The Case for Kleptocracy

Thick as thieves. Photo: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

There was a time in the very recent past, when the idea of a billionaire president running the White House like it was the D.C. branch of his family business — leveraging his office to increase the profit margins of his hotels and resorts, giving his daughter and son-in-law veto power over vast swathes of executive policy, and subordinating his campaign promises to the best interests of his brand — would have sounded like the plot of a gratingly bleak and unsubtle satire of the post-Citizens United era.

Now, that plot may be the best-case scenario for the next four years of American governance.

Congress can’t (or won’t) stop President Trump from putting far-right bloggers on the National Security Council. The judicial branch can’t prohibit him from starting a trade war with China, publicly disowning our NATO allies, or calling for the dissolution of the European Union. In the wake of an economic crisis or terrorist attack, the Fourth Estate will be powerless to prevent the president from using his bully pulpit to direct public anxiety onto vulnerable minority groups.

But Trump’s desire to protect the value of his brand just might.

Over the past week, the president has slowly but surely “de-operationalized” Steve Bannon. First, the Breitbart-chairman-turned-chief-White-House-strategist lost his seat on the National Security Council’s Principals Committee. Then, he was all but ordered to accept the president’s son-in-law as his superior, or else pack his bags. Finally, Trump began disparaging Bannon in public interviews, suggesting that he had almost nothing to do with November’s victory, and that he was just “a guy who works for me.”

This palace intrigue had an immediate and striking effect on White House policy. Suddenly, it became America’s job to police the boundaries of legitimate mass murder in Syria; NATO stopped being obsolete, and was suddenly worth expanding; China ceased to be a currency manipulator that’s coddling North Korea, and resumed its status as our number-one frenemy; and the “administrative state” was finally granted permission to hire new workers.

By themselves, these developments are not all unambiguously good. One could make a sound argument for Bannon’s position on last week’s Syria strike, or against the wisdom of expanding NATO into Montenegro. But Bannon’s narrow stances on these subjects are far easier to defend than the worldview that informs them. The White House’s “anti-globalists” didn’t oppose bombing Syria out of concern over the strike’s constitutionality or its second-order effects, but because they reject the idea that the American government has any responsibility to address humanitarian crises overseas — whether using bombs, food aid, or refugee admissions. Similarly, their skepticism of NATO is not chiefly informed by a desire to avoid inflaming tensions with Russia, but by an aversion to all the institutions of international governance that have sustained the postwar liberal order.

At the end of the day, it’s better to have our government run by Goldman Sachs and “the blob,” than by wild-eyed ethnonationalists with a soft spot for fascism and dreams of a civilizational war between the West and the Muslim hordes.

And to the extent that the White House is moving away from the latter, we probably have its more kleptocratic instincts to thank. As the Washington Post reports:

Trump’s three oldest children — Donald Jr., Ivanka, and Eric — and Kushner have been frustrated by the impression of chaos inside the White House and feel that their father has not always been served well by his senior staff, according to people with knowledge of their sentiments. The Trump heirs are interested in any changes that might help resuscitate the presidency and preserve the family’s name at a time when they are trying to expand the Trump Organization’s portfolio of hotels.

“The fundamental assessment is that if they want to win the White House in 2020, they’re not going to do it the way they did in 2016, because the family brand would not sustain the collateral damage,” said one well-connected Republican operative, speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss the president’s family. “It would be so protectionist, nationalist, and backward-looking that they’d only be able to build in Oklahoma City or the Ozarks.”

Of course, in a just world, the Trump brand would already be poison. It’s insane that a man who has touted his fondness for sexual assault, demonized Muslims and immigrants, and spread racist conspiracy theories about the first black president can earn money by licensing his personal image to other people’s businesses. But people generally like to pretend that the world they live in isn’t utterly mad, and so, to this point, the presidency seems to have legitimized Trump more than Trump has delegitimized the presidency. The American mainstream once regarded Ronald Reagan as a moronic, far-right joke; now, Democrats deliver paeans to his statesmanship.

So the Trump scions still have plenty to gain or lose from how the next four-to-eight years unfold.

At present, there is no sign that President Trump is turning away from the most nefarious aspects of his reactionary populism. Anti-trade talk that threatens well-heeled investors’ portfolios has dissipated; draconian immigration policies that threaten the lives of the undocumented have not. Amid all this week’s headlines about Trump’s pivot toward the mainstream came reports that the Department of Homeland Security is readying plans for a national deportation force. While Trump will need congressional appropriations to fulfill his grandest, most xenophobic ambitions, there’s plenty he can do under existing law to make daily life terrifying for the most vulnerable people in America.

Already, undocumented victims of domestic abuse are forfeiting their access to the protections of our justice system, out of fear that ICE agents will be waiting for them at their local court houses. Already, Attorney General Jeff Sessions is instructing federal attorneys to ramp up prosecutions of those who “harbor” the undocumented. And as for those “others” who enjoy the formal protections of citizenship: Sessions is already giving police departments the green light to routinely violate the civil liberties of their African-American constituents — while also rolling back attempts to reduce the number of false convictions that our criminal-justice system produces through the use of dubious forensic science.

Donald Trump will not abandon these policies because they degrade America’s social fabric. But he may temper the worst of them because they degrade his brand.

Running as an anti-establishment outsider, Trump needed to court the enthusiasm of the GOP primary electorate and a few reactionary billionaires by getting to the right of his opponents on issues of immigration and racial equality. But running as an incumbent, he’ll have less incentive to center his campaign on the far-right fringe. Despite the failures of his travel ban and health-care law, Trump has lost scant support from the non-college-educated voters who responded most enthusiastically to his message on immigration. Current polling suggests he’s at far greater risk of bleeding upscale, suburban support. Moving to the center to shore up his grasp on the country-club set may alienate the Mercer family, but now that he’s president, Trump has plenty of other billionaires he can turn to for campaign funds.

All of which is to say: It’s far from clear whether it’s in Trump’s best political interest to fulfill all his promises to his populist base. If his personality cult is strong enough to keep such voters on board when he’s threatening to cut the social programs on which they desperately rely, it is almost certainly strong enough to make them cool with allowing the “good” immigrants to stick around. Trump can still regale the so-called “deplorables” with dog-whistle appeals to their racial resentment, without deporting millions of undocumented people. And an all-talk-no-action approach to right-wing populism may make it easier for Trump to retain — or grow — his share of college-educated whites.

If Trump has no political interest in keeping right, then he definitely has no financial one. There’s a reason most major, consumer-facing brands align themselves with a toothless kind of “wokeness”: Young, socially liberal city-dwellers are more likely to try new products than your average elderly person in rural America — and the former’s brand loyalty is more coveted, since they are less likely to die soon. What’s more, we’re living in an age of global capitalism; no brand wants to cater to American nationalism at the expense of overseas sales.

Trump Hotels is a global business whose consumer base skews highly educated and cosmopolitan. And Ivanka Trump’s lifestyle brand is targeted at young, urban, professional women — a demographic for whom Steve Bannon holds little appeal.

If President Trump were to disregard all his campaign promises and ideological commitments and govern solely on the basis of what’s best for his own bank account, America would become a more kleptocratic nation. It would probably also become a more humane and decent one than it is today.

The Case for Kleptocracy