The Age of Trump could usher in troubling trends and practices we used to only associate with foreign kleptocracies.

That’s the core message of this perceptive blog post by Professor Bonnie Palifka, a corruption expert at a leading Mexican university. The problems start with the Trump Administration’s “possible conflicts of interest, nepotism, insider trading, and other types of grand corruption,” which could trigger a ripple effect of other harms. Drawing on both international research and her knowledge of Mexico (but one of many countries where high-level corruption is pervasive), Palifka warns us of what we might expect from a White House that houses a cornucopia of conflicts of interest.

Palifka’s entire post is well worth reading, but here are a few of her more noteworthy nuggets:

Over time…malfeasance at the top may spread downward: instead of “trickle-down economics” there will be “trickle-down corruption.” Several studies have shown that those lower down in a hierarchy look to those at the top to set ethical standards…For example, the aggrandizement of tax evasion or avoidance (“That makes me smart.”) may lead others to imitate the practice…As a result of both diversion or mis-allocation of government resources by venal political officials, and lower tax collection caused by increased evasion/avoidance, the government will be squeezed on new projects, especially if any attempt is made to keep budget deficits under control.

 

Thus, as time passes, the corruption will start to affect government spending…Those projects that can generate kickbacks or social capital for those in charge will be favored over transfer programs designed to benefit individuals. Thus, we can expect funding for health, education, poverty, old age, and disability to suffer. Watch for the funding for major construction projects (think Boston’s “Big Dig”) but not for basic maintenance…

 

Perhaps the biggest danger is that practices that are currently considered corrupt may be legalized…

 

The Trump Administration may also seek legal changes that protect Trump himself, as well as his businesses. We’ve certainly seen this in other settings. For example, when Silvio Berlusconi was Prime Minister of Italy, he oversaw modifications of the legal code that reduced the statute of limitations on corrupt acts, reduced sentences for those over the age of 65, and granted prosecutorial immunity to the highest members of government…

Now, cronyism and legalized corruption are not exactly new phenomena in America. (Nor will they be the only forces driving reductions in social services – hard-right ideology is part of that picture.) But the remarkably scandal-free Obama Administration showed that we can keep some such problems under control. And our relatively good Transparency International ratings demonstrate that we have not sunk nearly as low as many other nations.

So, if you think our systems is already tainted, you ain’t seen nothin’ yet.

But just wait. Legalized corruption and shady deals exceeding anything we’ve known could well flourish here under Trump. Quite the irony, then: Even as our new president threatens to slap new tariffs on products from Mexico, China and elsewhere, kleptocracy is an import he seems eager to embrace.

 

Based in Oakland, California, Stephen Golub writes, consults and teaches about international development, with a particular focus on justice, democracy, human rights and governance issues. Currently teaching part-time at Central European University in Budapest and previously at the University of California at Berkeley, he has worked in over 40 countries and with such organizations as Amnesty International, the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, the Ford and Open Society Foundations, the U.K. Department for International Development, the U.N. Development Program and the World Bank

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