Trump, the Rise of the Crooked Class, and the Perils of Kakistocracy

My new column in the New York Times

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In today’s New York Times, I argue that the Trump presidency is payback for decades of official laxity around tax evasion and white-collar crime, and it’s threatening the integrity of the American republic.

We haven’t been taking simple tax evasion seriously enough as the root cause of kakistocratic Trumpian populism. The ominous stuff about which many of us worry deeply — Russian collusion, complicity in the Saudi cover-up of the grisly murder of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi , etc. — really could devolve into disastrous global conflict. But these scandals are ultimately knock-on effects of the fact that Trump was able to get rich by cheating on his taxes.

As I write in the piece:

The Trump presidency is the apotheosis of the crooked class, a monster made from our mistakes, and he’s making them worse. Under Mr. Trump, the I.R.S. has been starved of resources, audits of big corporations and the wealthy are down, and big banks and corporations have been given more leeway to rip people off with impunity. If we survive this reign of error, we need to learn our lesson and make it right. …

When it’s easy for a class of people to cheat and get away with it, over time, lots of them will. When their ranks and resources hit a critical mass, their desire for political cover can get traction. Their pooled wealth, much of which has been illicitly withheld from the system, can be deployed to incrementally change the system — to rig the tax code and its enforcement — to keep themselves in the money (and out of jail).

This starves the government of funds for the public goods and social insurance programs that ensure our institutions work to the benefit of everyone, not just a cabal of the well-connected. If the legal and fiscal foundations of the country continue to erode, the rule of law can unravel in a doom loop of corruption, distrust and institutional degeneration. Collapsing public faith in government offers alert demagogues an opening to grab political power by promising to stick it to corrupt elites. As often as not, these will be corrupt elites eager to exploit a populist mandate to plunder with ever greater impunity.

This happens the world over, again and again, and it happened to us. Mr. Trump is using the presidency to cover up his crimes, feather his nest and protect the interests of dictators who funnel money to his family. And it started with the tax-evasion tricks he learned at his father’s knee.

Donald Trump’s electoral success was based on a myth of vast self-made wealth. But Trump does not know how to produce wealth; he knows how to steal it and beat the rap. Even if he winds up in an ankle monitor, history will remember “the Donald” as a titan of legal evasion—a white-collar Houdini who beat the rap all the way to the Oval Office and deployed its powers to cover up his crimes while committing new ones to feather his family’s loot-lined nest.

When an egomaniacal criminal escape artist seizes the reins of power, the rule of law is bound to be assailed. When he’s in hock to dirty Russian and Saudi money, America’s vital interests are bound to be betrayed.

The President of the United States has been shilling like a paid crisis management consultant for Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the religious tyrant responsible for the political assassination of Jamal Khashoggi. This is almost alarming as the fact that Trump — a man whose general public comportment is a mix of Benito Mussolini and a Catskills insult comic — won’t under any circumstances utter an unkind word about Vladimir Putin, Russia’s election-meddling autocrat. The “leader of the free world,” it seems, is highly motivated to protect the interests of dictators who give him money. That’s incredibly dangerous.

As I conclude the piece:

Free and prosperous democracies run on social trust: the mutual expectation of non-exploitation. Rampant corruption is the bane of trust, the Kryptonite of republican self-rule. Failure to guard against it has delivered us into the hands of a grievously compromised tax cheat who saw a chance to cover his decadent backside by winning power as a tribune of the people.

But it was our lack of vigilance, not his peerless mendacity, that allowed Donald Trump the bogus reputation and stolen resources he needed to seize it.

We’ve got to understand the role of our negligence in bringing about this dire situation, and work to fix it. We need anti-corruption, financial transparency, and tax reform measures to rein in the growth of the crooked class and strangle baby Trumps in their gilded cribs.

Consider subscribing for some piqued political theorizing about the “progressive master narrative” (was John Rawls right that justice requires “property owning democracy”?) as well as some stray thoughts about what Zillow-but-for-property-taxes (an idea aired in today’s piece) might look like.

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