Government corruption takes a psychic toll on the public, and it debases us all.
Keeping up with the news can feel like a full-time job these days, and one of the consequences is that stories about government corruption have lost their sting. There are simply too many alarming things going on for any one piece of wrongdoing or petty theft to sink in.
There’s news that President Donald Trump’s personal lawyer, Michael Cohen, set up what appears to be a pay-foraccess shell company called Essential Consultants LLC, which was paid hundreds of thousands of dollars by major American companies to do what seems to be very little.
But that’s just the latest. Among many other cases, there’s the fact that the Trump administration nominated Donald Trump Jr.’s wedding planner to run the Department of Housing and Urban Development in New York and New Jersey, a position ripe for graft. (Ben Carson, who runs the department in Washington, recently spent $165,000 to redecorate HUD headquarters.) Trump Jr. recently went to India on a semiofficial visit, where advertisements touted the opportunity to meet with the president’s son for $38,000 a pop.
In April, the Center for Investigative Reporting made public a saga in which many millions of dollars embezzled by the corrupt Malaysian government were repeatedly invested in properties owned by Trump’s friends and family, including son-and-law Jared Kushner. It isn’t clear whether they were aware of the source or if there is an investigation of those specific investments. In 2016, the Justice Department launched a bid to prosecute some of the Malaysians responsible, and after he was elected Trump was lobbied by their government to end its investigation — partly, by spending money at Trump’s D.C. hotel.
The Malaysians are among the people, governments and companies that have poured money into or done favors for the Trump Organization since Trump has been elected. The American people could feel a little better about that if Trump had done as he promised and put his company in a blind trust. He has not.
Then there’s Scott Pruitt, who has used his perch running the Environmental Protection Agency to sightsee in Rome on the public dime, while living for next to nothing in a D.C. condo owned by a lobbyist seeking to influence his agency.
It’s all very sordid, and the sheer accumulation of it all, along with the likelihood that few of these people will ultimately be truly held to account, takes a psychic toll on the American public. It debases us all. Pruitt and Kushner and Trump and Carson are teaching us what to expect.
Washington has always been a hot pot of corruption and malign influences. But the nature of that corruption has changed over time. Within living memory, it was relatively normal for politicians to receive briefcases full of illicit campaign donations. That kind of self-dealing went into partial decline after Watergate. Politicians got cleaner, and special interests learned to funnel their influence-buying through legal channels.
It’s not just Washington. The Texas Legislature is filled with people who trade power for money, as it has always been. Many, such as Attorney General Ken Paxton, have served unusual legal clients or who have suspicious real estate deals in their history. Then there’s the story of Chris Oliver, who accepted bribes of some $225,000 while serving as a Houston Community College trustee. The corrupting power of money is everywhere in politics; it transcends party, region and creed.
What’s new about the Trump administration is that they’re doing what they do openly and without shame. It’s an escalation, something from the Gilded Age, another period where economic inequality was high, and men with few principles ruled the day.
The gross excesses of that time birthed a rumbling political movement that sought to take money out of politics and return power to the people. Part of that took the form of electing new politicians, but it also sought to change the structure of American politics, by enacting new constitutional amendments and changing the way people thought about their relationship to the state.
We’re not there yet, but there’s room to hope for something like this sort of reform. The unpalatable alternative is that we learn to accept the grime, and the United States becomes something cheaper than it was.