David Brooks wrote last week that “[t]here is growing reason to believe that Donald Trump understands the thug mind a whole lot better than the people who attended our prestigious Foreign Service academies.” Brooks suggests that President Trump’s past business dealings may have given him “lizard wisdom,” which, one supposes, is naturally concomitant with what Kanye West calls “dragon energy.”
Trump’s decades of experience in urban real estate, as opposed to habitual risk aversion in the safe sectors inhabited by our supposed best and brightest, no doubt give him insight into the totalitarians who actually run the world. Brooks is right that “[t]he world is a lot more like the Atlantic City real estate market than the G.R.E.s.” But so is America.
If Brooks can admit that President Trump has lizard wisdom about thugs abroad, honest observers, in this moment of civil political war, ought also to acknowledge that the American people don’t need forgiveness for electing someone who understands the minds of the lizard people here at home.
Among Americans, the most widely shared fear is fear of the corruption of government officials. Since April 2015—well before the election was in full swing or Trump’s name was common in headlines—the fear of governmental corruption has been more keenly felt than fear of terrorist attacks, economic collapse, or the illness or death of a loved one—and by large margins, according to an annual survey conducted at Chapman University.
The ruling class and all those who pine to please it largely have been blind to this fear until recently; many are still surprised. Not only do they refuse to acknowledge its validity, often responding that corruption has always been with us; they explicitly denounce such reasonable fears as the effect of populist demagoguery and #FakeNews upon deplorable ignorance. Yet this rational fear—of them— is an unspoken cause of our present discontent, a key component of the fuel feeding the fires of populism throughout the American cultural landscape. This justifiable fear is what propelled President Trump to victory.
Corruption, Rightly Understood
A few years ago, returning to LA from a trip, I discussed the boom in downtown Los Angeles development with the Uber driver who picked me up from LAX. He was a naturalized American from Armenia. I had spent time analyzing the flow of money in Southern California cities, but he, an ex-electrical contractor, had lived in California longer than I. Gazing out the window at the cranes across the skyline I blurted out, “All that money, all that corruption!” to which he jovially rejoined, “Yes sir, but no corruption, no money!” And thus we cheerful pessimists laughed together at the turning of the world.
Much of the American public has an inchoate understanding of this phenomenon. Corruption has always been a part of democratic political life, and tolerated (albeit grudgingly) when perceived to benefit the people as a whole. In the classic words of Tammany Hall leader George Washington Plunkitt, “honest graft” is when a politician “looks after his own interests, the organization’s interests, and the city’s interests all at the same time,” as opposed to the “political looter,” who “goes in for himself alone without considerin’ his organization or his city” and “hogs it.” Although Plunkitt readily admitted he became wealthy by, for instance, buying up land where he knew government projects would soon be built, he bragged that he “got more big improvements for New York City than any other livin’ man.”
Those who actually build cities like New York and Los Angeles have to deal with the sorts of characters Brooks describes, and they spread their money around to the Plunkitts of the world. One of Trump the candidate’s strongest moments was when he candidly explained that he had given money to both sides because he was a businessman. The ruling class and their acolytes either disingenuously or naively gasped. Everybody else laughed or cheered. After all, the “shady” business world Brooks describes isn’t located in some secretive back alley. And it didn’t spontaneously arise on its own, nor does it maintain its own existence without the maintenance and nurture of those who rule. It’s simply how, in our largest cities, things get done. And whose fault, pray tell, is that?
The Higher Thuggery
Brooks says that “[t]o go to Trump parties in the 1980s was to be surrounded by C-list celebrities and shady business types voted Most Likely to be Arraigned in high school.” Maybe. But the kids Brooks and his set preferred, those voted “Most Likely to Be Successful” one supposes, haven’t lived in enough fear of being arraigned. It’s too easy, almost, to mention high profile A-list celebrities and celebrated business types from the elite who have proven to be little more than “thugs” themselves. Think of the “massive fraud” of Elizabeth Holmes, disgraced C.E.O of Theranos, never mind alleged serial rapist Harvey Weinstein and his circles of smiling friends.
One might object that, like Holmes, Weinstein is being held accountable. True–and with great fanfare, by the likes of the hotshot Attorney General of the State of New York, when he wasn’t enjoying beating up and choking out his own girlfriends. The most chilling part of the Eric Schneiderman abuse story is when ex-girlfriend Michelle Manning Barish said the recently resigned Schneiderman declared “I am the law,” noting “[i]f there is a sentence that sums him up, it’s that.” He’s not a one-off, of course: Eliott Spitzer felt free enough to run up quite a tab hiring prostitutes while he was New York’s Attorney General, even before he became Governor and was forced to resign.
One can claim these are mere anomalies, unrepresentative of “respectable” American elites. But the American public, which increasingly sees past the protective curation of legacy media companies, knows that, as our graduate school students say, “systemic” rot has long since set in. If the Attorney General of one of the most powerful states in the nation says he is the law, then the rule of law, which is meant to replace the arbitrary will of men, as the old saying goes, is effectively dead.
Brooks says that “[i]f not for the Trump and Cohen peer circle, white-collar prisons would be sitting empty.” Maybe. But Governor Cuomo knows a thing or two about the rough and tumble of New York real estate himself. In the 1980s, like several other developers with business before the state, Trump deemed it good business sense to hire the law firm that made young Andrew Cuomo an unnamed partner at the ripe old age of 27, while his father Mario governed New York. One partner of that firm famously went on to invest in a strip club with the Gambino crime family. Would Brooks say that now Governor Cuomo was part of Trump’s “peer circle” back then, or was Cuomo just gaining valuable insight himself into the secrets of the reptilian brain?
What of prison and the “peer circle” that runs the state of New York now?
As anyone who follows New York politics knows, the phrase “three men in a room” refers to the heart of state politics, when the Governor, the Senate Majority Leader, and the Speaker of the Assembly simply decide things together behind closed doors. Since 1994, four of the five previous New York Senate Majority Leaders have been indicted. Last week, Sheldon Silver, Speaker of the Assembly from 1994 until he was arrested in 2015, was found guilty of corruption charges for the second time. In March, Governor Cuomo’s longtime family enforcer was convicted of the same and every façade Cuomo and others erected, ostensibly to curtail corruption, has failed. We can leave aside New York City Mayor Bill De Blasio, who apparently has similar “peer circle” problems.
Even if their betters refuse to weave a media “narrative” thread together resembling the third world truth, the people of New York know their rulers are thuggish, especially when the “improvements” that “honest graft” used to bring about are few and far between. The people of Western New York, like many outside the major cities in our coastal states, deal daily with crumbling infrastructure, dwindling jobs, and increasing suicide and drug abuse. They live like the denizens of District 12, and are well aware that driving to the nearest urban center is like taking the train to the Capitol in the Hunger Games.
They know that if you don’t think like a lizard in states like these, our great Jurassic Parks, you best hide amidst the banana trees, which have been growing thick throughout our republic for some time.
And what of the federal government?
The thug mind, if placed in power, would use the apparatus of government itself to destroy its opponents. Who knows? A thug might, to use the parlance of our times, “weaponize” the IRS, the Departments of Justice and State, and maybe even the supposedly apolitical Federal Bureau of Investigations. An unhinged thug mind, even after leaving a job directing the CIA, might publicly rage and foam at the mouth, threatening presidents he doesn’t like. The thug mind, one supposes, would leave office and make hundreds of millions through a supposed non-profit, leveraging political office and policy. The thug mind, in Plunkitt’s words, would “hog it.”
But in America in 2018, such behavior by the national A-listers is not called thuggery: it’s called politics.
Perhaps, to borrow a phrase from Charles Kesler, the search for lizard people should, like the search for mountebanks, begin at home.