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How Donald Trump’s kleptocracy is undermining American democracy

“This is the kind of thing you see in broken states.”

Mobutu Sese Seko (L), Donald Trump (C), and Ilham Aliyev (R).
(Bella Lucy/Vox)
Zack Beauchamp is a senior correspondent at Vox, where he covers ideology and challenges to democracy, both at home and abroad. Before coming to Vox in 2014, he edited TP Ideas, a section of Think Progress devoted to the ideas shaping our political world.

Appointing family members to powerful jobs they’re not qualified to hold. Firing officials investigating scandals. Musing about prosecuting a defeated rival. Entangling his business empire with the presidency to such a degree that he’ll literally profit from his time in the White House.

The early months of the Trump presidency don’t look like what you normally see in a democracy. But they’re everyday occurrences in corrupt, undemocratic countries like Azerbaijan, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, or even Vladimir Putin’s Russia. And academics who study such countries increasingly worry that President Donald Trump is governing like the leader of the kind of nation Washington has long condemned — not like a president of the United States.

“His refusal to fully divest himself from his business, the linkages between finances and the levers of power — those are the classic symptoms of kleptocracy,” Seva Gunitsky, a University of Toronto scholar who studies post-Soviet states, says. “It’s probably the greatest long-term threat — maybe even short-term threat — to American institutions.”

To Gunitsky and other experts on authoritarian states, Trump’s behavior is setting off a lot of alarm bells. That’s not just because of clear examples of petty wrongdoing, like having his daughter Ivanka sit in for him at the G20 summit of world leaders. Rather, it’s because the thinking behind such moves is far more fundamental to the early months of his administration than it would first appear.

The academics say that Trump’s instincts — like those of strongmen such as Mobutu Sese Seko and Putin — is to see the state as a personal fiefdom and a vehicle for dispensing favors to family and political allies, rather than as something that needs to follow neutral rules. They point to his appointment of son-in-law Jared Kushner to a top-level White House post despite his lack of qualifications, reports of administration threats to punish CNN and the Washington Post financially for critical coverage, and the naked attempts by foreign diplomats to buy influence by staying at the Trump Hotel in Washington.

The issue raised by these scholars is not that the US under Trump is sliding toward true authoritarianism, where elections cease to be competitive, the media is muzzled, and opponents and journalists routinely disappear. It’s vital to stress all the ways Trump isn’t governing like an authoritarian: He hasn’t done anything to formally outlaw dissent or acquire dictatorial powers for the executive branch. There is no Trump plan to stop Americans from replacing him, if they so choose, in the 2020 election.

Instead, these experts worry that Trump is normalizing a set of practices that are typically seen in authoritarian countries — and, by doing so, threatening to slowly and steadily hollow out American democracy. His actions are not a series of individual stories of petty wrongdoing, but rather an overall pattern that threatens the rule of law itself.

“What’s striking in the US is that he gets away with stuff that would have been considered completely inconceivable five years ago,” Nicolas van de Walle, an expert on authoritarianism in Africa at Cornell University, says.

Americans don’t understand the risks posed by Trump’s elevation of family and crony capitalism because they do not have a model for it in modern US history. Only when one looks abroad — to countries where corruption and plunder are the norm rather than the exception — does the danger truly become clear.

Trump has structured the executive branch along authoritarian lines

Donald and Ivanka Trump at the G20 summit.
(Matt Cardy/Getty Images)

Citizens of democratic countries tend to divide the political world into two big categories: democracies like the US or Canada and autocracies like Russia and Egypt. But there are lots of ways to run states where people don’t choose their own leaders. Saudi Arabia’s theocratic monarchy is as different from Singapore’s secular one-party state as it is from the United States.

For this reason, many scholars have tried to sort authoritarian regimes into more specific categories. Van de Walle and his co-author, Michigan State University’s Michael Bratton, have focused on what they call “neopatrimonial” regimes — a type of government that flowered in Africa after the fall of colonialism. Neopatrimonialism, they argue, is defined by the centrality of corruption to ordinary politics.

“The essence of neopatrimonialism is the award by public officials of personal favors, both within the state (notably public sector jobs) and in society (for instance, licenses, contracts, and projects),” they write in an influential 1994 article. “The chief executive maintains authority through personal patronage rather than through ideology or law.”

Neopatrimonial leaders rise or fall based on their ability to plunder their own country, to staff the government with loyal operatives, and to literally buy off groups that might otherwise mount a challenge to their rule. The end goal of all of this is to allow the dictator and his favored few to live as well and securely as possible. Relatives are raised to top positions in government both so they can have secure jobs and because, in a system so thoroughly corrupt, the only people the leader feels like he can truly trust is his family members and close friends.

Van de Walle sees real similarities between the neopatrimonial African regimes he studies — like Mobutu Sese Seko’s 32-year reign in what’s now the Democratic Republic of Congo, in which he spent about $400 million worth of state money building a personal palace that served champagne on conveyor belts — and Trump’s lack of interest in keeping government affairs and personal interests separate.

“There’s a [neopatrimonial] dimension to the current president, a kind of monarchical instinct,” Van de Walle tells me in an interview.

Perhaps the most nakedly neopatrimonial regimes in the world today are clustered together in Eurasia. Many former Soviet republics were expected to transition to democracy after communism’s fall in the 1990s — but have, instead, been taken over by a coterie of strongmen who see the country they rule as a combination of a piggybank and playground.

Uzbekistan’s longtime dictator, Islam Karimov, was actually elected in 1991 — but consolidated power and ran the Uzbek government as a fiefdom: his daughter Gulnara was reportedly able to extract $114 million in bribes from a single telecom company in exchange for granting them licenses to operate in the country.

When Karimov died in 2016, one of his cronies — Shavkat Mirziyoyev — took over the presidency. Mirziyoyev won a sham “reelection” vote in December with 88.6 percent of the vote.

Uzbekistan is by no means unique among post-Soviet states. Azerbaijan, an oil-producing country on the Caspian Sea, is another good example: Its current president, Ilham Aliyev, is the son of its last president, Heydar Aliyev. The Aliyevs run it very much like a family business.

“Azerbaijan is the clearest template you get,” Gunitsky says. “You have this guy Aliyev as the president; his wife is the vice president. You can’t get any more government-as-a-family-business than that.”

Like these neopatrimonial leaders, Trump has long seen fit to elevate family members to top positions. During his time in Atlantic City in the 1980s, for example, Trump hired his then-wife, Ivana, to run the Trump Castle casino even though her business experience was largely limited to working as a model. He hired his brother Robert to develop the Trump Taj Mahal, then the largest casino in the world, despite Robert’s complete lack of experience building casinos. It went bankrupt.

When a president applies the same approach to staffing political organizations, you get Ivanka Trump in the White House, Middle East envoy Jared Kushner, and top campaign adviser Donald Trump Jr. (all elevated to positions that exceed their experience or qualifications).

Presidents have elevated family members in the past: JFK famously appointed his brother Robert to be attorney general. But that move was controversial at the time, and the degree to which Trump relies on family members reminds American experts on Central Asia more of the countries they study than of their homeland.

“We shouldn’t overblow the comparison,” says Alexander Cooley, a professor at Barnard College in New York. “But I do think that the inclination Trump seems to show is to trust family members in matters in which they might not actually have expertise or advanced education.”

Trump’s crony capitalism is straight out of the authoritarian playbook

Donald Trump Delivers Commencement Address At U.S. Coast Guard Academy (Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

Trump, of course, can’t be as flamboyantly nepotistic as an actual dictator. The legal and political climate in the United States simply makes it impossible for Trump to loot the state coffers in the style of a Mobutu or replace Vice President Mike Pence with Vice President Melania Trump. He also isn’t killing dissidents or shuttering opposition newspapers as these leaders do — nor does he show the slightest interest in doing so.

The issue, instead, is the appearance of a particular type of mindset between Trump and these authoritarian leaders when it comes to the relationship between state and ruler. They both seem to have no problem with blurring the lines between personal and policy affairs, using the power and the prestige of their position for their own financial and political gain.

“All of this gets back to not having walls of separation between the family business or businesses and their role in government, ” Cooley says. “It’s a mode of governing.”

The consequences of this kind of politics can be quite severe.

Authoritarians can’t rely solely on family members to maintain control, much as they’d like to; there just aren’t enough of them. So many of these leaders use their control over the state to manufacture loyalty — disbursing funds in such a way to make it in the interests of as many powerful factions as possible to support the regime.

In modern Russia, Putin maintains his own power by privileging friendly oligarchs and security service officials, basically linking the interests of Russia’s elite with the survival of Putin’s government. The 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi had a budget of $50 billion; more than half of that went to paying off various different Putin allies, according to Russia scholar Karen Dawisha.

This sort of corruption goes hand in hand with the more intimate kind: looting state coffers for your own benefit and that of your friends and family. Mobutu’s family used the country’s state-owned industries and central bank as personal checking accounts, taking $71 million from the national bank for personal use in 1977 alone. The famous Panama Papers revealed that Putin and his close associates have more than $2 billion squirreled away in offshore accounts, much of which was taken from state coffers in the form of impossibly low-interest loans from state-owned banks.

The United States is very far from that level of systemic corruption. But Trump shares the same basic way of thinking about the US government’s relationship to his personal interests. He has no issue with the many ways in which his administration has already entangled state power and his own personal financial/political interests, and in fact seems to want to expand it.

“What is really striking is how strong these patrimonial instincts can be [in an American leader],” Van de Walle says.

The most obvious example is Trump’s refusal to seriously divest from his private interests. When Jimmy Carter won the presidency in 1976, he gave his family’s small peanut farm and warehouse to an independent trustee to avoid even the appearance of impropriety. The Trump Organization — a multibillion-dollar corporation whose profits are far from peanuts — is currently run by Trump’s adult sons, Donald Jr. and Eric.

This is the opposite of a blind trust: Trump cannot avoid talking to his children, making it impossible to believe he’s truly separated from the business. Moreover, Trump promised that his company wouldn’t make any new foreign deals in office, but the way he travels around the world and meets with foreign leaders makes it exceptionally easy for them to offer his organization a lucrative deal in exchange for favors in a private meeting (as it would be with any president whose family ran their business).

This blending of the personal and the political extends to the way he manages the state’s relationship with corporations.

To show that he was serious about keeping jobs in America, Trump offered the Carrier corporation $7 million in tax breaks in exchange for keeping a manufacturing plant in Indiana open rather than moving it Mexico. The deal was announced, with great public fanfare, in December. Since then, it has become clear that Carrier will move nearly half of the jobs to Mexico anyway. But since Trump already got his PR stunt, it seemed not to matter: Carrier kept its tax breaks.

When companies cross Trump, by contrast, they risk being punished financially. Time Warner, which owns CNN, is currently trying to work out a merger with AT&T. The New York Times’s Michael Grynbaum reports that the Trump administration is thinking about blocking the merger if CNN’s coverage continues to be critical.

“This is such a clear blending of political motives and economic institutions that is totally inappropriate in a rule-governed society,” Gunitsky says. “This is the kind of thing you see in broken states.”

Whether Trump follows through on his merger threat is an open question. But the fact that the White House would even consider punishing a media organization using the federal government’s regulatory powers testifies to the degree to which the state’s role in the economy is seen as a tool for securing the president’s personal interests.

In the long run, these experts warn, this kind of politically motivated crony capitalism is a serious threat to the health of American society.

When nobody stops leaders from doing these kinds of things, they start to become normal, routine. If Trump gets away with staffing the White House with his children, using tax breaks to reward corporations that do him a solid, and creating systemic conflicts of interests, then the incentives for how to act, for both politicians and large corporations, becomes badly distorted. Politicians feel free to act in a pettily corrupt fashion; corporations learn to succeed by flattering the president and getting handouts from the federal government as a result.

“These kinds of erosions of institutions happens in a subtle way,” Gunitsky says. “There’s no takeover of a TV station with guards. There’s no crackdown and curfew. It’s the steady, gradual erosion of the almost invisible lines of separation between institutions that are supposed to independent.”

The consequences are impossible to predict in any detail, because developed countries almost never see anything like this systemic level of personalistic behavior in their leaders. But they could be wide-ranging: When the president sees the powers of the state as something he can manipulate for his personal benefit, then the possibilities for abuse are practically limitless.

In late July, for example, Trump gave a speech at a Navy ceremony where he urged the assembled sailors to “call that congressman and call that senator” about health care and other Trump-backed legislation. It sounded a lot like the president using his power to order the military to gin up support for his political agenda — a no-no in any advanced democracy.

“Trump’s verbal command in Norfolk, Virginia, incites the assembled troops to discard centuries of U.S. military ethics and break long-standing military rules,” Phillip Carter, a senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security, writes at Slate. “This is what leaders do in banana republics: Instruct the people with guns to join the political fray.”

The issue isn’t just that what we’re seeing is bad. It’s that things could get a whole lot worse.

Trump’s instincts may now be his downfall

President Trump And Lebanese PM Hariri Deliver Joint Statements At White House (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

One of the many, many problems with neopatrimonialism is that it breeds mismanagement. When you staff the security services and Cabinet with cronies and grant economic favors to companies based on their political loyalties, your government tends not to work very well. The military gets weak, economic growth slows, diplomatic missions are less effective, and the like.

Trump’s interests have suffered from the same kind of problem generated by his neopatrimonial interests. His Atlantic City casino empire collapsed, in part, because he elevated his unqualified brother to a key management position. These instincts also helped lead to one of the biggest crises for the Trump administration to date: Donald Trump Jr.’s emails about trying to get dirt on Hillary Clinton from the Russian government.

Remember, Trump Jr.’s meeting with the Russians only happened because he, a man with zero political experience, was in a position to speak for the campaign and influence his father. My colleague Dylan Matthews described Trump Jr. as a “staggeringly incompetent” political operative and conspirator, and it’s hard to argue with his case.

“If Trump Jr. had wanted to get the materials being offered but cover himself, he would’ve emailed back to say he was appalled at the suggestion, but then used a more secure means of communication to contact Rob Goldstone, who was offering the files, and set up a meeting,” Matthews writes. “Trump Jr. didn’t do that. He just conducted business over email. Easily hackable, subpoena-able email, during a campaign that centered on his father’s opponent’s poor email management skills.”

Keeping notes on a criminal conspiracy is exactly the kind of mistake you would expect from someone who has no experience with either election law or political strategy. It’s no surprise that a neophyte like Trump Jr. made it. But he never would have had the opportunity to commit such a fatal error if his father hadn’t empowered him to do it.

Neopatrimonial mismanagement can often sow the seeds of the regime’s collapse. Mobutu’s plundering of the state created widespread misery among his citizens, fueling support for an uprising that would eventually topple him. Corruption is currently one of the most vulnerable points for Vladimir Putin’s regime: In June, tens of thousands of Russians turned out to protest Putin allies’ systemic corruption. Opposition leader Alexei Navalny is making anti-corruption a central part of his bid to oust Putin in the 2018 election.

Trump is now reaping a similar kind of whirlwind — the kind of problems you would expect someone with his impulses to face when trying to operate in a democratic system. His son’s meeting with Russia, according to legal experts, is incriminating — not just for Trump Jr. but also for Kushner and then-campaign manager Paul Manafort. Both of them were copied on the emails, so both may face potential criminal prosecution. Kushner has already appeared before two congressional committees, and the Senate Judiciary Committee subpoenaed Manafort to testify in late July.

This all raises the question that brought down President Nixon during Watergate: What did he know, and when did he know it? If Trump knew that his son and top advisers were trying to acquire information about Clinton from the Russians, and explicitly directed them to use that to help him win the White House, the political pressure to impeach him could become irresistible even for his fellow Republicans.

We can’t yet know if things will get that bad for Trump. Maybe the email scandal won’t escalate beyond what we’re already seeing.

But the point is very clear: Trump’s kleptocratic instincts are creating the same kinds of vulnerabilities to his regime that autocrats regularly face. His obsession with loyalty and willingness to play fast and loose with basic norms against corruption might well defeat him.

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