In the wake of former President Donald J. Trump’s announcement this past fall that he will seek for a third time the Presidency of the United States, the issue of his personal and political corruption has dominated the 24-hour news cycle in this country.
Whether or not Trump is guilty of any of the alleged corruption charges is not the issue of this article. The issue is the attention and even the acceptance this polarizing political figure has given to corruption—so much so that he has socially redefined the way millions of Americans view corruption.
Every emerging and developing nation begins with corruption of the very founding principles of the nation.
For example, America was founded on the core principles of equality, liberty, and justice for all. That was at a time when the Founding Fathers endorsed human slavery, believed that only white male landowners should enjoy the right to vote, and that the wealthy ruling class enjoyed the privileges of power while the subservient, mostly working class, should have no power.
In a September 2020 interview with Harvard Law Today, Harvard law professor Matthew Stephenson, a respected expert on American and international corruption, said this about the history of corruption in the United States:
“ … the U.S. in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century confronted the challenge of rooting out systemic corruption, where such corruption was not only widespread, but deeply enmeshed with the operation of the political system. Corruption wasn’t just a form of aberrational behavior, it was how business got done.”
Nothing much has changed since the period between 1865 and 1941 referenced by Professor Stephenson.
Political machines controlled the degree and quantity of corruption during that period and into 2010 when the U.S. Supreme Court changed that political dynamic when it declared money is speech in Citizens United, followed two months later by a D.C. Court of Appeals decision that gave constitutional blessing to “political action committees”—more commonly known as “Super Pacs”—in SpeechNow.org, a decision that became law after government chose not to appeal in light of Citizens United.
Those two legal decisions effectively removed political corruption from the “smoke-filled backrooms” where power brokers gathered to divide the political loot and placed it in mostly Super Pac boardrooms where the political loot is dispensed according to political ideology.
Since the quasi-legalization of corruption wrought by these two court decisions, more than 300 state and local officials have been convicted of crimes while in office while another 21 federal officials have achieved the same distinction.
Lawyers For Good Government have identified seven core principles of good government—all of which are undermined by Citizens United and Super Pacs, just as slavery undermined the Founding Fathers’ principles of “liberty and justice for all.”
These seven principles are:
- Equality: A “good government” is grounded in the principle that all people are equal and may not be discriminated against because of their race, religion, ethnic group, gender, or sexual orientation.
- Citizen Participation: A healthy democracy cannot exist without citizen participation in government – including running for office, voting in elections, staying informed, debating issues, protesting, sitting on juries, etc.
- Free and Fair Elections: In a healthy democracy, elected officials must be chosen and peacefully removed from office in a free and fair manner. Obstacles should not exist which make it difficult for people to vote. Election districts should not be drawn in a manner designed specifically to disadvantage members of a particular political party, race, religion, or any other group.
- Protection of Human Rights and the Environment: In a “good government,” the right of the minority are protected even though the “majority rules” in a democracy. Human rights, including (but not limited to) those explicitly protected by the Constitution, must be respected and defended. The environment must be protected for the sake of all human beings and for future generations relying on those in power to ensure a safe, healthy, and sustainable environment. Government decisions should reflect a deeply rooted respect for human life and human dignity.
- Accountability to the People: A “good government” accountable to the people, not special interests, corporate interests, or the self interest of elected and appointed officials. Government officials must make decisions and perform their duties based on the best interests of the people. To ensure accountability to the people, a “good government” is as transparent as possible – holding public meetings and allow citizens to attend, providing information to the press, and being clear about what decisions are being made, by whom, and why.
- Control of the Abuse of Power: A “good government” prevents elected officials or groups of people from misusing or abusing their power. Corruption, conflicts of interest, failure to respect the legitimate authority of other branches of government, acting outside the bounds of one’s authority, and other abuses must be prevented or at the very least, identified and addressed quickly. To ensure that abuses of power can be controlled, the checks and balances contemplated by our Constitution must be able to operate as intended.
- Rule of Law & Due Process: “In a “good government,” no one is above the law; this includes members of Congress, Justices of the Supreme Court, and the President of the United States. The law must be enforced equally, fairly, consistently, and with respect for human life and dignity.
Here’s the political rub against any notion of good government:
At least half of the U.S. House of Representatives, one-third of the U.S. Senate, and six of the U.S. Supreme Court Justices do not believe, either in whole or part, in these seven core principles of “good government.” That has been made clear by their publicly expressed political ideologies and their official decision-making that continuously undermines the Rule of Law.
In fact, dozens of these elected officials, mostly in the right-wing corridors of Congress, support insurrection; are amendable to mob violence to achieve political objectives; and believe corruption and abuse of power are privileges of power.
New York Congressman George Santos is not a political anomaly. He is simply more exposed than many of his fellow colleagues.
Exposed political corruption and/or individual criminality are no longer a bar to achieving and maintaining political office or social prominence.
This is evidenced by none other than Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton who rose to power as the state’s chief law enforcement in 2014 through criminality and maintains that power despite currently being under a serious corruption investigation by the U.S. Justice Department.
Attorney General Paxton has been reelected twice by Texas “conservative,” right-wing voters with their full knowledge of serious allegation of criminal activity and corruption. These were once stalwart protectors of the Rule of Law.
The tragic reality is that political figures like Paxton and Trump have now made corruption not only acceptable American political behavior but a means by which to advance the social and political ideology of their voters.
In effect, all allegations of political corruption and criminal activity, no matter how compelling, can be dismissed with a casual wave of the hand as “fake news.”