scholar of 20th-century authoritarianism and the author of “On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons From the Twentieth Century,” explained how business elites’ inaction and prevarications about rising fascism in Weimar Germany and other countries had wound up facilitating Nazi and other fascist coups whose tactics Trump has been emulating, with eerie if somewhat loopy fidelity.
But after Snyder signed off, Stephen Schwarzman, billionaire CEO of the Blackstone private equity group, a key Trump confidant and mega-donor, and a Yale College alumnus whose $150 million gift to his alma mater prompted it to rename and repurpose its semi-sacred civic complex for him, defended the president’s legal right to challenge the election outcome. Schwarzman urged the CEOs to be patient, and not publicly critical of Trump’s refusal to concede defeat.
Although Disney’s Iger and most others at the meeting had no connections to Yale, the university’s background role in these conflicted reckonings isn’t a coincidence. It’s an emblem of the crisis itself.
First things first: Iger, born in Brooklyn and raised as a Democrat on Long Island — he co-chaired a fundraiser for Hillary Clinton’s 2016 campaign — switched his voter registration to independent soon after Trump’s victory. In a videotaped interview on Nov. 10, 2016, Iger praised the smooth transition then underway from Obama’s presidency to Trump’s, noting his hope for “a new tax policy” with lower corporate rates and better incentives to competition. “I think it’s too soon to say” whether Trump would deliver it, he added, but on Dec. 2, 2016, he joined the president-elect’s Strategic and Policy Forum, a business advisory council led by Schwarzman.
Yet Iger resigned from that group only six months later, when Trump withdrew the U.S. from the Paris Climate Agreement, and expressed discomfort with Trump more generally after the Las Vegas massacre (in which a Disney employee was killed), saying that, “In this day and age, we get outraged when an athlete doesn’t stand for the national anthem — where’s the outrage here?” This year, he donated more than $250,000 to Joe Biden’s campaign.