One is normal people have something better to do—kids, school, jobs, good health, etc.—than pay attention to politics. Another is that you can’t know what you don’t know until you know it. Then there’s this from the ever-pragmatic Dr. Samuel Johnson: “People need to be reminded more often than they need to be instructed.”
So today I’m reminding you that lots of people do not, or will not, understand what corruption is, especially if they profit from it. But profit isn’t the only blinding force.
Blindness is systemic.
We inhabit a transactional materialist culture, after all, in which something I can do for you is exchanged amorally for something you can do for me. That was more or less a benign state of affairs, I’d say, until the elites themselves started convincing everyone that greed is not only OK; it’s something American society should encourage.
That’s about the size of what happened starting around 40 years ago. It has only gotten worse. Institutions are no longer built on the ideals of responsible citizenship and the common good but instead on the premise of self-interested individuals competing, even if that means cutting each other down. Donald Trump is a terrible person, but it shouldn’t be surprising that his career as an apex fraud has tracked with the last four acquisitive decades. Another nugget of wisdom: we get the presidents we deserve.
At the moment, I don’t suggest we be less greedy to change things. For now, I think it’s enough to say and keep saying what should be completely obvious but it is not: corruption is bad. We need to say this and keep saying this, because our culture is corrupt. If we say this and keep saying this, the resulting awareness might trigger necessary reform. More importantly, by raising awareness, and laying the groundwork for reform, we might prevent the next apex fraud from becoming president.
What is corruption? “Dishonest or fraudulent conduct by those in power, typically involving bribery” is what the dictionary says. But it’s more complex than that. Any definition must include the compromise of morality. Is there anything dishonest or fraudulent about the president saying Saudi Arabia is going to pay the US for sending troops to protect that country? In and of itself, no. In proper context, hell yeah.
Trump announced that decision after ordering US forces out of Syria, paving the way for Turkey to launch attacks against the Kurds. Put another way: It was OK to betray our allies while turning self-sacrificing servicemen and -women into mercenary units, making the president’s decision a double betrayal. We are now forfeiting a moral claim of being a force for good in the world. New message: American might is for sale.
Is there anything dishonest or fraudulent about the wife of a man charged with a crime in a foreign country asking the president for help? Again, the context is key.
Kallie Hapgood is married to a wealthy Connecticut banker who ended up killing a man in self-defense after the hotel worker threatened his family’s safety while they were at a Caribbean resort. Scott Hapgood now faces manslaughter charges on Anguilla. His wife has no doubt been advised the best way to get Trump’s attention isn’t through normal channels but cable news. On Monday, she went on “Fox & Friends” knowing he’d be watching to plead her husband’s case. Within minutes, Trump tweeted that “something looks and sounds very wrong” in the Hapgood case and that “Anguilla will want to see this case be properly and justly resolved!”
The merits of Hapgood’s case aside (a toxicology report showed the hotel worker had toxic levels of cocaine in his body), Trump corrupted another country’s justice system by expressing an opinion about it. By casting doubt on the known facts of the proceeding, Trump prejudiced potential jurors. Plus, he sent a message to American elites, the same people who convinced everyone over four decades ago that greed is good: if you have the money and the connections, don’t worry about due process and legal liability. With a single tweet, Trump made a mockery of equal justice for all.
I’m under no illusion that the president is reformable. He has lived the life of a crook. He will die a crook. But an apex fraud isn’t the cause of our moral decay. He’s a symptom. The rest of us therefore must do what may seem completely obvious but isn’t. We must say and keep saying that corruption is bad. Don’t bother making an argument. Just say it. People need reminding more than they need instruction.