Two dominant themes prevail in the current presidential administration: corruption and incompetence. They work together well, one complimenting the other and advancing the steady slide toward a new age of American authoritarianism.
A corrupt administration needs incompetence (and of course acquiesce) in order to continue its corruption. You can’t have independent and effective watchdogs and get away indefinitely with systematic corruption. The authoritarian needs to assert power and perhaps the most effective way to do so is to purge career public servants and replace them with incompetents willing to follow orders no matter what.
At the same time an incompetent administration reinforces with citizens the idea that a strong, decisive leader, even a corrupt one, is required to make sense of the chaos all around. Donald Trump has mastered the corruption and incompetence approach to modern politics and his handy enablers in the Republican Party seem just fine with how he has warped and corroded public affairs.
The president used his inherent constitutional power this week in a nevertheless corrupt and unlawful way. Trump pardoned or commuted the sentences of 11 white collar criminals, a who’s who of grifters, crooks and low lifes, as the New York Times noted “who were convicted on charges involving fraud, corruption and lies.”
Leading the list of recipients of Trump favors to the criminal class was former Illinois Democratic governor Rod Blagojevich, a thuggish character who would not be out of place in the cast of a Scorsese film about the mob. It’s worth remembering what Blago, who was impeached and removed from office by his state’s legislature and then convicted of assorted crimes, did to get 14 years in prison. It’s a tidy list: racketeering, bribery, wire fraud, and attempted extortion. The former U.S. attorney who prosecuted the former governor called what Blagojevich did “a political corruption crime spree.”
Just for good measure Blago tried to extort an executive of a children’s hospital – a children’s hospital – “in in exchange for a Medicaid rate increase for pediatric specialists” and he shook down a racetrack owner in exchange for approving favorable legislation.
In a state known historically for its political corruption Blagojevich’s crimes were in a new class of rancid. Trump, however, called Blagojevich’s 14-year sentence – he served 8 years – a “tremendously powerful, ridiculous sentence, in my opinion.” And we know his judgment is, like his Ukraine phone call, “perfect.”
Never mind that the Illinois legislature, the U.S. Justice Department, a jury of his peers and a federal judge dealt in a systematic and through manner with Blagojevich’s crimes, and the same can be said for the other reprobates Trump lavished with his favors. Corruption in the time of Trump comes in many forms, not least in the doing of favors for the well-placed and wealthy. It’s additionally been widely noted that the crimes the president is excusing, and effectively sanctioning, are much the same as what he will likely face once out of office.
Which brings us back to the incompetent and the central role an Idahoan is playing in helping Trump carry out additional degradation of the federal government.
Senator Mike Crapo presided over a lengthy confirmation hearing recently for a Trump nominee to the board of the Federal Reserve. To watch the hearing, as I did, was to witness an eyewatering display of Trump sycophancy, even by Crapo standards.
The nominee being considered by the Crapo-chaired Banking Committee is Judy Shelton, an economic theorist, one-time champion of a return to the gold standard and Trump acolyte, who is so far out of the economic mainstream that several of Crapo’s Republican colleagues bombarded her with critical questions. Shelton squirmed and prevaricated under the interrogation of Alabama Republican Richard Shelby who pressed her about past statements and positions that she has now dramatically jettisoned.
Shelton’s economic views have flopped around like the gyrations of a junk bond. She was critical of low interest rates during the Obama Administration. Now she’s for them. She was once part of an advocacy group favoring the gold standard and wrote extensively about it. Now she says never mind. Shelton has said she had no particular regard for the historic political independence of the Fed, clearly a qualification for a president would regularly bullies the central bank’s chairman. Under questioning she twisted unconvincingly away from many past positions. If you have a checking account you might wonder why the Federal Reserve would have a director who opposes federal deposit insurance, a fixture of American financial life since the Great Depression. Shelton has advocated that position, too.
Asked to rate Shelton’s performance before Crapo’s committee, Shelby, the committee’s chair before Crapo, said dismissively: “She performed.” Shelby then added, “I have a lot of concerns, especially even after the hearing. I’m thinking about it, talking to some of my colleagues.”
Republicans Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania John Kennedy of Louisiana, normally down-the-line Trump supporters, made similar comments. Crapo did not. He was too busy carrying Trump water to stir himself in the face of such economic incompetence and intellectual dishonesty.
Trump wants, of course, a Federal Reserve composed of mindless flunkies who place their loyalty to him above all else, even if that means repudiating every position they’ve ever held. For his part, Crapo praised Shelton as “very solid” and echoed Trump in complaining about an “orchestrated, calculated effort” to defeat her nomination.
One voice questioning Shelton’s intellectual honesty is the conservative writer Ramesh Ponnuru, the senior editor of National Review, not exactly a squishy liberal. The criticism that Crapo chalks up to a hit job is more correctly, as Ponnuru wrote recently, a legitimate concern that Shelton “is unlikely to exercise the steady and independent judgment that one would like to see from a central bank. They are, however, criticisms that can be defeated if she has a solid explanation for how her views have changed.” One doubts even Crapo can explain why Shelton’s views have so obviously changed.
As is often the case the simplest answer is the correct one. Shelton wanted to be nominated and she bent her views to please a president who cares not a whit about competence.
(Since this column was submitted for publication Trump named another incompetent loyalist, Richard Grenell, as Director of National Intelligence. Grenell, before becoming a divisive ambassador to Germany, was a frequent Fox News talking head. He was designated “acting director,” which allows the president – and fellow Republicans – to avoid Senate confirmation, a battle that would fully expose the fact that Grenell has zero experience related to the sensitive and critical job he now holds. More proof of Trump’s demands for loyalty over competence._
As the Senate decides what to do with Shelton’s appointment, Crapo may yet show some rare independence and join the chorus of critics who don’t want to see the Federal Reserve become just one more incompetent branch of the Trump White House, a neutered, subservient vehicle to carry out the president’s economic whims.
But don’t count on it.
As conservative columnist Michael Gerson recently noted, “A nation in need of Republican leaders has found flunkies instead.” And the flunkies have bequeathed us the now central tenants of Republican government: corruption and incompetence, the hallmarks of an authoritarian administration.