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Kleptocracy is the term political scientists use to sum up political systems where office holders routinely take advantage of their official positions to enrich themselves while disregarding the public interest. It is particularly widespread in some areas of the Third World and in the post-Communist countries of the former Soviet Union. Perhaps the most extreme example was the late Mobutu Sese-Seko in what he called Zaire (now the Democratic Republic of the Congo) where nothing was allowed unless it would enrich the dictator, his family and friends. We also saw it after the collapse of the Soviet Union, when state-owned enterprises were rapidly privatized and fell into the hands of former Communist apparatchiks transformed overnight into tycoons whose fortunes depended entirely on maintaining strong ties to the state leadership (Vladimir Putin at present).

Elected Authoritarians

John Peeler: Trump appears to believe that a conflict between his private interests and the public interest is impossible, that the two are identical. As Louis XIV said, “L’etat, c’est moi.”

Something similar is emerging now in the United States. We have already become accustomed to the circulation of elites between big business, government, and lobbying firms: Wall-Street executives become Cabinet secretaries, then return to Wall Street, or retiring members of Congress become lobbyists. And the Supreme Court’s “Citizens United” decision sanctified, as an exercise of free speech, the unregulated use of huge campaign donations to buy influence.

Now Donald Trump is taking us deeper into the muck. Not only is he continuing the pattern of staffing top positions (State, Treasury, and other cabinet positions) with big business leaders: by refusing to reveal his tax returns, he leaves us in doubt as to the reach of his complex financial empire. By resisting demands that he totally divest his holdings and put the proceeds in a blind trust, he is essentially telling us that we have to trust him to act in the public interest even when that might conflict with his private interest. Yet how can we possibly believe that when we know he has interests around the world, including in countries with which we might have issues (like Russia)? And what of the interests we don’t know about?

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We can see why he resists total divestiture and a blind trust. His entire business, his entire life is built around his personal identity. If he were to sell all those properties, all those companies with his name on them, they would lose much of their value because he personally vouches for them (e.g., Trump University). It is his celebrity that gives them value. On the other hand, if he simply leaves his children to manage them, he can return to them after his presidency, so he would have every incentive to pursue policies beneficial to his businesses, even if he’s not managing them while President. Obviously the latter option serves his interests much better.

Indeed, he appears to believe that a conflict between his private interests and the public interest is impossible, that the two are identical. As Louis XIV said, “L’etat, c’est moi.”

Trump did not invent corruption in American politics, but his brazenness is without precedent in our political life. Like the predatory capitalist that he is, he first seized control of the Republican Party and used it to win the presidency. He is now positioned to use that office to further enrich himself. Maybe he won’t do it, but what’s to stop him? His many devoted supporters will learn to like it that way. Or else.

john peeler

John Peeler

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