The Coming Kleptocracy

A kleptocracy (“rule by thieves”) is a type of authoritarian government in which a small ruling cabal uses the power of the state to enrich itself at the expense of everyone else. They have a strong flavor of nepotism, and the ruling elite often blur the line between business and government. Moreover, they often come into being at the expense of the free media, where reporters are shut out and passionately attacked by the government while the government’s leaders go about enriching themselves in secret.

We have a powerful hint that this is just the future in a Trump Presidency. Last week, a picture spun around the Internet showing Donald Trump’s daughter Ivanka sitting in on a private meeting he held with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. There were no U.S. government officials present – not even an American interpreter – and reporters were not allowed into the meeting. We are not entirely sure what they discussed, because he did not coordinate it with the State Department, and there is no real registry of who eventually met him or what items may have been exchanged. We know nothing about it, other than the picture.

This would be an administration-ending scandal for an ordinary President-elect, but Trump has somehow negotiated for himself looser, far more permissive rules. In the Not Normal Presidency, this meeting augurs the utter disregard for conflicts of interest that are to come. Ivanka Trump has said she will have no role in the administration, despite serving on the transition – she is meant to administer the “blind trust” her father set up for his businesses. The impossibility of having one’s child as the executor of a blind trust notwithstanding, Ivanka’s presence there shows the entire façade to be a cheap lie. Of course she will be involved in White House policy (as will her husband, whispering into Donald’s ear from the shadows), of course she will use that insight when running her family’s business interests, and of course they will vociferously argue that it is all quite above board when it is clearly not.

This is not normal. It is the foundations of a thief government. That the Trumps don’t care all how it looks, much less how it will function in real life, is almost to be expected.

Foreign diplomats consider Trump’s Washington, DC hotel – which he leases from the government he will run on January 20 – to be the best way to curry favor with him. By renting out rooms there, by hosting lavish parties, they hope to gain his ear when discussing sensitive international issues like war, trade, and the environment. Notice how these attempts to curry favor have nothing to do with our country – it is not about expressing any desire for a win-win negotiation, or seeking mutual interest. It is flattery and groveling to make the Don wealthier. It is textbook kleptocracy: enrich the family in order to get a political favor.

This is not normal politics.

These are not isolated incidents, either. When Donald Trump met with Indian business partners after he won the election, he was showing how little he cares for the inherent conflict of interest his businesses will impose on his presidency. South Asian security is maddeningly complex, with the need to balance India against Pakistan and China on a host of issues – but the Indians have a Trump Tower, and the Pakistanis and Chinese do not. How will that affect his policy decisions?

Just this week, Trump reportedly spoke with Argentinian president Mauricio Macri, where he raised the prospect of a branded tower long-delayed in regulatory hangups with the government. It was one thing for a developer to call the government; but the president of the United States?

This is uncharted territory for a president. It is dangerous. It is not normal.

There is pretty clearly an agenda in the nascent Trump administration to turn the wheels of government toward his own personal enrichment. And he telegraphed this intention during the race: by requiring his campaign to use his own buildings, Trump pocketed millions. “There’s a good chance that Donald Trump’s the first candidate for president who makes money off the whole endeavor,” Charlie Spies, a Republican election lawyer who was Mitt Romney’s CFO in 2008, told CBS in September.

You can even see this principle in a relatively small decision like keeping his wife Melania and most recent child Barron in New York. To call this without precedent is an understatement: it has never been done, near as I can tell. The reason we have the White House in the first place is for the President to live with his family – not so he can split time commuting up and down the Acela corridor to his private skyscraper. Melania may love her “independent life” in New York (cogitate on that for a few minutes), but it certainly won’t be good for New York: the requirements for securing the first family are intrusive, and shutting down sections of Manhattan every time she goes shopping or out to dinner is an enormous misallocation of our tax money (upwards of a million dollars a day). And if Donald himself chooses to commute back and forth, imagine the disruption it will cause to New York every single weekend: shutting down all air travel for Air Force one, Secret Service sweeps, permanently stationing staff in New York and in Washington. And the government has to pay him millions of dollars for the privilege.

This is not the behavior of an American president. It is the behavior of a petty tyrant, drunk on his power. It is the wholesale theft of our resources so he can play king and his wife can play queen. This is not normal.

Many critics of the U.S. often claim that the government acts as a sort of de facto kleptocracy – after all, the consulting and lobbying positions available to former officials can result in tremendous wealth. But Donald Trump represents something else: this is more direct, more unethical. Twisting the levers of government – however “legal” their lawyers can argue it may be – is a profound upending of the norms of democratic government. And it is a reversal of centuries of precedent in a way carefully calculated to directly enrich his family at our expense.

The shamlessness of Trump’s opening moves are certainly noteworthy but that does not make them admirable. He is promising us, quite openly, the full scale looting of our national treasure for his own self-aggrandizement. It is worse than a scandal – it is a looming catastrophe. He is overseeing nothing less than the transition of the United States into a kleptocracy.

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