Every republic, large and small, lives with a tension between the need for public-spirited, civic-minded leaders and the inevitable pull of private interests and affections. The larger and wealthier the republic, the greater the challenge, because the republic’s officials must live and move and work in an atmosphere of commercial wealth and foreign lucre — which creates not only direct temptation but also, more subtly, a fear that you are failing your family, your children, if you remain unbought.
The Roman republic in its waning years managed this tension by creating a zone of self-enrichment that was outside the res publica. The public-spirited Roman served the republic in the city of Rome and then got rich somewhere else, far away and out of sight. You climbed the cursus honorum, you reached the office of praetor or consul, you governed honorably and ably (at least in theory), and then your reward was to become a provincial governor and have the chance to squeeze the inhabitants of Hispania Ulterior or Gallia Narbonensis for every last denarius — subject only to occasional prosecution for “abuses” if you made the wrong enemies back home.
The American republic, more idealistic and less brutal than its Roman antecedent, doesn’t send former Cabinet officials and senators off to practice extractive taxation everywhere that we have military bases. Instead, we’ve developed a more complicated interplay between public service and private enrichment, a labyrinthine system of consultancies and adviserships and directorates and boards in which the dedicated public servant can make enough money to keep up with the cost of tuition at Sidwell or Exeter without ever taking anything so embarrassing as a bribe.
The ideological grease in this system is the belief that the American businessman, the American soldier and the American diplomat are all fundamentally doing the same work, expanding the Pax Americana one newly opened market, one toppled strongman and one baby democracy at a time. So why shouldn’t our public servants move back and forth between these realms — selling arms to our allies one day, serving on a do-gooding foundation funded by allies and defense contractors the next, helping those allies lobby our government the day after that? After all, these projects all serve the same goal: A world of capitalist democracies at peace with one another, free to get rich under the umbrella of the American military.
This kind of thinking has animated and justified elite self-enrichment throughout my lifetime. Think of Dick Cheney’s smooth move from supervising the Defense Department to running a defense contractor to supervising the Defense Department once again, or the extraordinary post-presidential buckraking of the Clinton family and their foundation’s global funding stream.
But the pattern isn’t just personal, it’s also structural, with specific opportunities for moneymaking embedded in big-picture, bipartisan projects: the Clinton-era attempt to transform post-Soviet Russia into a functioning capitalist democracy; the Bush-era attempt to remake the Middle East; the multi-administration push to unite American and Chinese markets, creating a free and prosperous “Chimerica” on which the sun would never set.
We are where we are in American politics, in part, because all these big-picture projects succeeded in enriching private interests … but failed to achieve their stated public goals. The “shock therapy” delivered to Russia midwifed Putinism instead of a prosperous U.S. ally. The war in Iraq ushered in a regional conflict that’s still burning to this day. Chimerica worked out better for the Chinese than for many working-class Americans, and far better for the Chinese Politburo than for the cause of liberty. And the self-justifying doctrine of the present elite — that you can serve the common good while in office and do well for yourself afterward — became far more implausible when the elite’s projects kept failing even as the officeholders kept on cashing in.
Yet the quest for such projects persisted — including in the strange Ukrainian twilight where Donald Trump may have finally found his way to an impeachable offense. Five years ago the Americans making money in Ukraine were, like Paul Manafort, mostly doing so cynically and quietly. But then we backed Ukraine’s 2014 revolution and Russia responded with aggression — and suddenly there was a perceived synergy between U.S. foreign policy objectives, U.S. ideals and the desire of U.S. officials for gainful employment.
Sure, this synergy had failed in Russia in the 1990s, but maybe in the shadow of that failure’s Putinist consequences we could succeed in Ukraine in the 2010s. Hunter Biden’s sinecure at a Ukrainian energy conglomerate represents the crassest form of this mentality. But as Sarah Chayes notes in a stinging Atlantic essay, the more “normal” versions are no less striking: Consider Kurt Volker, our special envoy for Ukraine until last weekend, who was inside the U.S. government advocating the arming of Kiev with missiles manufactured by a company that funds the think tank and the global consultancy he joined after his prior stint in government.
All of this is crucial backdrop to the Trump presidency, and essential to understanding the ways in which Trump’s repudiation of post-1989 ideological projects and his pledge to drain the D.C. swamp were fundamentally conjoined. It wasn’t that one represented tough-guy realism and the other some sort of pretend good-government idealism. It was that in attacking post-Cold War idealism and the culture of legal self-dealing in D.C., Trump was offering a unified rejection of the entire way that American public servants of both parties have claimed to harmonize republican service and self-enrichment, the entire ideological edifice justifying cashing in.
In this sense the strongest defense of Trump’s possibly impeachable conduct vis-à-vis Hunter Biden and his father isn’t some sort of careful “no quid pro quo!” parsing of the president’s words. It’s the more straightforward argument that, as Dan McCarthy wrote for the National Interest over the weekend, this was what Trump was elected to do — to “use all legal means at his disposal to strike at business-as-usual among the political elite,” even if that requires trampling over norms that would normally prevent a U.S. president from encouraging a foreign investigation into his rival and his rival’s family.
But this defense requires believing that a kind of “the worse, the better” response to elite malfeasance will somehow bring us back to a less corrupt equilibrium. Trump was indeed, as McCarthy wrote, “elected on his own kind of anti-corruption manifesto.” But there is nothing of republican austerity or Catonian civic virtue in how he has actually governed. Instead, the tone was set, well, by his entire pre-presidential career, but let’s say especially by his campaign-season hiring of Manafort, a statement that in place of elite self-enrichment through New World Order synergies, Trump was offering corruption without varnish, self-dealing without ideological self-justification.
And so it has been throughout his administration, which has been distinguished not by any sort of Savonarolan intolerance for impropriety, but by a brazen willingness, from Trump officials and Trump family members alike, to exploit the perks of office while in office rather than waiting decorously to cash in.
One could certainly imagine a world where a populist president pressed legitimately for an investigation into a rival’s son “to strike at business-as-usual” within a corrupt elite. But when that president’s own family has been breezily monetizing their advantages and blurring the private interest/public service line from Day 1 of this administration, it’s impossible to see such an investigation through any lens except Trump’s political self-interest.
One could even imagine a world where a president battling corruption felt legitimately compelled to dispatch his personal lawyer to run a secret inquisition into malfeasance that the existing bureaucracy wouldn’t touch. But when that inquisitor is Rudy Giuliani — a once-admirable public servant whose subsequent conflicts and cash-ins are legendary — well, then it’s obvious you’re just in the realm of Medici plots and late-Roman-republic politicized prosecutions, without a Savonarola or a Cato anywhere in sight.
Fundamentally this is how many of Trump’s supporters have decided to think about the situation: It is the late, late republic, or else a Renaissance-Italy den of wolves — and with things this far gone in corruption, “the worse, the better” makes some sense.
But as the president’s approval ratings amply demonstrate, most of America doesn’t share that sentiment. And I’m not sure if Trump’s base really does, either, which is why his talk of “treason” and “civil war” is more a reality-TV show than a Rubicon.
So what we have under Trump, at the moment, isn’t a successful scouring, the nemesis that D.C. hubris richly merited. It’s a populist revolt whose champion, our ridiculous president, is too narcissistic and incontinent to persuade anyone outside his base that he cares about the common good. And so long as it pretends otherwise, American conservatism won’t just be enabling another crime; it will be making a mistake.