The emblem of the Trump era is the mingling of personal corruption on the part of America’s leaders with the political corruption of American capitalism and the rise of autocracy. And, of course, the three trends feed on each other.
Take the case of the assertions by President Donald Trump’s lawyers in their memo to the special counsel Robert Mueller that was reported this weekend. The claim is naked in its candor: Trump is simply above the law. Anything that he does as president is legal, simply because he does it.
This is Trump’s attitude generally, and it is the essence of tyranny.
Autocracy and personal corruption go hand in hand. If there are no democratic checks, the autocrat can be as corrupt as he likes. Trump’s signature in the runup to the 2016 election, and in office, has been trading favors with Vladimir Putin — not favors that reset our diplomatic relationship with Russia and cool tensions but personal favors that benefit Trump financially. As an autocrat, he believes that he can avoid being held to account, and he may be right.
Trump is now repeating with China what he did with Russia — trading away national security goals for personal profit.
There is no other explanation for his overruling of the entire national security establishment in Trump’s defense of the Chinese telecom company ZTE, which was caught red-handed violating the embargo against North Korea and which represents a real espionage threat. But the Chinese simply bribed Trump with a huge loan to a Trump-sponsored project before Trump’s policy reversal, and then added a thank you by giving special lucrative trademark approval to Ivanka Trump afterward.
Selling out your country for personal gain is an impeachable offense hidden in plain view. But Trump’s personal corruption as a dictatorial president is enabled by Republicans, who are willing to look the other way most of the time because his corruption serves their own.
The deeper disease is the slide of American capitalism into kleptocracy ― in which very wealthy people make an alliance with the dictator, who helps them rig the rules to enable themselves to become even richer, in violation of anything like the supposed efficiency of markets that Republicans keep invoking.
Look no further than Trump’s just-announced order to bail out failing coal power plants. For a party that long railed against the government “picking winners and losers” in the energy market, it’s a brazen giveaway to political cronies.
Likewise, does any serious person think that the gutting of the 2010 Dodd-Frank Act will be good for the economy? It’s a naked power grab that will create more risk for the financial system and more immense wealth for the biggest banks who can in turn reward politicians.
“Selling out your country for personal gain is an impeachable offense hidden in plain view.”
What’s worse, the American kleptocracy is in many respects bipartisan.
How else can we explain the fact that 16 Senate Democrats and 33 House Democrats voted to weaken the Dodd-Frank Act? It’s not as if voters in swing states are clamoring for more regulatory relief for Wall Street.
In 1989, when the Berlin Wall fell, many commentators were proclaiming that the world would now embrace the model of capitalist democracy. They didn’t reckon with the appeal of Putinism — corrupt crony capitalism linked to political dictatorship, with forms of democracy just for show.
It’s not hard to see why Putin is such a pal and role model for Trump. And here’s the worst part. Pervasive corruption invites pervasive cynicism and even political nihilism on the part of citizens — a sense that they all do it, that the system is hopelessly rigged and that politics is a sham and a futile exercise.
That’s the essence of Putinism. That’s how Trump gets away with the total contradiction of being a corrupt billionaire who professes to speak for the people. If they all do it, we might as well have a leader who is at least a tough guy rather than a wimp.
We are not quite all the way on the path to Putin hell, but we are well down the road. Our republic has suffered grave damage. It might yet be saved if Mueller picks up the pace and manages to tender his presumably explosive report before he is removed; or if there is not too much outright electoral theft in November and Democrats take back the House and begin the impeachment process; or if some Republicans consider the larger stakes and are seized with an outbreak of civic conscience.
There is the further risk of what could happen if a progressive Democrat gets the presidential nomination in 2020 and vows to clean out crony capitalism for real, Roosevelt style. The entire kleptocracy, from the Koch brothers to Wall Street Democrats, will do everything to keep that candidate from destroying their game.
We may yet get our republic back, but it will take courage, mobilization, leadership and luck.
Robert Kuttner is co-editor of The American Prospect and a professor at Brandeis University’s Heller School. His new book is Can Democracy Survive Global Capitalism? Follow him on Twitter at @rkuttnerwrites.