Schafer: If final week’s chaos cannot get CEOs concerned for the civic good, what can?

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Schafer: If last week's chaos can't get CEOs involved for the civic good, what can?

The breathtaking actions of the mob incited by President Donald Trump to rush the Capitol Wednesday made it nearly impossible to keep your eyes off the TV and get any writing done — unless you really had something really urgent to say.

The head of the National Association of Manufacturers did.

“Armed violent protesters who support the baseless claim by outgoing president Trump that he somehow won an election that he overwhelmingly lost have stormed the U.S. Capitol today, attacking police officers and first responders, because Trump refused to accept defeat in a free and fair election,” Jay Timmons, the chief executive of NAM, wrote.

“This is not law and order. This is chaos. It is mob rule. It is dangerous. This is sedition and should be treated as such,” he added, in a statement released before police regained control of the Capitol.

Timmons went on to encourage Vice President Mike Pence to “seriously consider” convening the Cabinet and removing Trump from office under a provision of the Constitution’s 25th Amendment.

Lots of other business leaders and groups also made statements about the mob of Trump supporters trashing the Capitol. Unless I missed one, none of them sounded like this.

A more typical one arrived Thursday from the Independent Community Bankers of America.

It described how Wednesday was a “dark day” and America’s community bankers “know we are better than this,” which all by itself seems to now be a debatable point.

“The sun will rise tomorrow on the greatest nation in the world,” it wrapped up, “and we must work together to overcome these challenges and find a path forward filled with compassion, understanding and consensus.”

This wasn’t just weak. It was like what comes out of the coffee pot after you forgot to put the ground coffee in the filter basket before brewing.

The Business Roundtable organization of big company CEOs didn’t do much more, although it at least asked for “the president and all relevant officials to put an end to the chaos and to facilitate the peaceful transition of power.”

You might remember that this group issued a sweeping new statement of corporate purpose in 2019 that boiled down to big companies promising they wouldn’t cheat customers, employees or vendors or recklessly spoil the communities where they operated — as if it was ever OK to do those things.

Here in the state, the Minnesota Business Partnership did insist that the president and everyone else stop trying to overturn the presidential election and instead prepare for the peaceful transition to the administration of President-elect Joe Biden.

Maybe it seems odd to have gotten worked up over the milquetoast statements from business leaders, but here was a day when the nation could have really used strong leadership from business and instead mostly got performances.

On Wednesday afternoon, even as the chaos filled TV screens, Timmons from the National Association of Manufacturers understood that.

NAM is a very big and very mainstream business group, representing everything from family-held machine shops to global companies such as General Motors Co.

The chairman and just retired CEO of St. Paul’s Ecolab, Doug Baker, is a member of the NAM board’s executive committee. Its board has other Minnesotans on it as well, including Susan Marvin, board chairwoman of window manufacturer Marvin.

Timmons’ statement came while the riot on Capitol Hill was underway, obviously before any board committee could convene to debate.

“I agree with every single word,” said Marvin, responding to my questions via an e-mail. “I’m proud to be a member of the National Association of Manufacturers and never more so than after NAM’s condemnation of Wednesday’s acts at the U.S. Capitol. What we witnessed earlier this week was a disgrace. We are better than that.”

By Friday morning you could see signs of corporate leaders beginning to take stock of their role over the past four years of the Trump administration.

Support from the CEOs seemed to ebb and flow, pulling back over things like Trump’s equivocation after the violent rally of white supremacists in Virginia in 2017, followed by enthusiasm for sweeping changes to federal tax law that cut their own taxes.

For more insight into this, I plan this year to get to a book on my reading list called “The Fracturing of the American Corporate Elite,” published back in 2013.

It’s about how America’s business leaders are often thought of as having far too much influence on American life, when author Mark Mizruchi’s apparent concern was that they have far too little. That’s because the CEOs don’t care enough about civic affairs, he argued.

That’s certainly seems like a fair observation after my 35 years of closely watching them. Stock prices, that they care about. Their own taxes, too, and trade if it means bumping up against barriers.

CEOs answer to boards that likely prefer they stick to business and have an understandable wariness of stirring up partisans.

Yet civic problem-solving used to occupy a lot of the time of the people who once ran America’s big companies, with their pragmatic notion that what was good for the health of their communities was going to be good for business, too.

Obviously there were problems with that old-fashioned model if it meant downtown club members informally got together with elected officials to decide on things that affect everybody, but it may beat what we have now.

If CEOs read this and decide they need to invest more of their time and energy in lobbying for lower capital gains tax rates, they have missed the point.

Hopefully they will understand that when they see efforts to undermine an obviously lawful election for president they need to say these actions are not just wrong, they are appalling and must stop. They need to demand that anyone behind these efforts has to get ousted from positions that let them do further harm to the traditions and institutions that enable American business to thrive.

If last week’s chaos wasn’t enough for business leaders to demand action — and right now — for the good for their country, it’s hard to even guess what else could come along that would.

lee.schafer@startribune.com 612-673-4302

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