8 Reasons GOP Administrations Are More Corrupt Than Democrats

From their subservience to the rich to their disdain for government, Republicans are more likely to abuse their power for personal gain. But why?

President Donald Trump shakes hands with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Ky., center, before the start of a meeting with House and Senate Leadership in the Roosevelt Room of the White House in Washington, Tuesday, June 6, 2017. Also in the room are from left, Vice President Mike Pence, Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn, R-Texas, House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy of Calif., House Speaker Paul Ryan of Wis., and Senior Adviser Jared Kushner. (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)

President Donald Trump shakes hands with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Ky., center, before the start of a meeting with House and Senate Leadership in the Roosevelt Room of the White House in Washington, Tuesday, June 6, 2017. Also in the room are from left, Vice President Mike Pence, Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn, R-Texas, House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy of Calif., House Speaker Paul Ryan of Wis., and Senior Adviser Jared Kushner. (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)

This is part two in a five-part series on government corruption and how that corruption is investigated. Part one found GOP administrations had 38x more criminal convictions than Democratic administrations between 1961-2016 – you can read it here.

The data is clear and the public sees it. Republican administrations have had significantly more corruption. Why? Certainly, high-level appointees in Democratic administrations are also ambitious, also seek to live well, also have children they want to send to expensive universities…. Why are the Republicans more corrupt? We consider eight possible reasons – working hypotheses – that may help explain why Republican administrations have been exponentially more corrupt than Democratic administrations.

1. Republicans serve the rich.

Republican administrations, particularly the current one, favor the rich; they hire people who are rich and extremely rich, or aspiring to be rich, or aspiring to serve the rich. Democratic ones do but to a far lesser extent. Donald trumpeted he would have “the best people” and that they would be the wealthiest people, because their wealth proved they knew how to get things done. He’s followed through, with the wealthiest first-term Cabinet ever, with a net worth of at least $2.3 billion, not counting Trump’s own estimated $3.1 billion. A July 2017 Forbes article, however, pegged the Trump cabinet at $4.3 billion. It’s not clear why someone with inherited wealth, such as Betsy DeVos, at over $1 billion, knows how to get things done, but this tends to confirm the real element being valued. Obama’s first cabinet (2009) total net worth was $67.2 million, or 1/35th as much as Trump’s. George W. Bush’s 2001 cabinet had a total net worth of $351.5 million.

But why would this lead to increased corruption? Mr. Trump’s gold-plated and gold-painted apotheosis of money – the antithesis of what Plato or the Nazarene would see as value or virtue – is not about competence or creativity. The art of the deal can be the art of the scam as long as the result is wealth – and getting away with it. Trump no more created money worship than he created white nationalism. He does rise though on foundations laid in the Republican Party: white nationalism in Nixon’s Southern Strategy, Reagan’s Cadillac welfare queens, and Bush’s Willie Horton; in serving the wealthy on Gingrich’s destruction of regular order, McConnell and Ryan’s tax cuts for the top 1%, and the Party’s trickle down fraud. If virtue is wealth and wealth virtue, “corruption” is just pious nonsense. For the rest of us, though, corruption means we are being robbed.

To angle back from these sweeping assertions, for generations people have associated with the Republican Party, seeing it as valuing hard work, honest effort, honest rewards, and wealth as just for well-managed economic activity. These people would no more arrange a corrupt contract at the Department of Defense than steal from their grandmother. (Hint: they wouldn’t.) Perhaps, though, their own virtue has allowed them to overlook the processes of corruption at work in that party, for decades, of which Trump is an outstanding and virtually inevitable outcome, not an outlier.

2. Republicans disdain government.

A Republican mantra, certainly since Reagan, is that government is bad, “is the problem” in Reagan’s words; business and money are good. A Republican sense of “Public service” is getting government out of people’s way, particularly out of the way of productive people, which is conveniently often equated with wealthy people, as outlined in reason #1. Well then, if you cheat the government a little, and you benefit business (or yourself) a lot, what could be wrong with that? One humorous result is that people who imagine themselves as Ayn Rand heroes are actually schemers and fraudsters making back door deals, people she despised even more than the communists. The disdain for regulation and the disregard for those protected by regulation contribute to a sense that personally skirting it and profiting from defying it is fine. That’s corruption.

3. Making government worse is a goal.

A step beyond reducing government and its regulatory burden, strange as it seems, is to make government worse. It helps to confirm government is bad – even if you contribute to making it bad – if the ultimate goal is to disable and dismantle it. Most Republican political candidates swear a “no new taxes” oath to Grover Norquist who said, “I don’t want to abolish government. I simply want to reduce it to the size where I can drag it into the bathroom and drown it in the bathtub.” Journalist Masha Gessen speaking at Amherst College puts another twist on it:

“This is to me the most important thing to know about Donald Trump and funnily enough about Vladimir Putin, which is their absolute and utter disdain for government. When Donald Trump said that he wanted to drain the swamp, he didn’t mean that he wanted to clean up American institutions so that they would work better. What he actually meant was that those institutions shouldn’t exist.”

When institutions are disabled – the norms we see so battered in the Gingrich-McConnell-Trump era, Trump being just the latest taking a sledgehammer to norms – the rats and oligarchs come out to play. In this case, hyperbole though it is, the “rats” are the corrupt actors.

4. They make the swamp great again.

When, as in Reason 3, government becomes worse the Swamp becomes more inviting. How have Candidate Trump’s promises to drain the swamp played out? Swamp behavior has already forced from the Cabinet (and not because the President cared about it): Ryan Zinke, Secretary of the Interior; Scott Pruitt, Administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency; Tom Price, Secretary of Health and Human Services; David Shulkin Secretary of Veterans Affairs. Swamp behavior will probably force out in the future: Secretary of Labor Alexander Acosta, and Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross.

At the Interior Department, David Bernhardt, a fossil fuels and water industry lobbyist, is Acting Secretary. At the Environmental Protection Agency, the Acting Administrator is Andrew Wheeler, a coal lobbyist. In case there is any doubt, they have been weakening regulations. Though President Trump with one hand, imposed new limits on lobbying at the same time with the hand behind his back he provided waivers, such as allowing Senior White House Budget advisor Marcus Peacock to join the Business Roundtable where he will lobby the Office of Management and Budget. The Trump Administration waived the five-year prohibition. Trump’s waivers, unlike Obama administration waivers, do not need to be disclosed and can include multiple people.

Besides waivers, Trump’s Executive Order included major loopholes. As ProPublica reports, former Federal employees can work on “any agency process for rulemaking, adjudication or licensing” – which turns out to be a lot of what lobbying is. The Trump Administration has employed at least 230 current and former lobbyists. Former Campaign Manager Corey Lewandowski opened a lobbying firm less than two months after Trump won the Presidency. And, what is the relevance to Republican administrations being more corrupt? As Emily Atkins writes in the New Republic, “American history is littered with examples of those who were able to abuse their power thanks to a lack of transparency and oversight.” Not to mention a wink, a nod and a waiver.

5. Privilege and entitlement – starting on third base – is deserving a home run.

The elites of certain churches, universities, private schools or ethnicities may unconsciously accept their position as any crowned head assumed the “divine right of kings”. Growing up inside such an elite seems natural and right; those in power enable others like themselves. If they studied hard and played on the football team, compared to their classmates who did not work as hard, they know they are deserving. For one in that position, it’s a forgivable failure of imagination to not consider that the student across town who also worked hard and perhaps did not achieve the same SAT scores, may have often gone to bed hungry, may have surmounted far greater obstacles to achieve a lot – capacity and determination which should be counted in. The privileged may not see the distortions that benefit them. This is not confined to one party, one class, one ethnicity, one gender. Some of us simply benefit from a surfeit of privilege.

Privilege – being part of any elite – is quite normally something someone wants to protect. That seems normal. Not recognizing when we have a birth lottery advantage is normal too. It does not make someone evil. On the other hand, it does set up a struggle between the haves and have nots. How that is dealt with is the difference between functioning democracy (where conflict is a functioning process for resolving issues) and a chaotic society rendered by the competing interests of those protecting and those attacking vast inequity. Overlapping these two scenarios are groups whose privilege is vastly less than the elites, but who nevertheless maintain some privilege based on race or gender or caste, etc.

Off with their heads is not an answer. Possible answers include: wealth tax; higher marginal inheritance taxes; and crediting overcoming the privilege deficit, without demonizing people who won the birth lottery – a 21st-century rework of affirmative action.

A study in The American Journal of Political Science on narcissism found conservatives and liberals equally narcissistic but expressing their narcissism in different ways. (Yikes – equally narcissistic?! Not so!) Conservatives, according to the study, express it as a higher sense of entitlement. Liberals were more oriented to display, wanting their viewpoint recognized. As entitlement is part of our argument for why there is more corruption in Republican administrations, this further makes the case – and I cop to a narcissistic need to make a great case, and be recognized for it.

Adding to the point are studies confirming that richer people (proportionally, not all) behave with more signs of entitlement, such as: not stopping for pedestrians at a crosswalk; contributing a smaller portion of their income than poor or moderate-income people to charity; more fiercely opposing government investment in social needs. It was also found that even being primed to feel rich lead to feeling more entitled. In summary, the argument for Reason 5 is that entitlement can create perceptions that distort one’s valuation of one’s own and others’ contribution or role in affairs – leading to corrupt behavior.

6. Their life experiences open the corruption door.

While some academics (for example) get Republican appointments and some business people Democratic positions, overall Republicans will appoint more people from the private sector, and Democrats more from the public sector (academia, think tanks, government, etc.). The private sector people are more used to making money deals and working with quid pro quos. It comes more naturally to them and may be what they have experienced as normal, the way things are done. If they were highly paid, they may have been accustomed to better hotels, expense accounts, flight seats, and, particularly, rewards for performance than are usual in government. The steps from those differences to padding an expense statement, or ordering the best furniture for one’s office, or getting help to get a good job for one’s spouse, or deciding one’s own commission when handling procurements – one almost has to sympathize.

7. Republican officeholders offered Evangelical communities a bargain they accepted. Looking the other way on corruption is part of the bargain.

One requirement for corruption to flourish is lack of oversight, or in a sense, permission. Evangelical communities have been vulnerable to a fear and threat relationship to American society. Gay identity and marriage, women’s equality, the sexual revolution, the state’s assertion of power to intervene in the discipline (abuse) of children, drugs, (even a “war on Christmas”?), and most importantly abortion have all at different times been used to mobilize evangelical voters. There has been a bargain over many years – deliver the votes and we will deliver on social issues. The bargain is now most transparent with Trump in the White House. An odious, lying, abusive, adulterous and allegedly sexually predatory, unreligious, hypocritical narcissist… is delivering: judges, Supreme Court Justices, favors to the churches and church elite, a mostly evangelical Cabinet and Vice President – maybe even a faster path to the Rapture. Look away – avert your gaze – and accept the benefits.

Republicans in Congress, and their media, have likewise signaled they accept what Trump is, and look the other way when “offended”.

If you accept the bargain, you signal accepting many transgressions as long as your core demands are satisfied. The transgressors have this additional permission. The signals are clear: Corruption is tolerated.

8. They deliberately destroy moral standards to consolidate power.

Yale historian Timothy Snyder argues compellingly in The Road to Unfreedom, as well as in many talks, that oligarchs consolidating power and wealth benefit from creating an atmosphere of uncertainty, disbelief in facts, making it seem like political parties and leaders are uniformly corrupt, so there is nothing that can be done. It is what it is. If this was not so relevant for previous administrations, now we must admit that this is what it is. An administration that surpasses previous ones in corruption is possible because of a groundwork laid over decades of practices that make democracy, equity, and social good far secondary to wealth and power.

Corruption in Context

The eight reasons above are not exhaustive. They are offered for consideration. We do not argue that all members of Republican administrations are corrupt. No. The evidence, though, is that the Republican incidence of corruption is much higher, and there are reasonable hypotheses to explain why.

Transparency International defines corruption:

Generally speaking as “the abuse of entrusted power for private gain”. Corruption can be classified as grand, petty and political, depending on the amounts of money lost and the sector where it occurs.

Grand corruption consists of acts committed at a high level of government that distort policies or the central functioning of the state, enabling leaders to benefit at the expense of the public good. Petty corruption refers to everyday abuse of entrusted power by low- and mid-level public officials in their interactions with ordinary citizens, who often are trying to access basic goods or services in places like hospitals, schools, police departments and other agencies.

Political corruption is a manipulation of policies, institutions and rules of procedure in the allocation of resources and financing by political decision-makers, who abuse their position to sustain their power, status and wealth.

Some incidents of corruption show what a President tried to cover up. Think Nixon. In some cases, the President’s lieutenants claim they acted on their own and made efforts to ensure the boss did not know, so the boss would have “plausible deniability.” This term usually refers more to committing dirty acts such as the assassination of a foreign adversary than to normally corrupt domestic power and money grabs.

Some discussions of corruption assume a President must be omniscient and must act immediately. It’s a fantasy. A President could not control personally or even have the investigative machinery to know about or react immediately to acts of corruption across their administration. As a reality check, consider: one spouse may not know that the other spouse is cheating on them for years. Holding the President responsible at this level is …theater.

We can hold the President responsible, though, for factors that will influence people up and down their administration.

  • What kinds of people are being hired?
  • What is the quality of the selection (vetting) process for the people hired?
  • What is the tone of the administration, the values it espouses, and it demonstrates?
  • What does the President model in his/her actions and words?
  • Do Presidential appointees respect and honor the President, and what he or she stands for, and take it as a point of pride and honor to serve well?
  • How do the President and his/her staff respond when possible corruption is found? Are they decisive? Do they own the problem and work to remedy it? Or, do they attempt to frustrate investigation or cover-up the possible corruption?

The ability of 45’s supporters to excuse what has always been inexcusable is a call to the rest of us to respond more forcefully, to not normalize it.

Articles in this series

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Opinion // Corruption / Donald Trump / Republican Party