Here’s a thought experiment. What would an American president-elect with a global business empire but determined to expunge any hint of a financial conflict of interest upon taking office do? How would a man who ran as a champion of the “forgotten men and women” of America, and who promised to “drain the swamp” of Washington corruption, behave?
The answer is that this person would – and without hesitation – place all his assets in “blind trust”. This would mean these assets would be managed by third-party trustees of impeccable integrity. The beneficiary of this trust, the President, would have no knowledge or influence of how those interests are being managed. And the beneficiary would have zero personal connection with the trustees, who would be scrupulously open about all their activities. This would mean that the American Commander-in-Chief could take decisions without knowing how he would stand to personally profit or to lose from them.
So is that what Donald Trump is doing? You must be joking.
Today Trump tweeted: “Even though I am not mandated by law to do so, I will be leaving my businesses before January 20th so that I can focus full time on the Presidency. Two of my children, Don and Eric, plus executives, will manage them. No new deals will be done during my term(s) in office.”
The idea that placing his financial interests in the hands of his two sons, plus unnamed “executives”, constitutes a clean and transparent separation between Trump and his business empire is a bad joke.
There really is no ambiguity about this. The arrangement that Trump is apparently planning is a disgrace. The fact that he could even propose it displays a contempt for the American public. He is barely bothering to disguise what looks to me like a con.
Trump incessantly called Hillary Clinton “the most corrupt person ever to seek the presidency”. It feels as if there was mounting evidence that he was, in fact, describing himself with these damning words.
He refused to release his personal tax returns during the campaign – something done by every other nominee from a major party for 40 years. Since the election, the managers of Trump’s Washington hotel have been directly encouraging foreign diplomats to book rooms there.
Trump met his Indian business partners at Trump tower after the election and future expansion plans have apparently been discussed.
In a meeting with Nigel Farage, Trump suggested Ukip ought to campaign against a wind farm in Scotland that would interfere with the view from his Scottish golf course. This is behaviour that not merely creates the impression of a conflict of interest, it is already an abuse of political power for financial gain.
Will any of this change when Trump saunters into the White House next month? Will Trump emerge from the pupa of obfuscation and conflicted interests and reveal his true colours as a butterfly of unimpeachable financial rectitude? One would have to be stunningly naïve to believe it. “We are about to enter, or may already have entered, an era of corrupt governance unprecedented in US history,” warns the economist Paul Krugman.
But will Americans object? The question might seem preposterous. Once incontrovertible evidence of corruption is exposed, won’t Americans rise up in fury over being conned by Trump?
Do not be so sure. All of the above – the wind farm lobbying, the hotels, the Indian partners, the rejection of a blind trust – has been well documented. Some of it has even been aired by the broadcaster Fox, from which Trump supporters get most of their (mis)information. Yet it seems to be promoting little consternation among those millions of Americans who voted for Trump.
To understand why, it is worth looking to the history of other modern populist regimes. Jan-Werner Muller, professor of politics at Princeton University, has identified a tendency in countries in which populist movements (such as Trump’s own) seize power. And that is for the brazen corruption of the populist demagogue to be excused and tolerated by supporters on the grounds that the appropriation is now being done on behalf of “the people”.
This is especially the case if some of the financial gains of this kind of corrupt behaviour are channelled to a major client group of supporters. In the case of Trump this client group would be the white working classes of the rust belt.
“What makes populists distinctive is that they can engage in such practices openly and with moral justifications: after all, for them, only some people are really ‘the people’ and hence deserving of the support by what is rightfully their state,” Muller says, citing the examples of Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Turkey, Hugo Chavez in Venezuela and Viktor Orban in Hungary.
Perhaps this is too pessimistic. Maybe the powerful and historic checks of the US political and legal system will prevent such a cancer of corrupt clientalism metastasising. Maybe Trump’s authoritarian cult is less embedded than it seems. We can but hope. But make no mistake that, in this respect as in so many others, Donald Trump is hustling the American Republic down a dangerous road.
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