We watch in awe and dismay Donald Trump’s amazing performance art piece Drunken Juggler President. We prepare to duck and dodge when the next plate in the plate spinning part caroms off toward us, and to groan: Noooo, don’t drop the globe!
The details are endlessly fascinating, in that recurring monster movie dream time nausea way.
But occasionally it is worth stepping back to reflect past the details of the spectacle on larger elements of U.S. politics that his whirling strobe lights may expose.
Today’s theme: Billionaire presidents increase the problem of corruption, contrary to the idea that they are immune to it.
Trump, like Michael Bloomberg and Ross Perot before him, ran on the beguiling proposition that he was too rich to be bought.
Superficially it seems to make sense. Ordinary politicians occupy a scale where running for office costs a lot more money than anyone who is not quite rich can afford, in the hundreds of thousands or millions of dollars. Hence the need for constant fund raising. Yet that scale is also small compared to the revenues and profits of large national and multinational corporations. Donations that secure lobbyist access, whether directly to candidates and office holders, or indirectly through industry groups and political committees of various sorts, are a relatively small cost of doing business.
The asymmetry is striking when you think about it.
It becomes tempting to think that a rich candidate can escape the rounds of fund raising, lobbyist access, revolving door staff appointments, networking, and influence peddling.
Trump, however, has taught us that this is an illusion. It turns out that when you have wealth on the grand scale, on the scale with global reach, you have inescapable conflicts of interest in national office.
The ordinary politician may be compelled to trade access for donations. May learn to make his or her way through trading favors, in time honored ways with new expressions, as the political economy grows and develops. May be aware that going too far may lead to cascades of money on that middle scale redounding to the benefit of a primary opponent.
But the ordinary politician retains some control over his or her choice of how to respond to the access and influence.
The politician of super wealth, on the other hand, faces choices that directly influence the prospects of his or her companies and holdings.
Great wealth out of office may buy influence, and may do so corruptly. Great wealth in office is inherently and inescapably corrupt.