What is this thing called “Trumpism”? As elusive as it is to define, all the big events driving our politics since the midterm elections are converging on the inescapable conclusion that it is rotten to its core with corruption and failure. And the stink of this rot is everywhere.
The news that President Trump’s former lawyer lied to Congress about a major real estate deal Trump pursued in Russia while campaigning for president — along with other developments involving Trump’s tariffs, crackdown on migrants, and response to the murder of a Saudi dissident — provides an opening for a new forensic examination of the foundations of this moment.
A new Post piece offers an arresting summary of Trump’s current travails. Former Trump fixer Michael Cohen has now revealed that Trump’s company pursued a Trump Tower in Moscow through June 2016 — while GOP primary voters were choosing their nominee for president — which Trump concealed.
Meanwhile, the special counsel is scrutinizing phone calls between Trump and longtime adviser Roger Stone to determine whether Stone communicated advance knowledge he allegedly possessed of a WikiLeaks operation carrying out Russia’s sabotage of our election on Trump’s behalf.
The Post weaves these strands together this way: “Investigators have evidence that Trump was in close contact with his lieutenants as they made outreach to both Russia and WikiLeaks — and that they tried to conceal the extent of their activities.”
The precise nature of all these contacts probably won’t, by itself, bring down Trump. But they provide a new glimpse into just how corrupted his ascension to the presidency really was. He repeatedly praised Russian President Vladimir Putin and called for better relations with Russia — positions presented as good-faith proposals in the national interest — while pursuing a lucrative deal that required Kremlin approval.
The revelations also suggest with fresh urgency that Trump may have been compromised. Former deputy solicitor general Neal Katyal told Chris Hayes that by concealing business dealings with Russia, Trump left himself vulnerable to blackmail. “The Russians have known that Trump lied to the American people for two years,” Katyal said, which they could have used against Trump to “get their bidding done.”
Oh, I get it! I am a very good developer, happily living my life, when I see our Country going in the wrong direction (to put it mildly). Against all odds, I decide to run for President & continue to run my business — very legal & very cool, talked about it on the campaign trail … Lightly looked at doing a building somewhere in Russia. Put up zero money, zero guarantees and didn’t do the project. Witch Hunt!
Never mind that Trump and his lawyer lied to conceal the project and its duration. Trump is offering a soft-focus version of a real truth: that Trump did openly campaign on the idea that his own self-dealing could be put to work on behalf of the country.
As a candidate, Trump often admitted he’d done bad things to make his money. Trump openly boasted of buying off politicians and claimed not paying taxes “makes me smart.” But Trump offered this as inside knowledge of how the “corrupt” system really works, which he’d use to make everyone else, or at least his followers, rich.
In this sense, Trumpism represents a homegrown version of the strongman populist authoritarian nationalism we’re seeing in many other countries. Rulers in this mold tell their followers that domestic and/or international institutions, elites favoring freer global movement of people and capital, and even in a sense liberal democratic rule of law — all of these things have failed them. These rulers suggest they’ll prioritize “the people” over all those things, but also ask their followers to see their own willingness to skirt ethical lines — or engage in outright corruption — as something “the people” can share in the spoils of instead.
“Around the world, populist authoritarians claim that because ‘the system’ is corrupt anyway, the leaders’ own corruption should be seen as a kind of virtuous one that will operate on behalf of the people,” Daniel Ziblatt, the co-author of a seminal book on Trump’s shared qualities with such authoritarians, tells me. And “the people” often means “their followers.”
Trumpism is riddled with corruption and failure
Recent events provide an opening for a reexamination of these foundational aspects of Trumpism. Thanks to the new revelations, we’re beginning to glimpse just how deeply corrupted Trump’s ascendancy was — how deep the self-dealing really ran. And there may be a lot more to come on this front, since we don’t know what else Cohen will tell the special counsel or what else the special counsel’s investigators have learned.
Meanwhile, as president, Trump has only ratcheted up the self-enrichment and corruption: He won’t release his tax returns while continuing to use the presidency to shovel money into his pockets in multiple ways. He continues to undermine law enforcement to protect himself from accountability. Both of those are enabled by the GOP. As Will Wilkinson notes, Trump did identify weaknesses in our “corrupt” system, but he’s now exploiting them to his own corrupt ends.
Ziblatt points out to me that the notion that a ruler’s corruption “works” for his followers is often tacitly understood by them as a justification for it to continue — and that Trump is very much in this mold. It’s the bargain they’ve made.
But even as the corruption grows clearer, we’re also seeing that bargain fail everywhere, because the Trump policies rooted in populist nationalism are failing. As Paul Krugman explains, the closure of General Motors plants reminds us that Trump’s tariffs (and deep corporate tax cuts) cannot bring back the economy of “manly jobs in manufacturing and mining” that is the stuff of Trumpian populist nostalgia. Manufacturers say the trade wars will mean not more jobs, but rather higher prices. Trump is ignoring his own government’s urgent scientific findings about the dangers of climate change, putting future generations at risk.
Trump’s nonstop dehumanization of migrants and asylum seekers is based on lies, ones that reveal his underlying ideas about immigration as entirely ineffectual in the face of very real problems. Trump wants us to believe his refusal to hold the Saudi crown prince responsible for Jamal Khashoggi’s murder reflects a hardheaded grasp of the real world that puts this country first. But that’s also a big lie. It has only thrown Trump’s embrace of authoritarianism into horrifying new relief, and may shine new light into the depths of his personal corruption, as the Democratic House prepares to investigate Trump’s financial ties to the Saudis.
The big story of the moment is that the foundations of Trumpism are rotten with corruption and failure. Their stench is everywhere.