Corruption and nepotism have both reached new levels in this White House, as everyone who knew Trump predicted, and as many who voted for him will ignore. Every time one of these stories breaks, there is a routine response: Is this what working-class Americans really wanted when they voted for an “anti-elitist”? Is this what the Midwest meant when it cheered calls to “drain the swamp”? But if history and precedent are any guide, then these abuses of power won’t matter to them at all.
Our hemisphere contains ample precedents. Latin American history is strewn with “men of the people” who rode anti- elitist sentiments to power and then used that power to enrich themselves and their friends. The former Venezuelan dictator-president Hugo Chávez won office on an “anti-corruption” ticket and then proceeded to rob the state on a massive scale, using government contracts to keep friendly business executives on board, turning the civil service and the state oil company into machines for rewarding supporters, even buying a luxurious plane from the ruling family of Qatar for his own use.
Europe contains similar stories. During its previous turn in power, Austria’s “populist” Freedom Party proved far more corrupt than the mainstream politicians it had denounced while out of office. After his death, it emerged that the party’s leader, Joerg Haider — more famous for his nods and winks to Austria’s Nazi legacy — was doing shady deals from Libya to the Balkans and beyond. Viktor Orban, the “populist” Hungarian prime minister who won in 2010 by denouncing the corruption of his opponents, has since directed European Union funding to business executives who support his party (among them a childhood friend), and helped to enrich numerous relatives, above all his son-in-law. (Sound familiar?) Poland’s ruling Law and Justice party also ran an anti-elitist election campaign in 2015 and has spent two years populating the civil service with friends, cousins, nephews and uncles of politicians.
If those had been “ordinary” politicians — social democrats or earnest liberals — they would have been run out of office by disappointed supporters who voted for efficient and effective government. But Chávez remained in power for 14 years before dying in office; his successor is still there. In Austria, the resurgent Freedom Party has just joined a new government coalition. Orban has been Hungary’s prime minister for nearly eight years, and Law and Justice’s support seems to be holding steady in Poland.
Some of these stories are really about authoritarianism: Many populist leaders are actually anti-pluralist leaders, and they change the rules of their democracies to make it more difficult for their opponents to win. But another factor is at work as well: Unlike social democrats or earnest liberals, these politicians were never trying to appeal to the good sense of voters, they were never selling efficiency and effectiveness, and their voters don’t expect it from them. In a recent speech, Orban declared that Western Europe had caused the “decline of Christian culture,” and he described Hungary as “the last bastion of Christianity.” If you are emotionally moved by that declaration, why should you care if his son-in-law is getting rich? The political scientist Jan-Werner Muller
has also written that corruption and cronyism aren’t a problem for this kind of leader “as long as they look like measures pursued for the sake of a moral, hardworking ‘us’ and not for the immoral or even foreign ‘them.’ ”
These same instincts might shield Trump from the wrath of some his voters. If you really believe that American civilization is in decline and only the Trump administration can halt it, then you won’t care that Jared Kushner is massaging America’s Middle Eastern policy to suit his business interests. If the “Forgotten Man” of Middle America believes Trump is battling invisible Islamist extremists (or overly visible television talk-show hosts), then they might not care that the Chinese government granted Ivanka Trump some valuable trademarks on the day President Xi Jinping met her father.
But the spectacular corruption of so-called anti-elitist elites has another effect in the longer term: It makes people cynical about politics altogether. I recently asked one of Orban’s opponents why the endless revelations of crooked contracts don’t create an overwhelming majority for the opposition. “Because voters now think everyone is corrupt,” he told me. “They’ve got used to it.” As the nepotism and the cronyism of this White House begin to sink in, Americans may not turn against Trump. They may turn against politics, or even democracy, altogether.