“State capture” is a form of systemic corruption in which private companies have improper influence on the state: They use their money to “buy” whole parts of the bureaucracy to ensure that laws and regulations fit their needs. It’s an expression the World Bank invented to describe some of the economies in the post-Soviet world.
“Autocratic capture” — a newer phrase invented by Ian Bassin, a lawyer and the director of the activist group Protect Democracy — is something like the opposite. It’s a form of systemic corruption in which politicians have improper influence on private companies. They use government power to put pressure on businessmen and to force them, or their employees, to toe a political line.
The term describes, for example, how countries such as Russia, Turkey, Egypt and Hungary deny licenses or contracts to businessmen who have any contact with opposition politicians, or who fund independent media, or who speak out in any way. In the past year, I’ve watched as Polish businessmen, including some personal friends, have withdrawn from any association with politicians or political life, fearing retribution from an illiberal government that, increasingly, practices autocratic capture, too.
I doubt very much whether President Trump has ever heard the expression autocratic capture, nor do I imagine he cares much about how politics or business operates in Turkey or Poland. But instinctively, it’s the policy he pursues. We saw his first attempt at using political power to undermine business in the spring of 2018, when — angry at this newspaper — he attacked its owner, Jeff Bezos, and threatened to have the Postal Service penalize the company Bezos founded and heads, Amazon. He even issued an executive order designed to do exactly that — thanks to which, at one point, Amazon’s market capitalization plunged.
We saw it again in September 2018, when Trump launched a round of tweets attacking NBC News and demanding the revocation of its license — something he doesn’t, in fact, have the power to do — although apparently the threat was enough to create some unease among television executives. He did it again a few days ago, when he tweeted his approval of a major investment into AT&T, which owns CNN’s parent company. An off-the-record spokesman for the investor, Elliott Management, has emphatically denied any political motivation; though a Republican donor, its chief executive, Paul Singer, is not closely affiliated with Trump. Nevertheless, Trump expressed the wish that the company would crack down on CNN and “put a stop to all of the Fake News emanating from its non-credible ‘anchors.’ ”
So far, these kinds of threats and Twitter rages have been mostly aimed at media companies whose employees write about the president. But others are watching, too. This week a group of CEOs — from companies including Levi Strauss, Gap, Twitter and Uber — sent a letter to Senate leaders calling for expanded background checks for those who want to purchase guns. A New York Times article about the letter noted the absence of several prominent chief executives whose companies are subject, or could be subject, to government regulation. According to the Times, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg did not sign the letter, although he agrees with its content, because of his fear it would focus negative political attention on his company. Google made the same decision, even though a mass shooting took place at YouTube, a company it owns, last year.
Although these are small incidents, Bassin, whose organization has filed numerous lawsuits designed to enforce democratic norms (I am an adviser to Protect Democracy), fears that this is the canary in the coal mine and that the political chill might spread. Trump’s behavior might already be shaping the relationship between the business community and government regulators in ways we can’t yet see. How far are we from the moment when a company’s CEO feels he or she has to publicly — or privately — praise Trump to get an important license or a better rule? How far are we from the moment when chief executives avoid associating with Democratic politicians for fear it will hurt their bottom line?
There are other side effects to Trump’s behavior, too. Internet regulation, including antitrust legislation, is already on the agenda in Europe; in a sane world, it would be on the agenda in the United States, too. But it is not easy to see how good regulatory decisions will be made — in this sphere or any other — if the government’s primary interest is pleasing the president, and tech companies’ primary interest is avoiding a presidential tweet.
Many Americans, but Republicans in particular, long opposed the nationalization of industry and state-controlled companies that are more common in Europe. Instead, they were proud of the American commitment to both economic and political freedom. How ironic, how tragic, that a Republican president is now undermining both.