One of the insidious things about corruption is how used to it people can become. It’s not so much that it doesn’t continue to bother them, but that it just becomes expected. In places where you have to grease someone’s palm to get basic services from the government, everyone learns how the system works, and often resign themselves to it.
For the most part, it isn’t something Americans have to worry about in their daily lives. Transparency International ranks the United States as the 22nd least-corrupt country, which is quite good (though not as good as the Scandinavian countries, which are all at the top of the list). You usually don’t have to bribe a clerk at the Department of Motor Vehicles to get your driver’s license renewed, and when instances of corruption — such as the college admissions scandal — are revealed, we’re genuinely surprised.
Nevertheless, we often talk about the political system being corrupt, which in many ways it is. That kind of corruption, however, tends to be done both within the confines of the law and in largely public (even if not widely noticed) ways. Yes, old-fashioned corruption of the “Here’s a suitcase full of cash for that government contract” type is much rarer than it used to be. Instead, we have lobbyists who provide expertise and advice to members of Congress — in addition to timely campaign donations — and a revolving door between industry and federal agencies, which winds up aligning their worldviews and priorities. It’s all very civilized.
Or at least it was, until Donald Trump came to Washington claiming he would “drain the swamp.” While anyone with eyes and ears could see he’d do nothing of the sort, I don’t think we were quite prepared for how clear he would make it to everyone that, if you want something from this administration, you have to literally pay the president of the United States.
Here are some recent stories:
- The Post reports that an Iraqi sheikh who has been pressing the White House and the State Department to take more aggressive steps to overthrow the government of Iran recently “checked into the Trump International Hotel in Washington and spent 26 nights in a suite on the eighth floor — a visit estimated to have cost tens of thousands of dollars.”
- ProPublica reports that the payday loan industry, which was desperate to shelve a rule developed during the Obama administration that would make it harder for them to exploit desperate poor people by making them even more desperate and poor, has for the last two years held its annual meeting at the Trump National Doral golf course, at a tab of around $1 million. The rule they were so worried about is now in limbo, no longer a threat for the moment.
- The president has made a point of visiting his properties as often as possible and at significant government expense. Politico reports that these visits seem to produce higher revenue for the properties, likely from the attendant publicity. On his way back from a ceremony marking the 75th anniversary of D-Day, Trump is making a detour to visit the money pit of a golf course he owns in Ireland.
- The 2020 Trump campaign is maintaining expensive office space in the struggling Trump Tower, meaning that when you donate to get him reelected, part of the money literally goes in the president’s bank account.
- Likewise, the Republican Party and GOP candidates have booked millions of dollars worth of events at Trump properties since he became president, because the best way to show your loyalty to him is to let him wet his beak. So if you donate to the party or another candidate, it’s a fair bet you put money in Trump’s pocket.
- The State Department has allowed seven foreign countries to rent luxury condos at another of Trump’s buildings in New York. I suspect the president is well aware of who they are.
- While T-Mobile was awaiting government approval of a merger with Sprint, its executives spent nearly $200,000 at Trump’s Washington hotel.
- Attorney General William P. Barr, in the ultimate show of loyalty to the president, very publicly had a meal at Trump’s hotel, thereby slipping him some cash.
What we have here is a system and a set of expectations that have developed. The whole world knows that if you want something from the Trump administration, paying off the president might not be required, but sure it couldn’t hurt.
It would be nice to think that once Trump is no longer president, the expectations around corruption will reset to where they were before he took office, and people in both parties will once again believe the very thought of the president using the presidency to personally enrich himself to be abhorrent. But the alacrity with which Republicans decided that Trump’s brand of corruption is perfectly fine suggests otherwise.
There is another, more hopeful possibility: It’s that the moral squalor of the Trump era will produce a reaction in the other direction, a desire to clean up the system, not just so we don’t get another president as corrupt as Trump, but so we can have something better than what we had before he arrived, when the rich and powerful already were well able to twist policy for their benefit.
One can hope.