Every week, Donald Trump intensifies his attack on the rule of law and the fundamental American values that underlie it. In the wake of the Orlando shootings, he added two more.

— Expanding his proposed ban on all Muslim immigrants, he added migrants from any part of the world “with a proven history of terrorism” against the United States or its allies.

— He withdrew The Washington Post’s press credentials to campaign access. That was the culmination of a crusade that Trump has pursued for a month against Jeff Bezos, who owns Amazon and the paper.

Make no mistake. Trump’s actions are part of his “crazy-like-a-fox” campaign strategy. And they fit together neatly.

Why the Post?

Trump’s stated reason for banning The Washington Post stems from a headline that read: “Trump suggests President Obama was involved with the mass shooting in Orlando.”

Here’s Trump’s post-Orlando comment on Fox News that prompted the headline:

“Look, we’re led by a man that either is not tough, not smart, or he’s got something else in mind. And the something else in mind — you know, people can’t believe it. People cannot, they cannot believe that President Obama is acting the way he acts and can’t even mention the words ‘radical Islamic terrorism.’ There’s something going on. It’s inconceivable. There’s something going on.”

In the same interview, Trump was asked to explain why he called for Obama to resign in light of the shooting and he answered, in part: “He doesn’t get it or he gets it better than anybody understands — it’s one or the other, and either one is unacceptable.”

What does he mean by “gets it better than anybody understands”? What’s the “something else in mind” that “people can’t believe”? What’s the “something going on”?

A Familiar Ring

Innuendo is an enduring Trump technique. It feeds irrational conspiracy theories that linger. And irrationality combines with the absence of fact-based analysis to become Trump’s most potent voter weapon.

For example, in April 2011, Trump revived discredited “birther” claims that President Obama wasn’t born in the United States.

“We’re looking into it very, very strongly. At a certain point in time I’ll be revealing some interesting things,” he told CNN. “I have people that have been studying it and they cannot believe what they’re finding.”

What “”unbelievable” things were Trump’s investigators in Hawaii finding? Nothing. But irrationality has allowed his false claim to live on in the hearts of his constituents. Even today, 20 percent of Americans still believe that President Obama was born outside the United States and fall into one of two categories: nine percent have “solid evidence” to prove it; eleven percent admit that it’s just their suspicion.

It gets worse. Twenty-nine percent of Americans — and 43 percent of Republicans — say they think the President is Muslim. So now you know what Trump really means when he says “something is going on” involving the President and Orlando. And you know to whom he is saying it. Which takes us to the link between Trump’s current dual assault: Muslims and the press.

Troubling Precedent

Apparently, it’s okay for Trump to imply vile and non-existent connections between the President, Muslims, and a terrorist rampage by an American citizen who wouldn’t have qualified for Trump’s proposed ban anyway. But apparently it’s not okay for the media to call him out on such dangerous demagoguery. It’s not sufficient for a widely respected newspaper to cover a story. It has to cover it precisely the way Trump wants it to read.

When he talks about “opening up our libel laws,” that’s what he really means. And when he says he thinks he’ll possess the presidential power to do so, he proves his ignorance and/or willful disregard of how individual states’ laws and the U. S. Supreme Court’s application of First Amendment principles shape that area of jurisprudence.

This pattern of revenge isn’t new for Trump, but his previous revocations of press credentials have received less attention: The Des Moines Register (after an editorial called on Trump to drop out of the race), The Huffington Post (too liberal), The Daily Beast (after an article citing Ivana Trump’s allegations against Trump that she later walked back), Politico (after writing an unflattering story about Trump’s then-campaign manager Corey Lewandowski), and BuzzFeed (never credentialed, probably because of a lengthy and unflattering article about Trump in 2014).

Univision was initially banned after Trump filed a $500 million lawsuit against the company for canceling its broadcast of Trump’s Miss USA pageant. Since settling that litigation in February, Univision says the Trump campaign has credentialed its reporters only twice.

And More Precedent

Apart from Trump himself, his words and deeds have historical forebears. After the 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor, fear led to Japanese internment camps. After the Soviet Union detonated its first atomic weapon and China fell to Communism in 1949, Senator Joseph McCarthy’s crusade included attacks on the U. S. Army and baseless claims that Communist spies controlled the State Department.

McCarthy fed on fear and paranoia. He survived because others were reluctant to challenge a dangerous demagogue. His fellow Republicans — even President Eisenhower — remained silent as he ruined thousands of lives. Only a free press brought him down and returned the nation to its senses.

Televised hearings and Edward R. Murrow’s March 9, 1954 investigative program subjected McCarthy and his methods to the disinfectant of sunlight. But for the preceding five years, he left destruction in his wake. Trump is far more dangerous than McCarthy ever was. And we don’t have five years to let him run roughshod over our country’s most fundamental principles.


Amazon’s founder and CEO, Jeff Bezos, hates the recent New York Times article about his company. He says it “doesn’t describe the Amazon I know.” Rather, it depicts “a soulless, dystopian workplace where no fun is had and no laughter heard.” He doesn’t think any company adopting such an approach could survive, much less thrive. Anyone working in such a company, he continues, “would be crazy to stay” and he counts himself among those likely departures.

The day after the Times’ article appeared, the front page of the paper carried a seemingly unrelated article, “Work Policies May Be Kinder, But Brutal Competition Isn’t.” It’s not about Amazon; it’s about the top ranks of the legal profession and the corporate world. Both are places where the Times’ version of Amazon’s culture is pervasive — and where such institutions survive and thrive.

The articles have two unstated but common themes: the impact of short-termism on working environments, and how a leader’s view of his company’s culture can diverge from the experience of those outside the leadership circle.

Short-termism: “Rank and Yank”

Bezos is hard-driving and demanding. According to the Times, his 1997 letter to shareholders boasted, “You can work long, hard or smart, but at you can’t choose two out of three.”

The Times reports that Amazon weeds out employees on an annual basis: “[T]eam members are ranked, and those at the bottom eliminated every year.” Jack Welch pioneered such a “rank and yank” system at General Electric long ago and many companies followed his lead. Likewise, big law firms built associate attrition into their business models.

Theoretically, a “rank and yank” system produces a higher quality workforce. But in recent years, a new generation of business thinkers has challenged that premise. Even GE has abandoned Welch’s brainchild.

As currently applied, the system makes no sense to Stanford Graduate School of Business professor Bob Sutton, who observed, “When you look at the evidence about stack ranking…. The kind of stuff that they were doing [at GE], which was essentially creating a bigger distribution between the haves and the have nots in their workforce, then firing 10% of them, it just amazed me.”

If Amazon uses that system, which focuses on annual short-term evaluations, it’s behind the times, not ahead of the curve.

Haves and Have Nots

Professor Sutton’s comment about creating a bigger gap between the haves and the have nots describes pervasive law firm trends as well. The trend could also explain why Bezos and the Times may both be correct in their contradictory assessments of Amazon’s culture. That’s because any negative cultural consequences of Bezos’ management style probably don’t seem real to him. Bezos is at the top; the view from below is a lot different.

This phenomenon of dramatically divergent perspectives certainly applies to most big law firms. As firms moved from lock-step to eat-what-you-kill partner compensation systems, the gap between those at the top and everyone else exploded. Often, the result has been a small group — a partnership within the partnership — that actually controls the institution.

Those leaders have figured out an easy way to maximize short-term partner profits for themselves: make the road to equity partner twice as difficult than it was for them. As big firm attorney-partner leverage ratios have doubled since 1985, today’s managers are pulling up the ladder on the next generation. It’s no surprise that those leaders view their firms favorably.

Their associates have a decidedly different impression of the work environment. Regular attrition began as a method of quality control. At many firms, it has morphed into something insidious. Leadership’s prime directive now is preserving partner profits, not securing the long-run health of the institution. Short-term leverage calculations — not the quality of a young attorney’s lawyering — govern the determination of whether there is “room” for potential new entrants.

About the Long-Run

Such short-term thinking weakens the institutions that pursue it. As Professor Sutton observes: “We looked at every peer reviewed study we could find, and in every one when there was a bigger difference between the pay at of the people at the bottom and the top there was worse performance.”

That’s understandable. After all, workers behave according to signals that leadership sends down the food chain. Dissent is not a cherished value. Resulting self-censorship means the king and the members of his court hear only what they want to hear. People inside the organization who want to advance become cheerleaders who suppress bad news. Being a team player is the ultimate compliment and the likeliest path to promotion.

One More Thing

Bezos’ letter to his employees about the Times article encourages anyone who knows of any stories “like those reported…to escalate to HR.” He says that he doesn’t recognize the Amazon in the article and “very much hopes you don’t, either.”

One former employee frames Bezos’ unstated conundrum correctly: “How do you possibly convey to your manager the intolerable nature of your working conditions when your manager is the one telling you, point blank, that the impossible hours are simply what’s expected?”

Note to Jeff B: Escalating to HR won’t eliminate embedded cultural attitudes.

Then again, maybe I’m wrong about all of this. On the same day the Times published its piece on the increasingly harsh law firm business model, the Wall Street Journal ran Harvard Law School Professor Mark J. Roe’s op-ed: “The Imaginary Problem of Corporate Short-Termism.”

It’s all imaginary. That should come as a relief to those working inside law firms and businesses that focus myopically on near-term results without regard to the toll it is taking on the young people who comprise our collective future.