Courtesy of Matt Lewis

Americans are polarized by just about everything these days, but can they unite around hating corrupt grifter politicians?  

That’s the subtext of Matt K. Lewis’s latest book, Filthy Rich Politicians: The Swamp Creatures, Latte Liberals, and Ruling-Class Elites Cashing in on America. 

That the conservative columnist for The Daily Beast is wielding a proverbial pitchfork is somewhat surprising, considering his previous volume, Too Dumb to Fail, chided “populist conservatives” for “dumbing down” their ideology with “class warfare.” 

But Lewis is not looking to lead a proletariat revolution, be it Communist or Trumpist. (Lewis has consistently refused to vote for Trump). His latest work is more of a warning to elites: The public thinks you are lining your pockets, so either embrace ethical constraints or a “lack of trust in elites and institutions” will lead to a “breakdown of democracy.” 

Hard to disagree with that. But I’ve been disagreeing with Lewis for over a decade on our online show, “The DMZ.” So when he asked me if I would interview him about his book, I wouldn’t give him an easy time. 

BILL SCHER: You’re a conservative. You’re a Republican. But you criticize Democrats and Republicans in this book. I sensed that you hoped this would be a unifying premise—that everybody should be equivalently angry at the amount of grift going on in Washington. Was that a factor in constructing this book? 

MATT LEWIS: Yeah. I had a hunch that this would be a unifying premise. Literally, the day after my book launch, [Senators] Josh Hawley and Kristen Gillibrand announced a bill that would ban stock trading for members of Congress, their families, and their staff.  

In the book, I call for a 10-year moratorium on lobbying [after members of Congress retire. [Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez] and [Senator] Ted Cruz want a lifetime ban.  

Being someone who writes about politics in this polarized age, it was fun to spend the last year focused on something people at least claim they agree with. Whether they’ll vote for it or not is a different story. 

BS: You mention that you could fill an entire book with how Trump used public office to benefit himself. But you equate examples in the book, such as AOC going to the Met Gala, with Trump encouraging foreign officials to stay at his properties. Are you running the risk of false equivalency? 

ML: I don’t think so. I’ve spent years at The Daily Beast writing columns that criticize Trump. So, I don’t think I take a backseat to anyone when it comes to writing about him.  

And I do concede that qualitatively and quantitatively, Trump has done more to erode trust and institutions and norms than anybody else in politics. I don’t think that we should lower the bar to the point where everybody gets a pass because, in comparison to him, their sins are minor.  

I’m talking about the banality of corruption—a sense that all our politicians, even the normal ones, are rigging the system. My concern is that it’s not outrageous anymore. People have become apathetic. They have the attitude: “Well, they all do it; everyone cashes in.” I think that is super dangerous.  

That’s why I wrote the book. And that’s why I’m calling for reforms that, over time, mitigate the downside of this. 

BS: You’re careful in the book not to charge someone with breaking the law if you don’t have a smoking gun. But you criticize optics, such as Nancy Pelosi’s husband, Paul, who profited off trades.  

At one point, you talked about how he bought call options for Tesla stock one month before Joe Biden issued an executive order encouraging the purchasing of electric vehicles by government agencies.  

I would think you would say: It looks bad that he’s making this money while his wife was Speaker, even if he wasn’t given inside information. And that would erode trust. Am I characterizing your view correctly? 

ML: Yeah. It almost doesn’t matter whether he was engaging in insider trading or whether it just looks and smells swampy. Either way, it erodes trust in our lawmakers and our institutions.  

My goal is not to get even with Nancy Pelosi. It’s to help restore trust and to keep this country going.  

It’s dangerous when a lot of Americans truly believe the game is rigged. So, I believe that it’s incumbent upon our leaders to avoid even the appearance of impropriety.  

No one’s forcing them to be in Congress. You don’t have to serve. But if you do, I don’t think it’s asking too much to forego betting on the stock market. You can have mutual funds. That’s fine.  

BS: Is there a risk that you’re making everybody who does something that looks bad be deemed corrupt?  

Is that a huge disincentive for decent people to run for office because they will get hammered if they do innocuous things or ticky-tack things? And therefore, you end up with shameless characters running for office because decent people don’t want to put up with it? 

ML: Well, I would argue that this reform will prevent that from happening if we can institute common-sense reforms that restore trust and elected officials and liberal democracy. Over time, it would raise the level of respect for our politicians. 

I have many reforms in the book; One is banning stock trading for members of Congress and their families. Another is to pay members of Congress more money to make up for it. I would pay them more so that they could focus on doing their job for the people. 

BS: You give the Squad a hard time. You often say that it’s not just that the rich get elected, but the elected get rich. But AOCs recent financial disclosure report had her assets amounting to between $4,000 and $60,000.  

You took a shot at Representatives Rashida Tlaib and Ayanna Pressley because they are also landlords. During the pandemic, they pushed a bill that would have canceled rent while compensating landlords—seemingly a conflict of interest. But neither one had a lot of income through rental properties.   

These things connect them to regular Americans, not some plutocratic, out-of-touch caste. 

ML: So, AOC is in favor of a lot of the reforms that I call for. Pelosi used to oppose banning stock trading for members of Congress. And AOC’s pressure apparently caused Pelosi to claim that she now supports it. There are parts of the book where I credit AOC.  

But this book has 10 chapters. I would say eight are very focused on filthy rich politicians in the sense of politicians who are wealthy. The [other] two chapters are a little different.  

One of them is about “Latte Liberals.” There’s another one about “Ivy League Populists.” 

“Latte Liberals” include the Squad. It also includes Bernie Sanders, who is a millionaire. It includes John Kerry and Nancy Pelosi, and it’s a lot about hypocrisy.  

And then the “Ivy League Populists” chapter focuses mainly on people like [Senators] Ted Cruz and Josh Hawley and J.D. Vance. These people pose as working-class populists but are all Ivy League elites. Once again, the common denominator there is hypocrisy.  

They tend to be younger; I don’t think they’ve had the time to cash in. 

And I go into the attention economy. There are different ways to be rich, right? The obvious way is financial. But the Squad is rich in this attention economy. And that erodes trust in the process, like when AOC goes to that Met Gala. I think she’s kind of trying to have it both ways. On one hand, she is posing as this populist who wants to tax the rich, but she also gets to wear a designer dress and go to this gala where Justin Bieber’s performing. If you’re a working-class person and see that imagery, I think it is a turn-off.  

I think it’s a sense that: These people are not like us. They’re not worried about paying the rent or getting by. They’re in a sense, cashing in on being a member of Congress. No, it may not be reflected in her bank account yet. But I think in terms of her lifestyle, she is cashing in. 

BS: In all these examples, why do they keep getting elected? 

ML: Great question. I have theories. First, there is the thing where everyone hates Congress, but they vote for their own member.  

Although the issue of money—particularly the perception that people are cashing in on their position—is important, it does take a back seat to ideology.  

The word elite means different things to different people. So, if I ask Republicans about elites, they will not say Ted Cruz. They see AOC as an elite. Well, Ted Cruz is married to a Goldman Sachs executive. He has an Ivy League pedigree and belongs to the most elite club in America, the U.S. Senate. He is an elite. But ideology overcomes the concerns about money.  

 My contention is that the concern about filthy rich politicians is widespread, but I also believe it is a low-grade concern. And the real problem is not that people are outraged and will show up with pitchforks and lanterns. It’s that they’ve accepted it and that they’ve come to believe the game is rigged.  

I said in the book, examples of people like [Representative] Don [Beyer], the car dealer out of Virginia, John Hoeven, Senator from North Dakota, and Daniel Goldman, newly elected congressman from New York State. In the 2022 election cycle, their opponents tried to make hay that these politicians are filthy rich and have gotten richer while in office. It didn’t move the needle.  

So, I don’t think this works as an electoral issue. Which, in a way, means that it’s going to continue to fester. There won’t be a market correction for this organically, which is part of the reason why my reforms include things such as term limits. 

BS: When you wrote the book, the news alleging unethical behavior by Supreme Court justices had not been reported. But seeing the allegations about a wealthy donor propping up Clarence Thomas over the years, Samuel Alito getting a sweet vacation, and in both cases, not disclosing it. Most recently, Sonia Sotomayor got dinged for her staff pressuring places where she was speaking to order books. Do you feel that Alito, Thomas, and Sotomayor fall in the same category as Donald Trump, Paul Pelosi, et cetera? 

ML: Even though they’re not in the book, I did write a column about Clarence Thomas for The Daily Beast, where I argue that this is problematic, and it’s problematic for the same reason that I think what Paul Pelosi is doing is bad. 

Let’s just take Thomas. Assume that there’s no quid pro quo, that he never voted or acted in any way that would be a payback or a favor to a friend, and everything he did was legal, and it didn’t violate the ethics code. Even if you make all those assumptions and give him the benefit of the doubt, it is still wrong. It’s still a bad idea because it undermines trust in the institution.  

BS: Would you support the Supreme Court ethics reform bill that the Democrats have proposed? 

ML: I have to be honest; I can’t say because I’ve been on this book tour. I’m out of the loop. I have not seen it. But what I will tell you is that I think there should be ethics reform. And I think that even without that bill, these justices should, on their own, avoid accepting lavish gifts from anybody. You don’t have to be a Supreme Court justice. But if you’re going to be, you need to act accordingly. I probably agree with 90-some percent of Thomas’s decisions, but that doesn’t even matter. This looks sketchy. It smells swampy.  

BS: So, I would say your big three proposals are banning all stock trading by members of Congress, a 10-year lobbying ban, and term limits. 

ML: Probably. One more that no one cares about, but it’s kind of my pet peeve, is the book deals. 

BS: You would ban all book deals for members of Congress?  

ML: No, actually, I wouldn’t. The problem is not just that they get book deals. It’s that they get rich. Bernie Sanders, a socialist, was asked: How’d you make all this money? And he’s like, I wrote a best-selling book. You could be a millionaire, too, if you wrote a best-selling book. I mean, Ron DeSantis was worth $300,000 three weeks ago. Now he’s a millionaire. Why? Because he became a famous politician and wrote a book.  

But the bigger problem is these bulk sales. A political action committee or the National Republican Senatorial Committee could buy 20,000 copies, and some of that money could end up in the politician’s pocket via royalties. If a book publisher knows we’re going to sell 50,000 copies from whatever committee—never mind the royalties—that might be factored into the advance.  

Members of Congress make $174,000 a year, and they’re allowed to make another $29,000 and change from what’s called outside earned income. If you want to write a book deal, you could make another $29,000. But that’s it.  

BS: When it comes to term limits, I wonder if it might make the problem worse. When you talk about the revolving door, people go to Congress and then cash out by lobbying. Wouldn’t term limits speed the revolving door? 

ML: Well, I mean, if my reforms were implemented, you would still have to wait 10 years. 

BS: Fair enough. But there are other ways to cash out, such as corporate boards. There are people who go to law firms and are not technically lobbyists. 

ML: That’s a legitimate concern. This has been an issue where I was a little bit torn. And my concern was always unintended consequences. And even as I’ve been on this book tour, I’ve heard from people who used to support term limits. And then they saw it in practice in California and now oppose them.  

I would say that I do support them. I think it would limit the ability of politicians to earn generational wealth by holding public office. We must ban stock trading for members of Congress, which is, to me, a non-negotiable. The term limits one—if we were able to accomplish everything else I call for, and that fell short, I’d be okay with it. 

The above transcript was edited for brevity and clarity. 

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Bill Scher is political writer at the Washington Monthly. He is the host of the history podcast When America Worked and the cohost of the bipartisan online show and podcast The DMZ. Follow Bill on Twitter @BillScher.