Donald Trump Jr. jumped into Russia-gate this week. And we have yet another reason to be wary of nepotism. The benign interpretation of Trump Jr.’s Russian meeting is that he is a political neophyte, clueless about the impropriety of trying to get dirt on Hillary Clinton from Russia. He said on Fox television’s “Sean Hannity” show, “In retrospect I probably would have done things a little differently.”
But there are no “do overs” in the big leagues. Experienced and expertise really do matter. The problem with nepotism is that family members get the job, whether they are qualified or not.
The family members of presidents may be smart, virtuous people. Or they may be embarrassing goofballs like Billy Carter. But in most cases, these relatives lack relevant experience, education and expertise.
And anyway, we only elect one person to office at a time. The voters picked Donald Trump Sr. to be president. We did not elect his son, son-in-law, or daughter.
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When Ivanka Trump sat in for President Trump last week at the G20 Summit, Trump critics howled. The president tweeted that such criticism should go both ways. He wrote, “If Chelsea Clinton were asked to hold the seat for her mother, as her mother gave our country away, the Fake News would say CHELSEA FOR PRES.”
The voters picked Donald Trump Sr. to be president. We did not elect his son, son-in-law, or daughter.
Trump is right. Nepotism is as wrong for the goose as it is for the gander. If Hillary Clinton had been elected, it would be wrong of her to empower her daughter or husband. Only one person is elected to serve as president. We vote for individuals, not families.
A further problem is that nepotism means that family loyalty can trump other commitments. About 2,500 years ago Plato warned that this was dangerous and divisive. He wanted citizens to be guided by their loyalty to the state, not by devotion to their families.
Some of the divisive partisanship in our country can be attributed to our bipartisan nepotism problem. Republican animosity toward Hillary Clinton is connected to disdain for Bill. Democrats disliked George W. Bush because he was a scion of the Bush dynasty.
Nepotism creates the appearance of bias and partiality—and yet another reason to distrust the political system. Family feuds and dynastic intrigue have no place in democratic politics.
George Washington recognized this. When he became our first president, he was scrupulous about avoiding the appearance of conflicts of interest. He said that “impartiality and zeal for the public good” should never suffer from the intermingling of “connections of blood and friendship.” He declared he would not be influenced by “ties of amity or blood.”
In private life it can make good sense to hire a family member. Families are based upon trust, a sense of obligation and a common set of values. Expertise can also be handed down through families.
Instead of family loyalty we need our leaders to be devoted to justice and the greater good.
The daughter of a doctor may have shadowed her father and learned about medicine firsthand. But patients don’t hire a doctor because her father was a gifted surgeon. We expect a legitimate medical education. We also expect trained nurses and anesthesiologists in the operating room, not the doctor’s sons and daughters.
In our political system there is no credentialing process. Anyone can run for president. And apparently the chief executive can appoint whomever he wants to serve as an adviser.
Another worry is what this tells us about “the American Dream.” They used to tell us that anyone could become president. Political dynasties make that dream seem hopelessly naïve.
Donald Trump Sr. offered a bit of hope for the unconnected masses. His popularity was based upon his status as an outsider. Ironically, by putting his children in power, he is taking a page from the insider’s playbook.
The risk of this strategy has become apparent. Trump Jr.’s cluelessness undermines his father’s presidency. The Trump family is seemingly unworried about all of this. They are also unconcerned about nepotism. President Trump’s other son, Eric, once said, nepotism “is a beautiful thing.”
Family devotion is important—in the private sphere. But in democratic politics, things should be different. We need expertise and experience in the public sphere. And instead of family loyalty we need our leaders to be devoted to justice and the greater good.
Andrew Fiala is a professor of philosophy and director of The Ethics Center at Fresno State: @PhilosophyFiala