Rex Tillerson spent 10 years as CEO of ExxonMobil before Donald Trump tapped him to be secretary of state, only to fire him from the position 14 months later. On Wednesday, he delivered a commencement address at the Virginia Military Institute, where he warned graduates that their democracy is in peril.
“I observe a growing crisis of ethics and integrity,” he lamented, twice invoking the biblical quote, “You shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free.”
That set up the core of his message:
An essential tenet of a free society, a free people, is access to the truth. A government structure and a societal understanding that freedom to seek the truth is the very essence of freedom itself. “You shall know the truth and the truth shall make you free.” It is only by fierce defense of the truth and a common set of facts that we create the conditions for a democratic, free society, comprised of richly diverse peoples, that those free peoples can explore and find solutions to the very challenges confronting the complex society of free people.
If our leaders seek to conceal the truth or we as people become accepting of alternative realities that are no longer grounded in facts, then we as American citizens are on a pathway to relinquishing our freedom. This is the life of nondemocratic societies, comprised of people who are not free to seek the truth.
Many observers saw the passage as a direct rebuke of President Trump, because Trump is a serial liar who has shamelessly told an unprecedented number of brazen falsehoods to the public to enrich, aggrandize, and empower himself. Yet rather than deem Trump unfit to lead on that basis, tens of millions voted to make him president and still support him, even with no election imposing a binary choice, and even though doing so teaches children a deeply corrosive moral lesson.