In How Corrupt is Britain? David Whyte shone a light on the corruption embedded in UK politics, policing and finance. In this article, Whyte extends his study of corruption to the US, turning his eye to President Trump’s recent appointments and the continued love affair between the US government and private interests.
Donald Trump’s pitch to the people on the eve of the election in November was that only he could overturn the ‘years of sordid corruption’ in the Washington establishment. But his earliest appointments are beginning to line up like a familiar identification parade of establishment crooks.
His nominee as Secretary of State is Rex Tillerson the chief executive of Exxon Mobil, a company currently embroiled in a major Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) investigation for publishing false reports about its assets. The ‘white nationalist’ Steve Bannon, appointed as White House chief strategist has been exposed for channeling millionaire donor funds through a ‘charity’ to fund his work for the extreme right-wing Breitbart News. And Trump’s newly crowned head of manufacturing, is Andrew Leveris, the CEO of Dow Chemicals who was also investigated by the SEC for fraud, although the case has apparently now been concluded. Perhaps the icing on the cake is the appointment of the climate change-denying corporate lawyer Scott Pruitt to head the Environmental Protection Agency.
But the alleged frauds that tie those appointments together is really not the headline story. The headline story is that, perhaps unsurprisingly, they all have a long track record of rabidly opposing any regulation that gets in the way of business.
Giving such unbridled power to this crop of rampantly pro-business cheerleaders may store up trouble for Trump and may even undermine section of his electoral support. As the recent book by Emerita Hochschild, Strangers in their Own Land documents, Trump’s stronghold state of Louisiana voted against the establishment because they had watched the jobs and their neighbourhoods destroyed by a combination of government and big business collusion. This collusion had led to the environmental pollution of the bayous, and industrial practices that destroyed land and water and the way of life.
Creating a White House team that has been appointed in the same manner as Trump might appoint the committee in one of his golf clubs, is not going to do anything to assuage those kinds of fears.
By placing so many business leaders in key government positions, Trump has broken one of the Golden rules of American democracy: that the public must be able to see that the distinction between government and private interest is carefully preserved. Yes, government interests and the interests of the big corporations very often coincide, but they are not the same, so the legitimating narrative of liberal democracy goes. This fiction was maintained by both Bush and Obama, even as the former fought an illegal war for American corporations, and as the latter forged an intimate alliance with the American Chamber of Commerce on trade, and silently forced through fracking permits on behalf of big oil.
In the recent appointments, the liberal mask on the American system of government has slipped much further to reveal that public and private interests are indistinguishable. The ‘government by the people for the people’ is effortlessly reformulated to read ‘government by big business, for big business.’
In Britain at least, the public now very clearly perceives the frequency of ‘revolving door’ appointments as a significant blemish on our system of government. In a YouGov survey commissioned by my colleague David Ellis and I earlier this year, 73% of the British public said that the practice of ministers accepting corporate boardroom appointments should be banned; only 13% supported the current rules on accepting such appointments. And 62% said that inviting corporations into government to help shape the regulation of business should be banned; only 18% supported the current rules on corporate consultancies in government.
The ‘revolving door’ captures a set of practices that would not necessarily be regarded by any standard definition as ‘corrupt’. Corruption scholars distinguish between collusive corruption (where two parties collude for their common benefit) and extortive corruption (where one party is compelled to make a bribe payment to another). The revolving door does not fall within the rubric of the extortive corruption that Western governments and transnational governmental organisations are pre-occupied with. It does, however, fall somewhere in the realm of ‘collusive corruption’, the type of corruption that arises from a common interest that exists across establishment elites in government and in business. And it is this collusive corruption that in Britain is now generating all kinds of public opposition.
Think of the reaction to the despised sweetheart deals brokered by the big 4 accountancy firms for their transnational clients, as they keep one foot in and one foot out of HMRC, or think of the public anger generated by former health ministers taking up appointments in private healthcare companies after being voted out of government (and there have been at least 4 of those in recent years).
This is kind of collusion does two things for our understanding of the way government works. First, it clearly undermines public confidence in the system of government. But more fundamentally it also unmasks modern democratic government for what it really is: a place in which the boundaries between public interest and private interest are often impossible to separate.
In our YouGov survey, collusion between private and public sectors is of acute concern to the general public. Those concerns may weigh less heavily in the US, but they may not. The incumbent White House administration would do well to remember how Bernie Sanders managed to capture the imagination of a very large proportion of the American people by highlighting the corruption at the heart of Washington in which political and business elites mutually reinforce dominance.
Bob Dylan once sang in his dystopian ballad Its Alright Ma (I’m Only Bleeding) ‘even the President of the United States has to stand naked.’ As Donald Trump creates his own form of golf-club democracy inside the White House, he has paradoxically stripped naked the source of his own power.
David Whyte is Professor of Socio-Legal Studies at the University of Liverpool where he researches issues related to corporate violence and corporate corruption. He is the co-editor of The Violence of Austerity (Pluto, 2017).
How Corrupt is Britain? edited by David Whyte is available to buy from Pluto Press.