The financial crisis posed a problem for the Republican Party. For decades, its leaders had preached the personal virtues and public prosperity that came with free markets, but the violent collapse of the financial system in 2008 had initiated years of frustration and despair. How could conservatives rescue their doctrine with voters furious about bank bailouts and high unemployment?
Donors and strategists put their heads together and decided to blame government. American free markets were not, it turned out, really free. In the hands of Barack Obama’s Democrats, Republicans said, markets had transformed into corrupt protection rackets for the rich and powerful. As the party’s nominee for vice president, Paul Ryan, put it in the run-up to the 2012 election, “cronyism” had replaced the “entrepreneurial dynamism” of “an opportunity society.”
“The protection of big business remains a common thread in Mr. Obama’s policies, which have come at the expense of the consumer, the taxpayer and the entrepreneur,” Ryan wrote for The Financial Times. The GOP vision of “free enterprise” was “about more than material riches,” according to Ryan. “It incorporates moral truths about personal dignity, equal opportunity, job security, ending poverty and dependency, increasing upward mobility, and taking responsibility for self and family.”
This was more than a little rich coming from a man who had voted for the bank bailouts and eagerly applied for stimulus funds for his own congressional district. Nevertheless, it contained an element of truth. Both the crash and the recovery had been lopsided: Ordinary people were hit hardest, and the well-to-do had received the vast majority of the gains during the turnaround.
But whatever legitimacy Ryan’s paean to the market once contained has been destroyed by the presidency of Donald Trump, a man selected by Republican voters in 2016 and protected by Republican politicians today. On Wednesday, ProPublica and WNYC published the blockbuster results of an eight-month investigation into the president’s real estate operations, revealing a stunning international web of deceit and default. In one deal in Panama alone, the Trump family secured at least $30 million for itself while repeatedly misrepresenting the project to investors over the course of years, until the project at last went bankrupt. Any Republican who seriously believed that markets exist to serve consumers and entrepreneurs would be demanding an immediate criminal investigation and initiating impeachment proceedings.
Of course, nobody expects elected Republicans or their donors to do anything of the sort. Trump has revealed what conservative donors really love about American financial markets, and it has nothing to do with competition or shared prosperity. Republicans instead rely on the financial system ― along with the tax code ― to protect a well-connected political elite.
The most powerful revelation in the ProPublica investigation is not Trump’s special gift for grift, but the degree to which the financial system has served as Trump’s partner ― a way to enable white-collar misconduct and transmit it around the world. Trump joined the Panama development project in 2006. He and his family helped sell units in the not-yet-constructed skyscraper to prospective buyers and secured financing through Bear Stearns that would actually allow it to be built.
Bear Stearns wouldn’t issue the bonds for financing unless a certain number of units were sold, so Trump and the developers relied on high-pressure sales techniques, inflated sales numbers and secretive purchases through anonymous shell corporations to make the numbers work. Bear Stearns sold the bonds to investors in November 2007. By 2013, the year the project went bankrupt, 458 purchasers had withdrawn their contracts.
In the process, Ivanka Trump presented false sales figures to the public in order to gin up interest in the development, overstating how many units had sold and wildly overstating the prices at which they were selling. It wasn’t a one-time mistake. According to ProPublica and WNYC, Ivanka presented false sales figures for developments in Toronto, New York and Baja California, as well.
On the Panama project, the Trumps even recruited a sales broker, Alexandre Ventura Nogueira, who was later recorded saying he “regularly” laundered drug money and partnered with the “Russian mafia.” Who was Nogueira selling Trump condo units to? “Nobody ever asked me,” he told NBC News and Reuters. “The banks didn’t ask. The developers didn’t ask. The Trump Organization didn’t ask me. Nobody asked me: ‘Who are the customers? Where did the money come from?’”
This underworld thicket of dishonesty was all made possible by a major U.S. investment bank, which agreed to arrange a $220 million bond issue for Trump, a man who had previously been part of five separate casino and hotel bankruptcies.
And so the cronyism Republicans decried in 2012 is celebrated today as a system of “free markets” and “free enterprise,” embodied in the persona of a Republican president. But the GOP has not been alone in protecting this breeding ground for fraud. For eight years after the financial crisis, a Democratic administration refused to prosecute top traders and executives at major financial institutions ― even as the administration piled up settlements with big banks for breathtaking misconduct. Only a handful of Democrats in Congress ever chastised either Obama or his attorney general, Eric Holder, for inaction against financial criminals. As Ryan quietly prepares for life after Congress, Holder ― who currently chairs a nonprofit fighting partisan gerrymandering ― is weighing a presidential bid.
“If you want to know what kind of government official I would be in the future,” Holder recently told New York magazine’s Noah Kulwin, “you only have to look at the past, and you could see the way in which I conducted myself as AG.”