“Why We Did It” Tells Us Why People Do It

What might you do if someday you find yourself working for a boss that you slowly discover is not just a jerk but is truly morally abhorrent? Or maybe you find yourself selling a consumer product that you come to find out is harmful to its users. Or maybe your company tasks you with pushing financial products that you know are more likely to harm your clients’ finances than help them. What are you likely to do then? Tim Miller has some lessons for you.

Miller has extensive Republican credentials. He was the Iowa spokesperson for John McCain in 2008, the Jon Huntsman communications guy in 2012, the Jeb Bush campaign’s communications director in 2016, and the Republican National Committee’s deputy communications director thereafter. He then launched what he hoped would be the Republican Party’s premier opposition research organization. And so forth.

Harvard Business School’s Eugene Soltes interviewed many people convicted of white collar-crimes for his book Why They Do It, his attempt to explain why good people do bad things.

In his brand-new, similarly-titled book, Why We Did It, Miller interviews himself and numerous former political operative colleagues in a search of similar revelations. His specific quest is to understand why he himself, for a time, and most of his former friends and colleagues even today, work(ed) for Donald Trump or his allies even though they had concluded that Trump was morally bankrupt and generally unacceptable as a president. It is riveting reading. Like Soltes’s explanations, Miller’s are filled with the behavioral ethics concepts we emphasize in many of our Ethics Unwrapped videos.

Now you, dear reader, may see nothing wrong with Trump. Many do not. But Miller did. And virtually all of his friends found serious moral flaws in Trump and his policies, and yet chose to work for him or his administration in a wide range of capacities. Hence, the book’s subtitle: A Travelogue from the Republican Road to Hell.  Miller observes:

When the Trump Troubles began there wasn’t a single one in our ranks who would have said they were in his corner. To a person we found him gauche, repellant, and beneath the dignity of the public service we bestowed with bumptious regard. We didn’t take him seriously. We didn’t watch The Apprentice. We didn’t get off on the tears of immigrant children. And you wouldn’t have caught us dead in one of those gaudy red baseball caps.

But, at first gradually and then suddenly, nearly all of us decided to go along. The same people who roasted Donald Trump as an incompetent menace in private served his rancid baloney in public when convenient. They continued to do so even after the mob he summoned stained the party and our ideals and the halls of the Capitol with their sh*t.

Why did they do it? Clearly, this is not an issue only for Republicans. Democratic consultants and politicians can also find themselves working for people and causes they abhor. Indeed, some of the consultants working for Republican candidates confided to Miller that they were actually Democrats who voted for Democratic candidates even as they cashed paychecks while working for Republicans they philosophically opposed.

Why would any of us work for an individual, a company, or a brand that we morally abhor? Miller knows, as does Soltes, that for good people to convince themselves to do bad things, they must engage in a certain level of moral self-deception. Miller wonders how his friends and colleagues who literally wept on election night in 2016 at the prospect of a Trump presidency could within just a couple of weeks thereafter be taking jobs in the administration. Miller notes

The decision to enable a manifestly unfit incoming regime took different forms in different people, but over time, surrounded by others employing similar self-trickery to reach the same result, the group’s justifications began to congeal. The mental superstructure required to overcome the concerns were built. The narratives they invented to make such service not just defensible but maybe even honorable took shape.

… Now, to a person, they were jumping on board. They weren’t doing it because they really believed Donald Trump would “grow into the job” (lol). It was because somewhere inside their brain they had found a way to tell themselves a story that justified coming to the aid and comfort of a man they knew full well was an incompetent menace. (p. 96)

The self-serving bias undoubtedly played a major role for most of these people who, according to Miller, knew “in their heart of hearts” that Trump was “probably kind of evil,” yet found a way to work for him.

One of Miller’s former colleagues told him that another “had never been in a job that made more than two hundred and fifty thousand dollars a year in his life. This was his opportunity.”

For others, it wasn’t money so much as the opportunity to be in “the room where it happened.” The Trump administration had great difficulty filling positions with qualified people, so many of Miller’s former colleagues had opportunities to rise higher than they could ever have dreamed before.

Others were politicians who saw pro-Trumpism as their route to success. One member of the House of Representatives had entered politics as a moderate Republican. She despised Trump. However, she faced a reality where she “made a conscious choice to go all-in with her own personal Voldemort because she came to recognize that her popularity, fundraising, and ability to rise within the party would benefit if she evolved from an ‘independent,’ ‘forward-looking,’ moderate to a forceful Trumper.”

Others saw their roles in self-serving heroic terms—they were there to make sure that even worse things than were happening (Muslim bans, immigrant children separated from parents, post-election insurrections, etc.) didn’t happen. A group of Trump administration members, using such a rationale, formed a “Committee to Save America.” Miller observes:

The committee members felt that taking on this oh-so-altruistic act on behalf of America meant that they didn’t have to publicly reckon with the moral compromise of working for someone like Trump. Somehow this justification persisted after they no longer worked for him and were using their access to make it rain in the private sector. Convenient! (p. 116)

Whether it was economic opportunity, political opportunity, self-aggrandizement or something similar, self-interest clearly motivated most of Miller’s colleagues to work for a man they privately detested. Fueled by self-interest and under the influence of the self-serving bias which causes people’s minds to gather information, process information, and even remember information in a self-serving way, these people still needed some creative storytelling to justify their actions morally.

Most commonly, says Miller, the consultants, speechwriters, fundraisers, and other enablers just ignored morality. This is the concept of framing. By omitting ethics from their frame of reference when making decisions, it became possible to work for an administration they viewed as morally bankrupt without feeling too bad about themselves. According to Miller:

  • In close company, one bit of shorthand political operatives use to reference their line of work is ‘the Game.’… We specialize in strategy, tactics, messaging, advertising, opposition research. Slaying the enemy. Winning the race. (p. 21)
  • Something you didn’t hear much from players in the Game was self-doubt over whether the political tactics they were employing might hurt the people they were purporting to serve. So, the practitioners of politics could easily dismiss moralistic or technical concerns just by throwing down their trump card: “It’s all part of the Game.” (p. 25-26)1471
  • The D.C. swamp had Republicans and Democrats, and we tried to shiv each other from time to time, but there wasn’t a moral component to it, really; it was all just part of a day’s work (p. 41)

By viewing their work as only part of a game to be played, Miller says that “all ethical quandaries are completely excised from consideration. The human impact of one’s work is not just inadvertently missing but actively mocked.” This framing of one’s choices rationalizes the single-minded pursuit of self-interest in its various forms via ethical fading. But there were other factors as well.

Incrementalism played a role. Once Miller’s friends had overlooked one act by Trump that they considered morally repugnant, it became harder to draw the line at the next one, even if it was worse by their lights. Even the January 6 insurrection was not a bridge too far by that point. Writes Miller:

The enablers’ moral sacrifice had been compounding over the years and they were dug in much too deep to stop over a farcical putsch. They were akin to the characters in that fifth Squid Game, getting squeamish about being responsible for the death of those they had teamed up with, but too close to the piggybank payoff to give up. (p. 186)

Also relevant is the notion of the tangible and the abstract, the idea that our decision making tends to be more strongly influenced by what is happening right here and right now (“I have a job and influence and am being paid a lot of money,” for example) than what might happen to people far away whom we don’t know and maybe won’t be affected until sometime in the future (e.g., “This policy may separate parents from their children at some point, but they are down at the border and I don’t know their names or recognize their faces.”). When Miller asked one of his (former) best friends how she could keep supporting Trump even as he continued to spout the Big Lie that led to the January 6 debacle, she responded by talking about how exciting it was to be at another of the 200 or so Trump rallies she had attended. In Miller’s eyes, she embodied how the tangible and the abstract can warp moral decision making:

She was living in a world with no repercussions. A world where all the downstream effects of Trump’s actions didn’t affect her and thus weren’t real to her. She was enlivened by the show he put on. Addicted to the drama. Keeping that high was an all-consuming end unto itself. She reveled in the chance to play her part, as one of the stagehands twisting a lug nut, ignoring that the world began to burn around her. (pp.241-242)

Additionally, many of Miller’s acquaintances saw the world in “us versus them” terms. Miller says voters on both sides these days aren’t concerned so much with policy and become upset “only if a politician doesn’t satiate their desire to see hot-fire slams savaging their perceived enemies.” In this view, Trump’s peculiar ability to inflict damage on the libs automatically had to be good. Because of the in-group/out-group bias, these people probably didn’t realize that different parts of their brains judged the actions of in-group members and out-group members. In Miller’s terms, “[w]hatever is good for their side is good. And whatever is bad for the other side is good. Simple as that.” That’s an easy rationalization.

Professor Anand and colleagues have categorized the most common rationalizations used in the business world to justify immoral actions, and Miller’s book provides ready examples of these as well.

Denial of injury occurs when people find themselves saying something along the lines of “I know what I did was wrong, but no one was really hurt.” One of Miller’s interviewees was working for Trump’s election in 2016, but “she didn’t think Trump was going to win anyway, so no big deal.” Miller himself, a gay man, worked in 2013 to elect a homophobic Republican candidate as governor of Virginia, rationalizing: “[He] was so noxious that he almost certainly wouldn’t win anyway. No harm, no foul.” That’s denial of injury.

Denial of responsibility occurs when people find themselves saying something like: “I know what I did was wrong, but it wasn’t my fault—my client demanded it or my boss ordered it.” Miller ultimately realized that problems arise “when you convince yourself that since you, personally, do not harbor racial animus, it’s okay to be in league with avowed racists who are stoking that hatred…” You are enabling the racist to enact racist policies, but that doesn’t make you a racist. Or so says this rationalization.

Social weighting is another form of rationalization that occurs when people find themselves saying: “I know what I did was wrong, but you should see how much worse the other guys are.” In one passage, Miller says that he justified selling his soul by creating a full-service outrage generation machine with little attachment to reality via “rationalizations of the hacky left-wing actors and other industries that are doing similar things.” He notes that some in his crowd “comforted themselves with the view that the left was a unique evil…” If the other side is a “unique evil,” well, then, you can justify almost anything. Unfortunately.

Now, again, you may be a Trump supporter who thinks he is just fine. But Miller’s colleagues did not. But they managed to rationalize working for someone they viewed as morally despicable.

What will you do if, as we ask in the opening paragraph of this blog post, you find yourself working for a person or a company you find to be morally despicable? Or you realize you are selling a product or a service that does customers more harm than good? Be careful, or you may find yourself using the same rationalizations that Miller’s interviewees did. But remember, these rationalizations do not work perfectly. Many of these folks found themselves speaking about their boss one way in public, but a different way in private. Many found themselves reluctant to talk about their work with their families as they had once done. Many of them became deeply uncomfortable with the lives they were living and the examples they were setting for their children. Many of them were truly “on the road to Hell.” If you find yourself in such a situation, remember the lessons of Tim Miller’s book.

 

Sources:

Vikas Anand et al., “Business as Usual: The Acceptance and Perpetuation of Corruption in Organizations,” Academy of Management Perspectives 18(2) (2007).

Blake Ashforth & Vikas Anand, “The Normalization of Corruption in Organizations,” Research in Organizational Behavior 25: 1-52 (2003).

Tim Miller, Why We Did It: A Travelogue from the Republican Road to Hell (2022).

Eugene Soltes, Why They Do It: Inside the Mind of the White Collar Criminal (2016).

 

Videos:

Ethical Fading: https://ethicsunwrapped.utexas.edu/video/ethical-fading.

Framing: https://ethicsunwrapped.utexas.edu/video/framing.

Incrementalism: https://ethicsunwrapped.utexas.edu/video/incrementalism.

In-group/Out-group Bias: https://ethicsunwrapped.utexas.edu/glossary/in-groupout-group.

Rationalizations: https://ethicsunwrapped.utexas.edu/glossary/rationalizations.

Self-serving Bias: https://ethicsunwrapped.utexas.edu/video/self-serving-bias.

Tangible & Abstract:  https://ethicsunwrapped.utexas.edu/video/tangible-abstract.

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