The jaw-dropping interview was released the same day that the New York Times published a stunning investigation into Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao, revealing that she sought to bring her family members to official meetings with Chinese government officials. Chao’s father founded Foremost, a shipping company with no small amount of business in China. When State Department officials called her out on it, she canceled the trip. Chao is married to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), and family members have donated well over $1 million to political action committees (PACs) connected to him over the course of their marriage.
It boggles the mind that a lightweight such as Kushner is a senior adviser to the president of the United States. It also boggles that the Chao connections are all but flying under the radar — after all, this is hardly a first offense. (Politico previously outed Chao for sitting in on interviews that Chinese media conducted with her father, at least one of which appears to have taken place at the Department of Transportation.) But mostly, it boggles the mind that Democrats are not constantly screaming to the heavens about all this stinky nepotism.
The founding idea in our nation is that we are all equal and that we all enjoy similar opportunities for advancement. Nepotism and cronyism give lie to that in the most blatant way possible. I highly doubt there has ever been a society immune to nepotism, but in the United States, we have historically tried to minimize it and its close cousin, favoritism. It’s viewed as contrary to both good governance and good business practices.
Nepotism is bad for workplace morale and performance, as numerous studies attest. In the view of Jone L. Pearce, a professor at the University of California at Irvine’s business school, who has studied the topic extensively, in nepotistic workplaces “employees report more cheating, distrust of their co-workers, employees are more dissatisfied and less committed, they report they are more fearful, and are obsequious to their supervisors in order to become a favorite.” If that’s not a pitch-perfect description of Trump’s White House, I don’t know what is.
The feeling that one needs an edge permeates our society, where wealth inequality results in less and less opportunity for all too many people. Class mobility in the United States is significantly lower than in many European countries. Attending Harvard, Stanford or MIT gives start-up CEOs a valuable leg up in raising money. Likely as a result, an obsession with getting into the “right” school among upper-middle-class parents starts at preschool in major cities, and continues to college, where a 2011 survey of 30 top colleges found that if a parent attended the school, it upped an applicant’s chances of admission by almost half. At the same time, studies show that the vast majority of people who get hired on at new jobs use connections in some way to get a foot in the door.
Even as we are all but forced to embrace this “who you know” way of life, anger over it roils our politics. When Trump ran for president on a claim that he would “drain the swamp,” he was able to get away with it because he wasn’t viewed as part of the usual Washington insider culture. Trump, whom many voters incorrectly saw as self-made, offered himself as a direct contrast to Hillary Clinton, who first came to public attention as the wife of President Bill Clinton. Of course, for Trump, that was just another con in a lifetime of them. In the White House, he has surrounded himself with a collection of sycophants, hangers-on and family members, including son-in-law Kushner, a real estate heir with the talents and instincts of a ne’er-do-well suddenly reinvented as an expert on Middle East policy. Not surprisingly, over the past two and half years, Kushner has been revealed to be naive, exploitable and thoroughly unsuccessful.
Democrats need to shout about this — and not stop. I know it’s easy to see the nepotism scandals as more soap opera fodder. We could think about it this way: How would Republicans act if, say, Kushner’s White House responsibilities and portfolio were instead performed by former first daughter Chelsea Clinton or her husband, former hedge-funder Marc Mezvinsky. We would never hear the end of it.
But there is a bigger point to make about it as well. This banana-republic-level corruption is ultimately poison for the greater economy. Nepotism leads to lower quality hires, less investment and, ultimately, less effort. Its increasing presence is a sign of a country that doesn’t believe opportunity is expanding. Instead, it is a sign of a nation where options are viewed as limited, and the people want to hoard what privileges and wealth they can muster. That, in turn, cuts into growth. It’s a mark of a society in decline.