Donald Trump is an especially brazen version of a kleptocrat, the kind of ruler who uses his public office to enrich himself, his family and his cronies.
Trump’s no-shame approach to pilfering public coffers may horrify Americans, who are used to a more genteel and discreet approach to self-dealing by the rich and powerful, though tinpot dictators from Nigeria to Brazil are cheering him on. Trump has pushed the corruption envelope around the world and shown that leaders can get away with far more blatant abuses of public trust than anyone had previously thought.
But Trump wasn’t the first president to push taxpayer money to his allies in a corrupt network of elites. Voting him out will be a good start, but it won’t be enough to make American government work again for the 99% rather than merely for billionaires.
So says Sarah Chayes in On Corruption in America and What is at Stake. In a career spanning decades exposing kleptocracy across the Third World, including a stint working for the US army uncovering networks that funneled international aid into cronies’ pockets in Afghanistan, Chayes was pulled into the story of corruption in the United States by a shocking decision of the Supreme Court in 2016.
Former Virginia Governor Bob McDonnell was convicted in federal district court in 2014 on multiple counts of “honest services wire fraud,” conspiracy and “extorting property under color of official right” during his campaign and after he took office. McDonnell and his wife accepted about $200,000 in cash and gifts — including an infamous Rolex watch — from pharmaceutical entrepreneur Jonnie Williams.
Williams wanted McDonnell to help with approvals and marketing for a new diet-supplement drug. And once he was elected, McDonnell did his best to deliver, even popping Williams’s pills at a meeting with state officials, urging them to list the product as an approved medication for the health plan of state employees.
To the original jury, this looked like corruption. When McDonnell appealed this case, a higher court also agreed.
But when McDonnell took his appeal to the US Supreme Court, a unanimous decision reversed all the convictions on a bizarre interpretation of the law that only a lawyer could understand.
The 8-0 majority included Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg.
For all the controversy over “liberal” and “conservative” justices, in this case, and in others that Chayes documents, such labels turned out to be meaningless. The more important distinction was that all the justices decided to rule in favor of protecting members of plutocratic networks and against enforcing anti-corruption laws.
Whether liberal or conservative, justices were united in protecting plutocrats against the public.
Return of the Gilded Age
Chayes’s book, which came out in 2020, is so up to date that it covers not just Trump but also coronavirus relief programs, which turned out to be yet more expensive giveaways to big corporations and Trump cronies. More than just another waste of taxpayer money, it’s a sign that something is seriously wrong with the rules for our whole economy.
Chayes’s thesis is that high levels of income inequality and wealth disparity in American history, seen today as they were in the 1920s or the 1890s, don’t come about by the natural forces of the free market. Instead, an economy that pulls wealth upwards from ordinary people to the very rich is always intentionally engineered by networks of elites working to line their own pockets.
It’s not just Republicans or obvious slime balls like Trump and Michael Cohen who use the government to enrich themselves, their families and their cronies. Kleptocracy is a bipartisan pursuit. On the Democratic side, Bill and Hilary Clinton turn out to be just as bad as any Republicans. Criticisms of the Clinton Foundation as a kind of money-laundering scheme turn out to have some validity, even though those criticisms were delivered as partisan political attacks by unsavory Republicans.
Using the tools of “network analysis” that Chayes had honed in her work in Third World kleptocracies like Afghanistan and Nigeria, she is able to draw lines leading from the Clintons and other leading Democrats of the 1990s to some of the same people helping Trump today.
Though she’s not explicit about it, Cheyes does appear to believe that history goes in cycles, and that the current 40-year old cycle of plutocratic rule may be drawing to a close, or at least may be vulnerable to attack.
In the past, it took a major cataclysm, like a war or economic collapse, to end an era where elites were able to put the government into the service of big money over other values. For example, it took the Great Depression and two world wars to dislodge the Gilded Age and give America a time of more honest government.
FDR’s election led to a 50-year cycle of more public spiritedness, when a change in the moral values of elites allowed public policies and the legal system to redistribute wealth more fairly across society.
During this New Deal period from the 1930s to 1980, wealth and income disparities were at historic lows. That’s because good rules like progressive taxation and anti-trust legislation, along with strong enforcement of these rules, kept plutocrats from growing too rich. For example, in 1980, the average CEO earned about 30 times more than the average worker. But after 1980, the income and wealth gap started increasing, rising today to levels not seen since the 1920s. Today, the average CEO earns 312 times more than her typical employee.
Perhaps the appearance of Chayes’s book, along with the resonance of populist political rhetoric from both Bernie Sanders and Trump himself (rhetoric that Trump obviously didn’t mean to honor) may be signs that the trend is about to reverse.
At the end of On Corruption in America, Chayes offers several ideas to help move the change along. Some of her ideas appear to be up to the task, such as forming citizen groups to educate ordinary citizens on why billionaires are not their friends and how to rein them in.
“We reinforce better values by ceasing to assume that if someone is spectacularly rich, he must be smarter and more hardworking than the rest of us. We should view such people with suspicion,” she writes.
It is impossible to become a billionaire without bending the rules. Most of the members of that class run their operations and live their lives in ways that injure our communities. Most are trying to rig the system even further. These are not upstanding citizens. Thy are parasites and freeloaders — however they try to justify themselves. We do not owe them deference.
Other ideas, such as consumers quietly trying to buy less stuff from Amazon or Walmart, seem underpowered to address the magnitude of the task of ending the rule of extreme greed across society. Chayes should have listed some of the organizations that help Americans learn about big companies and join boycotts and other consumer campaigns to pressure those companies to make change such as Public Citizen.
Taking the Fight against Divide-and-Rule Seriously for Once
In the end, to dislodge the rule of money and corruption, America will need real campaign finance reform — with maximum limits on political donations from any one person or company — and then other reforms to make government work to protect people and the environment as Chayes and many others suggest.
Getting those changes passed and keeping them enforced will require Americans of all colors, classes and backgrounds to band together across party lines. The 1% has the money and power, though we can defeat them with superior numbers. But only if we unite.
Perhaps the most important insight for me of Chayes’s argument was the danger of partisanship and identity politics. Of course, I want Democrats to win in November. But Chayes reminds me that that a blue wave won’t be enough to kill the hydra of corruption that keeps sprouting two new heads for every one that’s chopped off.
And political partisanship itself is part of the problem.
Divide-and-rule is an old trick that a small group of elites uses to control a whole population, but this trick never grows stale because ordinary people almost always fall for it. As Chayes writes:
In an examination of seven anticorruption insurrections on five continents, the tactic I found to be most common — and most effective — was to deliberately enflame identity-based divisions that could pit groups of the population against one another. This is how a vastly outnumbered dominator coalition defeats the rest of us.
It’s pitifully easy to pit middle class and poor Americans against each other using race, class, gender, religion, geography and attitudes about hot-button social issues. Political parties do it all the time. But keeping the rest of us apart from each other only benefits kleptocratic elites, whether Democratic or Republican. Ordinary Americans must work hard to resist such tricks and build a new solidarity to demand that government benefit the 99%.
“I wish it didn’t work so well,” Chayes writes. “I wish our struggles didn’t so often collapse to a ranking — my gender, my history of slaughter and crippling slights, my people’s right to cross the borders or stop others from crossing — ahead of the damage the kleptocracy is doing to everyone. Let’s tackle both. Let’s expand the egalitarian coalition to mean all of us.”
If we really want to address the corruption that’s at the base of Trump’s rule and not just remove the most obvious perpetrators of kleptocracy leaving the field open to more genteel plutocrats in the future, progressives and liberals must be especially careful of two things.
First, we should not give our own plutocrats a free pass, but we should hold them accountable to the same standard we expect of Trump and the conservative billionaires who enable him like Charles Koch. When blue voters forgive the foibles of our “our” rich bastards, from the Clintons on down, it’s “a wonderful state of affairs for kleptocrats. Waving a red or blue flag, they hold on to camps of ardent loyalists while betraying them to serve the network instead,” writes Chayes.
Second, we must get over our own prejudices about members of the 99% on the conservative side. Ordinary people who vote blue in big cities have more in common with working people in rural red states than we think, whatever their views on abortion and guns.
This is especially true when progressives try to hold white conservatives responsible for historic oppression and its effects today. It’s all too easy to get into shouting matches and guilt trips.
“We should consider whether victimhood equates to virtue…We might encourage personal growth by welcoming it, by offering and accepting genuine apologies, in words and changed behavior, and by not imposing abject humiliation as the price of redemption.”
Only if the 99% can unite across the divides that elites are happy to encourage, divides that seem larger than ever in a social media landscape of shaming and cancel culture, can ordinary Americans build a strong enough coalition to bring corruption back under control.
Can this be done today in the absence of a war or economic collapse? Chayes seems to think that the solidarity and mutual aid arising out of the pandemic might offer a start, and I hope that she’s right.