The Link Between Corruption and the Global Surge of Populism

“Populism” has been defined in many different ways, but the context in which the term is most frequently used today aligns with the definition proposed by Cas Mudde in The Populist Zeitgeist: “an ideology that considers society to be ultimately separated into two homogeneous and antagonistic groups, ‘the pure people’ versus ‘the corrupt elite.’” This formulation certainly captures the political style of the leaders discussed at last month’s Harvard Law School conference on “Populist Plutocrats: Lessons from Around the World,” including Silvio Berlusconi in Italy, Thaksin Shinawatra in Thailand, Joseph Estrada in the Philippines, and (perhaps to a somewhat lesser extent) Alberto Fujimori in Peru and Jacob Zuma in South Africa. And it certainly captures the rhetoric of Donald Trump.

A couple of previous posts have provided an overview of the Populist Plutocrats conference agenda and information about the video recording (see here, here and here). In this post, I want to use the conference discussions as a jumping-off point for thinking more generally about how populism relates to systemic corruption—both as a consequence and as a cause.

Continue reading

Tracking Corruption and Conflicts of Interest in the Trump Administration–October 2017 Update

Last May, we launched our project to track credible allegations that President Trump, as well as his family members and close associates, are seeking to use the presidency to advance their personal financial interests.Just as President Trump’s son Eric will be providing President Trump with “quarterly” updates on the Trump Organization’s business affairs, we will do our best to provide readers with regular updates on credible allegations of presidential profiteering. Our October update is now available here.

There were relatively few new developments this month, though the list of existing conflicts and related concerns is still plenty long.. We will continue to monitor and report on allegations that Trump, or his family and close associates, are seeking to profit from the presidency.

As we are always careful to note, while we try to sift through the media reports to include only those allegations that appear credible, we acknowledge that many of the allegations discussed are speculative and/or contested. We also do not attempt a full analysis of the laws and regulations that may or may not have been broken if the allegations are true. For an overview of some of the relevant federal laws and regulations that might apply to some of the alleged problematic conduct, see here.

Upcoming Conference on “Populist Plutocrats: Lessons from Around the World” (Sept. 23, Harvard Law School)

On Saturday, September 23rd, Harvard Law School, in collaboration with the University of Chicago’s Stigler Center, will host a one-day conference entitled “Populist Plutocrats: Lessons from Around the World.” The conference will focus on an important and dangerous phenomenon: political leaders who successfully exploit anti-elite sentiment in order to achieve power, but who, once in office, seem primarily interested in enriching themselves, along with a relatively small circle of family members and cronies. Many Americans might find that this description accurately captures President Trump, who campaigned as a populist, but who is governing as more as a “crony capitalist” plutocrat—or, some would allege, as a quasi-kleptocrat.

Americans seeking to understand the challenges our country is now facing might do well to look abroad. After all, while Trump’s leveraging of the power of the presidency for personal enrichment—enabled by anti-elite sentiment among his supporters—may well be unprecedented in modern U.S. history, it is not, alas, unprecedented in the modern world. Indeed, while every country’s experience is different, and we must always be careful not to overstate the parallels, many other democracies have had leaders who could be described as populist plutocrats, or even populist kleptocrats, in something like the Trump mold. While such resemblances have occasionally been noted (see, for example, here, here, here, and here), but there has not yet been much of a sustained attempt to understand populist plutocracy/kleptocracy and closely related phenomena in comparative perspective. The September 23 conference will seek to initiate more sustained exploration of these issues, and will also provide an opportunity for experts from other parts of the world–who have more experience with political leaders who combine populist rhetoric with self-interested profiteering and cronyism–to offer a distinct perspective on the challenges the United States is currently facing.

The conference will feature the following panels: Continue reading

Tracking Corruption and Conflicts of Interest in the Trump Administration–September 2017 Update

Last May, we launched our project to track credible allegations that President Trump, as well as his family members and close associates, are seeking to use the presidency to advance their personal financial interests.Just as President Trump’s son Eric will be providing President Trump with “quarterly” updates on the Trump Organization’s business affairs, we will do our best to provide readers with regular updates on credible allegations of presidential profiteering. Our September update is now available here.

Although there was much in the news this past month about troubling reports that Donald Trump’s business organization was pursuing plans to develop a Moscow hotel while he was running for president (which we don’t include in our tracker because it seems to pertain exclusively to pre-election activity), there were relatively few new developments this month. We will continue to monitor and report on allegations that Trump, or his family and close associates, are seeking to profit from the presidency.

As we are always careful to note, while we try to sift through the media reports to include only those allegations that appear credible, we acknowledge that many of the allegations discussed are speculative and/or contested. We also do not attempt a full analysis of the laws and regulations that may or may not have been broken if the allegations are true. For an overview of some of the relevant federal laws and regulations that might apply to some of the alleged problematic conduct, see here.

How Corrupt Institutions Corrupt Decent People

One of the great challenges in combating corruption—particularly systemic corruption that permeates an entire organization or institution—is figuring out how and why ordinary, well-meaning people would get caught up in activities that are blatantly unethical and usually unlawful. Yes, there are some greedy sociopaths out there, but most people at least like to think of themselves as good people. And yes, sometimes the sociopaths wield so much power that they can coerce collaboration or obedience—but in most cases, systemic corruption occurs only because a large number of people who think of themselves as basically decent end up doing (or at least tolerating and implicitly enabling) grotesquely unethical conduct.

We’ve had a few posts on this topic before (see, for example, here and here), and there’s a substantial and ever-growing body of academic literature, in fields like psychology and organizational sociology, which investigates this question. I’m still working through that literature and perhaps in a future post I’ll have something to say about the research findings. But today, I just wanted to share some insights on the question that originated in commentaries on a different topic: posts by Professor David Luban and by my colleague Professor Jack Goldsmith on the question of whether people of decency and integrity should be willing to serve in the Trump Administration. (Professor Luban’s published immediately after the election, Professor Goldsmith’s published in the wake of Trump’s abrupt firing of FBI Director James Comey last May.) Professors Luban’s and Goldsmith’s pieces are not about corruption, but rather about broader issues related to the challenges of serving a President who might push a policy agenda that many prospective appointees, though politically conservative, find abhorrent. Nonetheless, in reading these two pieces, I was struck by how much their analysis could apply, with only slight modifications, to how well-meaning individuals who join a corrupt organization (whether in the public or private sector) can end up compromising their integrity.

Below I’ll simply quote the relevant passages, with only minor edits to make their observations applicable to corruption (in a public or private organization), rather than creeping authoritarianism or a radical policy agenda: Continue reading

Tracking Corruption and Conflicts of Interest in the Trump Administration–August 2017 Update

This past May, we launched our project to track credible allegations that President Trump, as well as his family members and close associates, are seeking to use the presidency to advance their personal financial interests.Just as President Trump’s son Eric will be providing President Trump with “quarterly” updates on the Trump Organization’s business affairs, we will do our best to provide readers with regular updates on credible allegations of presidential profiteering. Our August update is now available here.

Despite all the drama and turbulence surrounding the Administration over the past month, there is relatively little new material in this month’s update. Perhaps the most notable new reports concern the President’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner. Over the past month, new reports surfaced concerning companies connected with Kushner’s family business attempting to leverage his name and position to secure Chinese investment in real estate development projects, despite previous apologies by Kushner Companies to cease such conduct; Kushner enterprises claimed no knowledge that associated promotion companies were doing this. Additionally, reports surfaced that Kushner tried and failed to secure an investment from a Qatari billionaire (and former Prime Minister) for Kushner Companies’ financially troubled property at 666 Park Avenue, and the Trump Administration’s subsequent support for the boycott of Qatar by several of its neighbors appears to have been driven by Kushner, fueling admittedly unproven speculation that the Administration’s foreign policy is being influenced by hostility born out of a failed business deal, and perhaps an interest in signaling to other foreign governments, or individuals closely associated with foreign governments, that failure to do business with Trump or Kushner companies on favorable terms will adversely affect relations with the U.S. government.

(Note: While we try to sift through the media reports to include only those allegations that appear credible, we acknowledge that many of the allegations discussed are speculative and/or contested. We also do not attempt a full analysis of the laws and regulations that may or may not have been broken if the allegations are true. For an overview of some of the relevant federal laws and regulations that might apply to some of the alleged problematic conduct, see here.)

Tracking Corruption and Conflicts of Interest in the Trump Administration–July 2017 Update

This past May, we launched our project to track credible allegations that President Trump, as well as his family members and close associates, are seeking to use the presidency to advance their personal financial interests.Just as President Trump’s son Eric will be providing President Trump with “quarterly” updates on the Trump Organization’s business affairs, we will do our best to provide readers with regular updates on credible allegations of presidential profiteering. Our July update is now available here. The most notable new highlight in the new material concerns two developments related to housing subsidies: First, while President Trump’s proposed budget proposed slashing funding for most housing assistance programs, it conspicuously exempts a program that provides payments directly to private landlords–a program from which Trump directly profits due to his ownership stake in a New York housing development that receives subsidies under the program. Second, President Trump appointed an event planner with close ties to his family (but no prior experience in housing policy) to a senior government position responsible for disbursing federal housing funds in New York and New Jersey, where the Trump Organization has substantial real estate holdings.

(Note: While we try to sift through the media reports to include only those allegations that appear credible, we acknowledge that many of the allegations discussed are speculative and/or contested. We also do not attempt a full analysis of the laws and regulations that may or may not have been broken if the allegations are true. For an overview of some of the relevant federal laws and regulations that might apply to some of the alleged problematic conduct, see here.)