How bad is corruption under Trump? To help us answer the question, it’s useful to consider first what the major types of corruption are and secondly what the extent of corruption was in past American administrations before we get to the particulars of Trump’s administration.
Historically one finds two general types of corruption in the presidential context. One type involves the illegal use of governmental access to enhance private self-enrichment. The worst offenders in such cases tended to be those entrusted with high cabinet or sub-cabinet positions. The second type is directly political, involving the unconstitutional overstepping of one’s prescribed authority to augment political power and undermine opponents. Corruption of this type generally involves direction by a person or persons with overarching authority, presumably including the president himself.
Most historians agree that the most egregious examples of corruption of either kind occurred in the administrations of Grant (1869-1877), Harding (1921-23), and Nixon (1969-1974). Broadly speaking, the Grant and Harding administrations represent the first type of corruption, while the Nixon administration represents the second.
Widespread graft arose in the Grant and Harding administrations in the aftermath of wars (the Civil War and World War I, respectively) where wartime corruption had played a larger-than-life role. As Americans turned their animal spirits to the making of money in peacetime, public corruption followed naturally. A climate of license extended into the highest levels of the federal government, a situation exacerbated by the negligent management style of both Grant and Harding. The upshot was that numerous office holders milked the system through payoffs and bribery with relative impunity. The Whisky Ring and Teapot Dome scandals were the inevitable results.
The Nixon administration and its signature brand of corruption arose under different circumstances. Nixon’s election came during a period of increasing political polarization. The strong law-and-order stance of the Nixon-Agnew campaign, which targeted minorities and intellectuals, came in response to broad anti-war opposition. Reinforced by the intrusive authoritarianism of J. Edgar Hoover at the FBI, the Nixon administration developed a siege mentality that made it easy to brand opponents and media critics as enemies of the state. The corrupt political abuses of Watergate flowed naturally from those premises.
Corruption under Trump is unique in that it includes both types of corrupt abuses. In the area of type 1 corruption (self-enrichment), bad actors proliferated within the loose structure of Trump’s regime from the outset. On the relatively petty level, a gilded sense of entitlement led to a keen appetite on the part of officials for government-paid excursions, extravagant office furniture, shady housing arrangements from lobbyists, and the like. More serious graft involved insider stock trading by two cabinet members (Tom Price and Wilbur Ross) and self-dealing by assorted members of the Trump clan: Ivanka using political connections to further her international brand, Jared taking advantage of his position to negotiate billion-dollar loans for his business, and the president garnering proceeds from hotels and golf retreats ready-made for international favor-seekers. Continuing to hold the reins of his business empire and projecting an aura of untouchability, the president set his administration’s standard of integrity through his own example, making it the lowest bar for acceptable behavior of any presidency in history.
As attention-grabbing as this record of graft is, Trump’s major ground-breaking comes in the area of type 2 corruption (political abuses). His similarity in this regard to Nixon, who stood as the avatar of political corruption in his own administration, is obvious. Nixon worked to bring the Justice Department under his baleful influence, discredit his opponents, and essentially put himself above the law. While Trump so far has not yet remade the Justice Department into his personal tool (although not from any lack of trying), his efforts to politicize the law and undermine democratic rules and conventions seem to have gone well beyond Nixon’s. In so doing he created a style of corruption all his own.
Whereas Nixon committed many of his worst deeds in secret, most notably the Watergate burglary, the secret investigation of enemies, the tactical sabotaging of opponents’ campaigns, Trump has done most of his dirty work in the public eye. His corruption of the political system has occurred largely through his powers of appointment, dismissal, and pardon, his issuance of executive orders, and, most obtrusively, his use of the bully pulpit to shame, insult, and threaten.
By such means Trump eroded and demeaned the system of checks and balances, including the judiciary, the press, and Congress’s powers of oversight, which properly serve as a counterweight to a president’s personal power. He undermined the rule of law and the Constitution by making loyalty to himself, both inside and outside of his administration, paramount. He attacked traditionally apolitical American agencies, including the intelligence and crime investigative services, to discredit them as objective bodies. And, having surrounded himself with appointees of dubious reputation (Manafort, Flynn, Cohen, Stone, etc.), he created an odor of criminality throughout his administration.
Much of Trump’s ability to corrupt democratic practices and institutions derived from his firm command over a large minority of voters. Through appeals to fear, anger, and prejudice, and by conveying the impression that truth is what any of his right-minded followers think it is, he held and continues to hold 40% of adult Americans and a political party in his palm. This has allowed Trump to call whatever contradicts his pronouncements “fake news,” to justify virtually any action as appropriate against his enemies, to deny today what he said yesterday or to switch the goalposts at will, and to cast a cloud of doubt over challenges to his deeds and accomplishments. Trump’s power over Republicans has made bipartisan stands on principle or the drawing of lines in the sand against Trump’s actions virtually impossible.
The American people are now observing in real time the hijacking of their once functioning democracy to conform to one man’s warped version of it. Sadly enough, this is happening with the active collaboration of a large minority of snake-charmed Americans. Trump has managed to make these voters so indifferent to evidence and the truth, and so inflamed with grievances, that it is likely they would greet any report issued by Special Counsel Mueller, no matter how well argued or documented, with unalloyed skepticism. They would find it ipso facto unacceptable, a result that would in all probability render the nation ungovernable. Now that’s corruption.