Profiles in Cowardice: Toyota, GM, and Fiat Chrysler Join the List

December 2, 2019 | 2:41 pm
Photo: jnshimko/Flickr
Kathleen Rest
Former Executive Director

Several weeks ago, I decided to re-read Profiles in Courage by John Fitzgerald Kennedy, a book written in 1956 when JFK was a junior senator from Massachusetts. A book that garnered the Pulitzer Prize for biography the following year. A book that chronicles the courage of eight senators who put national interests over party, geography, and at times even their own constituents to do what they believed was right and required for the good of the nation.

I remember the precise day and reason I started reading:  October 28, 2019—the day some cowardly major automakers decided to join forces with President Trump in his war on clean cars and climate change action.

No courage here

On that day, an ad hoc group of auto manufacturers representing two-thirds of the US market filed a motion to support the Trump administration’s attempt to remove California’s legal authority to set tougher greenhouse gas emissions standards for cars than the standards set by the federal government. California has employed this long-standing authority to regulate tailpipe emissions under the Clean Air Act and enhance public health protections, leading to stronger emission standards adopted by 14 other states and the District of Columbia. This cooperative leadership model has been an unqualified success in reducing air pollution, protecting public health, and spurring innovation.

Yeah — Toyota, GM, Fiat Chrysler, and other members of the so-called “Coalition for Sustainable Automotive Regulation” threw sustainability (and any green credentials) out the window and joined efforts to gut existing environmental standards. Peak irony for car companies that have given us the Toyota Prius and Chevy Volt and burnished a calling card of corporate responsibility. Many Prius owners are not happy.

Instead of having the courage to do the right thing and risk the ire and snark of the president, these automakers took the cowardly way out. This lack of courage and failure of leadership prompted me to envision a book (or series of blog posts) called Profiles in Cowardice. And this could be Chapter 1, with no paucity of material for subsequent profiles. It’s also what has prompted us to file suit to stop the Trump administration’s attack on California’s authority.

I would be remiss if I didn’t give a shout to four companies—Ford, Honda, VW, and BMW—that did do the right thing. These automakers made a deal with California, committing to making their cars and trucks significantly more efficient over time while also upholding the state’s unique authority and leadership on vehicle emissions. While these four companies are not always above reproach, it was the courageous choice to break from the pack and stand up to the taunts and likely backlash from a president and administration intent on rolling back public safeguards. 


According to Merriam-Webster, cowardice is a lack of courage or firmness of purpose. The firmness of purpose I believe we expect from our elected leaders and their appointees is putting the interest of the public first and foremost. Thus, it is cowardly to toss public interest aside in favor or at the behest of special, monied, and private interests. It is cowardly (and venal) to protect a pesticide manufacturer’s profits at the expense of children’s health. It is cowardly to cave into bullies—at home and abroad—to curry favor while ignoring the advice and counsel of seasoned diplomats, scientists, and agency professionals who have devoted their professional lives to public service.

Though the idea for a blog series framed as profiles in cowardice really did come to me anew, I did some due diligence (we’re the Union of Concerned Scientists after all) and was pleased to discover how this theme has already seen a host of prior uses. You can see it applied to the Trump administration’s tax cuts here; to international relations here; and to lack of action on climate change here.  And you can google it if you want more.

What to profile next?

So many options. So many instances of cowardice (many of them chronicled here) evidenced in this administration’s egregious disregard for public health, safety, the environment, and social justice—putting private and/or ideological interests ahead of the public good.

In profiling cowardice, what would you suggest?

Clearly, there are also stellar instances of courage—public servants speaking out, refusing to be silenced, and quietly doing their jobs on behalf of we the people. Public servants who go to work every day, who support and defend the mission of their agencies, and who stick with it, even in the face of an administration that disparages their work and the work of their agencies. We owe them a debt of gratitude.

While this piece focuses on the Trump administration, I will be the first to admit that they have no corner on the cowardice market. We have seen it before and will, no doubt, see it again. But it’s what we’re dealing with right now—and something to consider as we slog through the election season.

Closing thoughts

I write this following a week of intense focus on public hearings related to the impeachment inquiry of President Trump. Unlike the courage of some of the witnesses, it was not an overwhelming display of courage on the part of many of our elected leaders who put loyalty to party first and foremost.

A few paragraphs from Chapter 1 in the original Profiles in Courage seem particularly apt in this moment:

“Today the challenge of political courage looms larger than ever before. For our everyday life is becoming so saturated with the tremendous power of mass communication that any unpopular or unorthodox course arouses a storm of protests…. Our political life is becoming so expensive, so mechanized and so dominated by professional politicians and public relations men that the idealist who dreams of independent statesmanship is rudely awakened by the necessities of election and accomplishment. And our public life is becoming so increasingly centered upon that seemingly unending war to which we have given the curious epithet “cold” that we tend to encourage rigid ideological unity and orthodox patterns of thought.”

“And thus, in the days ahead, only the very courageous will be able to take the hard and unpopular decisions necessary for our survival in the struggle with a powerful enemy – an enemy with leaders who need give little thought to the popularity of their course, who need pay little tribute to public opinion they themselves manipulate, and who may force, without fear of retaliation at the polls, their citizens to sacrifice present laughter for future glory.  And only the very courageous will be able to keep alive the spirit of individualism and dissent which gave birth to this nation, nourished it as an infant and carried it through its severest tests upon the attainment of its maturity.”