Trump’s Corruption Mandate
Donald Trump’s astonishing election victory was in part a backlash against increasingly corrupt American politics.
Transparency International publishes an annual Corruption Perceptions Index, ranking all nations from most to least clean in their political conduct. The United States entered the twenty-first century by falling out of the top ten. Scandinavian nations such as Finland, Denmark, and Sweden along with Commonwealth nations such as New Zealand, Canada, and the United Kingdom dominated the top spots, while the USA was ranked fourteenth.
Since then the USA has declined further in the Index's rankings.
Both corruption and the perception of corruption increased during the tenures of Bill and Hillary Clinton, George W. Bush, and Barack Obama. Examples included the use of the IRS to bully political enemies, government bailout funds going to politically-connected crony businesses, the use of high office to enrich one’s private foundation, and presidents and their appointees to regulatory bodies using their discretionary power indiscriminately.
Given this, one therefore understands the joke that the wildly-popular television show House of Cards is really a documentary.
Yet there is a danger in that joke. While corruption occurs in all governments, there a huge difference between cultures in which corruption is normalized and implicitly tolerated and those in which corruption is condemned, vigilantly monitored, and forced to go underground.
So Trump’s astonishing election victory may be a healthy reaction against the increasing corruption -- and therefore even more astonishing because his own character seems imbued with significant elements of personal and business-political corruption -- and because the combination of his presidency with his personal financial holdings is fraught with conflicts of interest (as this Wall Street Journal graphic shows). Yet since conflict-of-interest rules apply differently to the president and vice-president, according to 18 U.S. Code § 208, it is unclear how many conflicts will actually be avoided.
Of course some Trump supporters argue that it takes a beast to fight a beast, but what we really need is a political culture that does not lend itself to amoral animal metaphors.
Political leadership is a human endeavor, and effective human leadership in the free and open democratic republic we aspire to be requires both integrity and the widespread perception of integrity. We are a rich country economically, so we can recover from billions of dollars of loss. But the erosion of character among our leadership is much more expensive. It encourages cynicism among the citizenry. It imposes demoralization and disengagement costs upon them. It discourages the morally principled from seeking political office. And it attracts the even-more-corrupt to the corridors of power. No democratic republic can survive that downward cycle for long.
So while I did not vote for Trump, I am encouraged that his administration is following up on at least one of his campaign promises to for example, a five-year ban on lobbying for all transition and administration officials. We can debate the morality and likely effectiveness of that particular anti-corruption policy, but as a post-election statement of intent its seriousness is evident and positive.
Nations always have a choice. A century ago Argentina was among the top ten most prosperous and clean nations in the world, but it has declined precipitously and is now relatively much poorer and ranked in the bottom half of nations for bribery and related corruptions. South Africa was only moderately corrupt a generation ago and has also declined sadly.
Yet some countries have cleaned up their corruption impressively. Botswana improved dramatically in one generation, as did Chile -- both overcoming the widespread stereotype of irredeemable business-as-usual-corruption in African and Latin American politics.
A banana-republic destiny is avoidable for the USA. President Trump’s character -- with its odd mix of obviousness and unpredictability -- will be decisive, as will the vigilance of the rest of us and our commitment to putting the animals back in their cages and cleaning up their messes.