The Mystery of Minor-League Corruption

Canada’s Prime Minister Justin Trudeau attends a news conference at Rideau Cottage in Ottawa, Ontario, Canada, June 22, 2020. (Blair Gable/Reuters)
Without a real creed of public life, there is no counterweight to the temptations of politics.

NRPLUS MEMBER ARTICLE O ne of the most shocking things about corruption scandals such as the one currently convulsing Justin Trudeau’s government in Canada is how little there is to be gained.

Trudeau is in trouble because he and some other members of his government did not recuse themselves from the decision to reward a no-bid contract to a politically connected charity that had paid Trudeau’s mother and his brother some (U.S.) $200,000 over four years to give speeches. (Justin Trudeau himself was in the full-time speech-making business for much of his youth, and in a good year he could expect to collect a half-million dollars or so.) Canadian finance minister Bill Morneau is in the stocks, too — he was involved in the contract decision in spite of the fact that his daughter is employed by the charity.

The Trudeaus are not as rich as you might expect them to be, but they are well-off. They are not the sort of family in which the parents and adult children are simply desperate for (on average) an extra fifty grand a year, but neither are they the sort of people who would fail to notice an extra fifty grand a year — or its absence.

J. J.  McCullough, who writes about Canada for the Washington Post, blames Trudeau’s “idiosyncratic mix of elitism and obliviousness” for this and other troubles. It would be difficult to credit obliviousness if Trudeau had not already demonstrated that quality so often. As McCollough notes, Trudeau had early got himself into trouble by making use of a private island belonging to the Aga Khan, which Trudeau thought was within the bounds of propriety because the Aga Khan is a family friend. Which of course he is. Justin Trudeau is unlikely to be surprised by anyone’s wanting to be his friend.

But when you are walking around with a famous name, everybody is a family friend or desires to be — ask Chelsea Clinton, who was paid $600,000 by NBC News in exchange for very little work and has earned millions sitting on corporate boards with almost nothing to recommend her save her name. Hunter Biden you know about. No doubt we will have an infestation of petty Trumps in American public and business life for a little while at least. (The Trumps thought they were the Medici but turned out to be the Borgias.) It is easy to be oblivious when you are Chelsea Clinton — or Hillary Rodham Clinton, for that matter, who was every bit as much a hanger-on as her daughter is. Bill Clinton, who had the talent and did the actual work of building Clinton Inc., was many things — oblivious was not one of them.

But these apple-stealing scandals are not restricted to the genuinely oblivious. Virginia governor Bob McDonnell was undone by a $6,000 Rolex given to him by a businessman looking for a favor regarding some dietary supplements. McDonnell is smart enough to know that it means something — and nothing good — when a politician receives a Rolex unexpectedly. Jesse L. Jackson Jr. was undone by a rather nicer Rolex, one valued at $43,000.

(Both men enjoyed some other indulgences, McDonnell’s paid for by the same patron who provided the Rolex, Jackson’s paid for by the misappropriation of campaign funds. McDonnell and his wife were convicted on felony corruption charges, but the conviction was overturned and the government abandoned the case. Jackson served a short prison sentence on fraud charges.)

New Mexico governor Michelle Lujan Grisham, sometimes mentioned as a possible vice-presidential pick for Joe Biden, used to be in the House, where she got into hot water over accepting some jewelry and a rug from the government of Azerbaijan on a junket to Baku. You do not have to be gobsmackingly bright to rise in New Mexico politics (though the Land of Enchantment has produced some smart politicos, including Susana Martinez and Bill Richardson), but Lujan Grisham certainly is bright enough to know that what happens in Baku doesn’t stay in Baku.

So, why accept the gifts?

My pet theory is that this kind of petty corruption in politics is driven by two factors: The first is that the stakes are only petty on the politicians’ side — that Canadian charity that paid sundry Trudeaus for speeches got a $900 million contract. Throwing a few fruit baskets at Canadian MPs or American congressmen can be a pretty good investment, if you know how to play it. Some of those politicians are going to take those fruit baskets.

The second factor is the same one that drives much of our class-warfare politics: the fact that many influential people, especially academics, politicians, and media figures, are socially adjacent to people they are not financially adjacent to. The Trudeaus are comfortable, but the Aga Khan has a Caribbean island of his own, a pretty nice one. Justin Trudeau lives in a duplex, and the Aga Khan . . . does not.

If you are the governor of Virginia, your social set will include a number of very, very wealthy people, especially now that we have entered the republic-teetering-on-the-edge-of-empire stage in our history, with the political capital slowly becoming the financial capital. But even if you are a big noise in Richmond, you still make only $175,000 a year. (Only.) That’s fine if you are someone like former Minnesota governor Mark Dayton, who inherited his grandfather’s billions (that splendid Target money), or a former Goldman Sachs monkey like Steve Mnuchin, or a successful entrepreneur such as Rick Scott. But most people in politics are lawyers with a little bit of money, or something financially and socially similar. They have more than most, but not nearly enough to satisfy them.

“I was envious of the arrogant when I saw the prosperity of the wicked. . . . Surely in vain have I cleansed my heart, and washed my hands in innocence.” The lament is familiar. But the psalmist had something to set against the gold of those for whom “pride is their necklace.” What do we have now?

J. J. McCollough of the Washington Post faults Trudeau’s “elitism,” but one of the problems with our elite is that it has no –ism — no creed, no shared sense of class responsibility, few if any shared norms, and no working definition of civic duty. We Americans do not really have an old-fashioned class system in which young people are educated for leadership in a semi-hereditary fashion, a European-style civil-service culture, or the meritocracy that we imagine we do. (It is really something special to be treated to disquisitions on “merit-based” policies by Jared Kushner.) It is easy to understand and appreciate how that fails the American people, who are denied diligent and honest government and administration, but it also fails the politicians, too. You do not have to shed a tear for them, but the situation is worth understanding, if only for purposes of civic self-defense.

Most people don’t go into politics looking to get rich — they go into politics looking for status and meaning. That is especially true for people who already are well-off. Kelly Loeffler doesn’t need your money — $500 million still goes a long way in Georgia. The more honest and self-aware of the businessman-politicians can be pretty frank about that. They have money, but money isn’t enough. They end up, as one very wealthy politician told me not long ago, “addicted to feeling important.”

I used to be represented by a Pennsylvania state senator who was a textbook squishy progressive tribune of the New Suburbia; I disagreed with her about most things but never suspected that she got into public life seeking a fortune, because she didn’t need one — her father was Leon Hess. She may have been wrong about a lot of things, but she was sincere in her desire to contribute something of value. Unfortunately, political office (and government work generally) no longer provides many people the status and meaning it once did, precisely because our elites have no –ism, no creed, no shared conception of duty and political honor. Like the guy who exchanges his Corvette for a Lamborghini, politicians can trade up and up and up but never go anywhere: The House is full of people who detest it and wish they were in the Senate, the Senate is full of people who despise it and desire to be president, and the White House is — I’ll leave that off, for now. This is not to suggest we should be sentimental about some golden age of American democracy: We always have had corruption and careerism, but it is more difficult today to make a mark and achieve something meaningful with dutiful service than it was a generation or two ago. We have a lot of cheap demagogues because cheap demagoguery is where it’s at. And if you’re not a gifted demagogue, you can still hustle.

You will not hear me delivering homilies against “consumerism” or “materialism.” I believe that the enjoyment of good things is good in its place, and that the spur provided by the desire of such enjoyment is one of the things that raised us up out of the muck and into civilization. But there is only so much satisfaction in consumption, even of the most rarefied kinds. It is difficult to get Americans to keep a straight face when talking about avarice in its Seven Deadly Sins sense, but we see its wreckage all around us.

The Trudeaus and the McDonnells and the Jacksons of the world get themselves into trouble not because they are merely and simply greedy but because they are trying to use consumption to meet a powerful human need that cannot be satisfied with a Rolex. (Or even an A. Lange & Söhne Richard Lange Pour Le Mérite!) They go into politics hoping to satisfy their craving for meaning, to enjoy a larger and more significant kind of life than that which can be had from getting and spending alone, but they end up disappointed. At the same time, they enter into a new world in which public and private transactions both are quantified with the once-exotic word billions, develop connections to individuals and institutions with millions and billions to throw around at whatever interests them, and occasionally enjoy a tantalizing little taste of the private-jet life, which is very tasty indeed.

There is a bit of temptation, and maybe that temptation doesn’t seem like very much in the balance — unless you understand that on the other side of the scale is: almost nothing. Without a real creed of public life, there is no counterweight to the temptations, whether it is the temptation of great wealth or the ordinary pursuit of comfort.

People have admired Cincinnatus for 25 centuries now because he went home to his plow. To the Romans, that was the stuff. Cincinnatus was a patrician, but he wasn’t rich — he was a poor farmer, with only four acres to his name. When his country needed him, it invested the powers of dictatorship in him, which he used to repel an invasion, and then he resigned and went back to his farm — all of that in fifteen days. (This is a legend, of course.) He could have clung to power or sought some means of enriching himself, but he held these things to be of little value in comparison to the dignity conferred by a life lived in accordance with the highest ideals of his people. He had something better than wealth or power. But we 21st-century Americans are not going to develop a cult of admiration for men who go home to their plows and treat them as timeless paragons of virtue — because we do not actually admire them at all, and we don’t see the virtue in such actions or agree about the virtue in much of anything else. We don’t really like anything better than wealth and power.

The choice between doing the honorable thing or pushing a little money in the general direction of your family is easy enough if there is an honorable thing and you can say with confidence what it is. But there’s a lot less power in the honorable-ish thing, the provisionally honorable thing, the honorable-enough thing, the thing we only pretend to honor.

Why would Justin Trudeau risk his reputation and his position over a paltry sum of money? Wrong question.

Ask instead: Why wouldn’t he?

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