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Be Vigilant: Civil Rights in the Crosshairs in the Age of Trump

By Andrés T. Tapia

We all saw how it worked: he called Mexicans rapists, he called for a Muslim registry, he called for a wall to be built on the U.S. – Mexico border and deportations by the millions, he demonstrated all forms of ways of degrading women. And a certain crowd ate it up. As he denounced “political correctness” the restraining norms that kept some of the ugliest prejudicial comments from being made public fell away, making for one of the vilest political campaigns in a very long time.

But once the election was won, as the dust has been settling, many have been wondering if it was all just a Machiavellian show that once the votes were in and counted and the victory secure, would Trump truly continue in this vein?

We now have enough data from the weeks since November 8th to answer, yes, very much so. And the most frightening thing of all is that this messaging will evolve from being the tirades of a candidate to being the policy of the most powerful leader on earth with the instruments of governance at his disposal.

I believe that one of the bulwarks to counter this backlash against diversity and inclusion will be the checks and balances of the US democratic system. But we cannot be complacent because they have been severely weakened, and as we have witnessed in the North Carolina legislature, there are many ways to use the system to weaken its very democratic moorings.

So if the first line of defense is the Constitution and the institutions created to defend and exemplify its values, the most potent line of defense behind these guardrails are the people — us. And when I say “us,” I mean all of us who live in the USA who regardless of political affiliation expect that the US Constitution and the Bill of Rights will be safeguarded no matter what.

We all must be vigilant.

And why?

Let’s look at the facts. The 45th president-to-be:

  • Has not disavowed any of what he said during the campaign that belittled, demeaned, and marginalized those who are different. For all his activity on his Twitter-feed-bully-pulpit where he is quick to litigate any slight no matter how small, he has yet to condemn any of the despicable acts of prejudice that have been done in his name.


  • Will be placing in the West Wing, Stephen Bannon, the editor of Breitbart, which Bannon in his own words declared was intended to be a platform for legitimizing the alt-right (aka white nationalism).


  • Has nominated Jeff Sessions as the Attorney General of the United States leading the Justice Department, whose main remit is to defend the laws the country and which has been one of the greatest bulwarks in the defense of Civil Rights. Yet Sessions was denied a federal judge appointment in the past due to his racist comments and has a long history of voting to weaken the Voting Rights Act. As the linked Fortune magazine article says, “Sessions has been criticized for joking in the presence of a Civil Rights Division attorney that the Ku Klux Klan was ‘OK’ until he learned they smoked marijuana. He was also said to have called a black assistant U.S. attorney ‘boy’ and the NAACP ‘un-American’ and ‘communist-inspired.’”


  • Has nominated only people who oppose LGBT rights.


  • Has surrounded himself with various men who have public records of violent mistreatment of women.


Those who are still hoping Trump will pivot will point to other gatherings during his transition such as the one with 200 Native Americans or his seemingly conciliatory remarks on election night to be the president of all Americans.

But for those of us who specialize in leadership assessment, development, and coaching, and how it is leaders who shape organizational culture, who he’s appointing is the first step in institutionalizing and operationalizing a particular vision. These men’s (and it is pretty much all white men with Ben Carson as the only person of color) track records are predictive of how they will lead and what they will and will not prioritize.

We also cannot ignore the Pandora’s Box whose lid has been flung wide open. Over 1000 and counting acts of hate have been reported to the Southern Poverty Law Center to which can be added the countless ones not even reported. Among the stories:

  • In Milwaukee in a private Catholic school, the Latino kids of migrant Mexican workers who are students there on scholarship were surrounded by white boys who as they pounded on the lockers chanted rhythmically, “Trump, Trump, Trump.”
  • At a high school in Missouri when the visiting black basketball team come onto the court, many of the white spectators supporting the home team held up Trump signs and then turned their backs on the team.
  • An arts organization in Chicago whose mission is to use drama to help young people give voice to their truths, during a recent workshop when asked what stories they wanted to write about, all of them submitted storylines for plays about their fears in the Age of Trump.


  • At a white nationalist convention just blocks from the White House several of the participants ended up doing Nazi salutes and yelling “Heil Trump!”

And on it goes — and it’s not even January 20 yet.

For these, and many other reasons, we have plenty of grounds to be very afraid.

But we cannot cower in fear. We cannot be distracted by crazy tweet storms. We cannot be complacent hoping it will all work out. We cannot even urge patience and put our stake in the ground two or four years out when it’s time to go to the ballot box again. Because the erosion of civil liberties and the weakening of democracy that leads to voter suppression could very well make this erosion permanent.

Independent. Republican. Democrat. One way or another your vote was consequential. There are many ways to rationalize our votes and in the end while we may have had, say, fifteen different competing political priorities, we can only vote for one of the candidates. Our rationalizations may be hard to understand on the part of those on the other side including people not believing the campaign rhetoric was going to lead to the true weakening of civil liberties. But this belief can be forgiven.

But when rhetoric turns to policy as well as into a sustained enabler of an exclusionary culture change, then what cannot be forgiven is not standing up for the vulnerable, the fellow citizen, the fellow human being in a democracy whose strength is in its diversity and which has been a beacon of civil rights around the world.

We can’t wait and see what happens. The time for vigilance is right now.

©2016 Andrés T. Tapia. Reprinted by permission of the author. 

Originally appeared December 19, 2016 on  The following commentary was published by Andrés T. Tapia, Korn Ferry Senior Partner and Global Practice Leader for its Workforce Performance, Inclusion and Diversity practice, in December 2016 on just after Donald Trump had been elected the 45th president of the United States but before his inauguration; as well, Steve Bannon had not yet been appointed chief White House strategist. Though we are nine months into this Administration and Bannon is now gone from the White House, Tapia’s words are now more relevant than ever. We all must be vigilant. 

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