Donald Trump is but one symptom of a wider problem, one which weakens the United States on the international stage.
by Stephen Walt Foreign Policy edited by O Society March 27, 2019
If we’ve been paying attention, Americans received some rude wake-up calls in recent years. What unpleasant news do these messages convey? Our country is much more corrupt than most Americans realize.
Since 2016, of course, concern for corruption is riveted on the cheesy sleaze reality TV show Trump administration. As the New York Times revealed last fall in a remarkable investigative report, U.S. President Donald Trump’s life since boyhood rests on assorted frauds, tax scams, and shady business dealings, and his recent conduct suggests high office did not alter his family’s modus operandi.
Since becoming president, Trump breezily ignored the emoluments clause of the Constitution, handed taxpayers a multimillion-dollar bill for his frequent trips to his own properties, appointed his daughter and son-in-law to sensitive positions for which they are manifestly unqualified, and surrounded himself with a host of shady characters.
Former campaign chairman Paul Manafort and several other campaign advisors has been convicted of fraud or other crimes, former National Security Advisor Michael Flynn has been convicted of lying to the FBI, and Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt and Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke both resigned over ethics violations. Secretary of Labor Alexander Acosta is under fire for the plea deal he gave the wealthy and well-connected accused sexual predator Jeffrey Epstein back when Acosta was a U.S. attorney in Florida, and Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross continues to serve despite serious conflicts of interest.
Instead of fulfilling his campaign promise to “drain the swamp,” Trump dug it wider and filled it deeper. Small wonder the United States fell out of the ranks of the top 20 “least corrupt” nations—according to the watchdog group Transparency International—and is now considered a “country to watch” by the nonpartisan organization.
Our problem is far more serious than Trump and his entourage of creeps alone. Consider some other recent scandals…
Example #1: The 2008 Financial Crisis
To some extent, the 2008 financial crisis is a case study of hubris, where self-styled “masters of the universe” convinced themselves they devised financial instruments which reduced the risk of a panic to miniscule levels. But the crisis also exposed systemic corruption inside key financial institutions. It wasn’t just a few crooked mortgage brokers offering lots of bad loans; it also involved serious abuses by ratings agencies, investment banks, government-backed lenders like Fannie Mae, and even some academic economists.
At least we can take comfort in the fact the people responsible for cratering the world economy were held accountable and got punished, right? Er, nope.
Example #2: The Boeing 737 Max
The more we learn about the second recent crash of a Boeing 737 Max aircraft, the more disturbing the tale becomes. While a final determination of the causes of the two recent crashes is yet to be made, it seems increasingly clear Boeing rushed the new plane to market, downplayed the need for additional pilot training, and used an increasingly cozy relationship with Federal Aviation Administration regulators to win approval for the plane.
The world seems to have woken up to the conflicts of interest here: The United States was the last country to ground the plane after this month’s crash, and Ethiopian authorities chose to send the black boxes for analysis in France rather than in the United States.
Example #3: The (Latest) College Admissions Scandal
It’s no secret admission to elite institutions of higher education isn’t the pure meritocracy universities try to convey. Being part of an alumni family (a “legacy”) is a big plus, and it seems to help a great deal when a parent gives the school a big donation at just the right time.
Yet last week’s revelations wealthy parents and celebrities were colluding with William Singer (a professional “admissions counselor”) and a bunch of corrupt coaches and administrators to get their less-than-fully-qualified kids into elite schools by falsifying test results or passing them off as “gifted athletes” was still an eye-opener for many Americans. It is also more evidence—as if any were needed—of the corrupting role big-time athletics play in the life of American universities. Don’t even get me started on that subject.
And let’s not forget a number of venerated institutions of authority in American life —including the military and the clergy— were rocked by serious scandals over the past several decades. In addition to the horrifying history of sexual predation and cover-ups in the Catholic Church, the U.S. military has been wrestling with a serious problem of sexual assault in the ranks, a wide-ranging procurement scandal that rocked the U.S. Navy, and the discovery in 2014 that 34 missile launch control officers conspired to falsify scores on proficiency exams.
These and other episodes remind us corruption isn’t confined to the current White House, to a few bad apples like Bernie Madoff, or to a handful of industries with unsavory reputations (like real estate). On the contrary, it seems to be a growing problem in all walks of life.
Why does this matter? For starters, corruption is inherently inefficient. Instead of resources going where they are most needed, they get diverted into bribes, payoffs, kickbacks, and other shady arrangements. And when the wealthy and powerful use connections to get jobs or contracts (or to get their kids into college), more deserving and talented people get excluded and less qualified people end up in positions of authority. The more common such practices become, the more honest and law-abiding people are tempted to follow suit just to keep up. And once corruption becomes endemic in a society, rooting it out becomes difficult if not impossible.
Making matters worse is the demand for regulation corruption tends to foster. When more and more people cheat and trust erodes, responsible officials will try to corral corruption by imposing more rules, laws, oversight procedures, and regulatory mechanisms. One sees this phenomenon everywhere—including at universities—where efforts to prevent all sorts of misconduct are making it nearly impossible to do anything efficiently. But the taproot of this problem is the fear we cannot trust anyone to act properly without strict guidance and suffocating levels of bureaucratic oversight. Sadly, such fears are far from groundless.
Corruption and other forms of elite malfeasance also nourish populist anger. When elites go to great lengths to game the system and are increasingly seen as out of touch and unaccountable, it is hardly surprising ordinary people who playing by the rules become so angry, they will put their faith in most anyone who promises to shake up the system.
Such sentiments boost the popularity of a candidate like Bernie Sanders or the rapid rise of straight-talking politicians like Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. Ironically, it also played a key role in Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign, which proved if you can fake integrity, you’ve got it made in both parties.
Over the longer term, rising corruption threatens America’s soft power, and especially its reputation for competence. Other countries are more likely to follow America’s lead when they believe the core institutions of U.S. society are run by people who know what they are doing, and when foreign governments have confidence the information provided by U.S. officials is accurate.
When grifters rule the roost and privileged elites use their current positions to hog even more for themselves, their offspring, and their cronies, our core institutions function poorly and other states lose confidence in our ability to deliver as promised.
To be sure, the United States still ranks relatively low on most indices of corruption, and it is a far cry from those unfortunate places where corrupt practices are almost a way of life. But we Americans are not nearly as pure as we pretend, or as concerned about the problem as we ought to be. And as long as Donald J. Trump is alligator-in-chief, life in the swamp will go on as before.
Stephen Walt is a professor of international relations at Harvard University.