As we try to understand the meaning of a Russian oligarch paying President Trump’s personal attorney, Michael Cohen, hundreds of thousands of dollars (as did Fortune 500 companies buying Cohen’s “insight”), we should keep in mind a major theme dominating our understanding of this peculiar presidency: the rise of authoritarianism and the threat it poses to liberal democracy around the world.
Many have made the case that a Trump presidency is the effect of globalization leaving citizens behind, that technological change and economic policy have conspired to create political conditions in which citizens feel the system is rigged. Anxious and desperate, and looking for a champion, they turned in 2016 to a demagogue, who, despite holding views repugnant and antithetical to liberal democracy, won power on a platform of nationalism, blood and soil.
From this comes another theme: that Trump did not legitimately win, that he is so outside the boundaries of what it means to be an American that he could not have won on his own. He lost the popular vote, as liberals are quick to point out, and he won the Electoral College thanks to 77,000 voters in just three states. Intelligence agencies have said that Russian President Vladimir Putin preferred Trump, that he personally oversaw a campaign to move public opinion against the Hillary Clinton. Special Counsel Robert Mueller indicted 13 Russians on a charge of conspiring to wage “information warfare” against America. Liberals meanwhile tend to see his victory as one big backlash against the nation’s first African-American president and Trump’s presidency as the white erasure of Barack Obama’s legacy from history.
Springing from the context is the national debate over “collusion.” To many of us (liberal and conservative), that is the apex crime: treason against one’s country. I have argued that the Russians are colluding with Trump in plain sight. Whether Trump knows it is an open question. Trump is on the lookout for “unexpected cultural flashpoints” to win 2020. Trump plans to inflame divisions as successfully as he did in 2016. And the nation’s top spies tell us the Kremlin is standing by to lend aid.
But all of this may be missing the point of the Trump presidency. It assumes that Trump is a three-dimensional thinker, and we now know that that is far from the case.
He clearly doesn’t like being in charge. His biggest frauds are exposed. (Does anyone still believe he’s draining the swamp or looking out for the little guy or that he’s a master negotiator?) He’s a wannabe dictator but he could be golfing, not pretending to be responsible with power. My point is about incentives. Putin had good reason for Trump to be president. So did autocrats the world over who are busy undermining liberal democracy in their countries. For them, it’s about power. But for Trump?
After all is said and done, money. That’s gotta be it. As Bloomberg’s Tim O’Brien noted, it’s no secret the Trump family, after moving into the White House, put a “For Sale” sign on the front lawn. Fortune 500 companies could see that access to the president was simply a matter of decoding the price tags. Some $4.5 million were paid to Michael Cohen’s “consulting firm,” and that’s only money we know about.
My point here is that collusion, treason, white supremacy, political legitimacy—these are major themes that will preoccupy our minds as much as they have dominated our understanding of Donald Trump. But let’s remember the simplest explanation is always the best, that this presidency may be best characterized by corruption.
Think about it.
You could say authoritarianism is a threat to democracy, but that may be missing the forest for the trees. Last night’s revelations suggest something far simpler and far easier to organize a political reaction to. It’s not just familiar American-style pay-for-play we’re talking about. We’re talking about foreign entities—a Putin-backed oligarch—spending beaucoup bucks, apparently, to buy an American president’s favor.
That’s corruption of the highest order threatening not only the integrity of the presidency, the American creed, but the entire point of voting for a president in the first place. Out of one side of his mouth, the president says, “America First.” Out of the other side, he may be taking cash from hostile foreign powers.
All of the details above are speculative. There is a long way to go before it’s established that Trump is getting kickbacks for, say, pulling out of the Iran nuclear deal. But it is certain that corruption is shaping up to be the central force animating politics under cover of arguments that pundits are having about fascism and the like. In the end, this story may not be one about complicated ideologies. It might be one about greed, a cardinal sin on a systemic scale imperiling our way of life.
This post was originally published in The Editorial Board newsletter.