Well before Donald Trump became the most corrupt president in American history — using the power and prestige of that office to enrich himself, his family and members of his inner circle — his businesses and “charities” have been the targets of dozens of civil and criminal investigations for fraud and other crimes.
In 2019, the Trump Foundation was found guilty of committing fraud by misallocating millions of dollars in donations meant for charity and was forced to shut down following an investigation by the New York attorney general.
Since Trump left office, his supposed “election defense fund” — in fact part of his Big Lie strategy and larger coup plot — has taken in at least $250 million dollars from Trump’s cultists and followers, directing much of that money to his allies and business partners.
Trump’s financial corruption and sociopathic greed are not separate from him and his movement’s fascist assault on American democracy. In reality, they are central elements, but the mainstream news media have largely treated stories of Trump’s financial misdeeds as unconnected to the rising neofascist threat.
That’s a crucial misunderstanding: Fascists and other demagogues view public office as a way of enriching themselves. In this logic, the state is an extension of the leader; kleptocracy and criminogenic politics are defining features of fascism in its various forms.
To defeat American neofascism and Trumpism will require confronting deeper systemic and institutional failures involving corruption, a profoundly unequal legal system and other betrayals of the common good, democracy and the rule of law. If we don’t do that, it almost will not matter if Trump himself is prosecuted and barred from office. The roots of American neofascism will be left intact and ready to produce many more would-be tyrants, perhaps worse than Donald Trump.
Noah Bookbinder is the president of CREW (Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington), one of the country’s leading pro-democracy and accountability advocacy organizations. It specifically “targets government officials who sacrifice the common good to special interests and personal gain.” Bookbinder previously served as director of the Office of Legislative and Public Affairs at the U.S. Sentencing Commission, and was chief counsel for criminal justice for the Senate Judiciary Committee and a trial attorney in the Department of Justice’s Public Integrity Section.
In this conversation, Bookbinder reflects on America’s democracy crisis and why so many members of the political class, as well as everyday Americans, remain in such denial. He warns that Trump and the Republicans, along with other illiberal forces, are eroding American democracy in both highly visible and far more subtle ways, and that the American people may lose their freedom without quite realizing it.
Bookbinder notes that many of America’s leading corporations pledged to defend democracy in the immediate aftermath of the Jan. 6 insurrection, but have since betrayed that promise by financially supporting Republicans who believe in the Big Lie and at least implicitly endorse Trump’s coup attempt.
Bookbinder argues — as he did in a recent op-ed for Salon — that Attorney General Merrick Garland must prosecute Donald Trump and his inner circle for their obvious crimes, because not doing so would clearly encourage a coup in the near future.
With everything that is happening with the country’s democracy crisis, other serious problems and the day-to-day of politics and life, how are you making sense of it all?
There’s a lot to be alarmed about. I really do worry about whether we are going to be living in a democracy in the next few years. I am also worried about whether we are going to be facing significant political violence here in the United States in the next few years. Global climate change is terrifying, and we are still grappling with the coronavirus pandemic. But I do think there are some causes for optimism in terms of our democracy and the efforts we are seeing to hold the powerful accountable for their misdeeds.
You have been sounding the alarm for some time about these threats to democracy. Why were so many others in such denial about the reality of the situation? What did you see that too many Americans chose to ignore?
It is not hidden. These attacks on our democracy are happening in plain sight. There are hundreds of candidates around the country running for Congress, for statewide offices and for offices that oversee elections who are maintaining the position that the 2020 election was stolen despite incontrovertible evidence that President Biden won. The claim that the last presidential election was invalid and that efforts need to be made to “secure” future elections — which really means rigging the outcome so that Donald Trump or his allies always win — is being made out loud.
If Trump and his allies don’t win, they simply want to be able to throw the results out. The evidence is voluminous that Donald Trump tried to overturn a presidential election to cancel out the results of millions and millions of votes. As part of that, Trump attempted to use the Department of Justice and the powers of the federal government to make that happen. Ultimately, when those efforts looked like they were not going to be successful, Trump incited a violent attack on the Capitol as part of his effort to stop the peaceful transfer of power. Trump continues to send public signals that he will do the same things again and commit obvious crimes against democracy.
Throughout Donald Trump’s entire four-year presidency, we saw him repeatedly abusing the powers of government for his personal financial gain and his political advancement to try to keep himself in power. Much of this was illegal, never mind an attack on our democratic institutions. And through all that you had a major political party standing by Trump and defending him.
The Republican Party is now all in with Trump and these attacks on our democracy. These attacks on our democracy are also taking place on the state and local level, where supporters of Donald Trump are putting into place laws and other policies that make it easier to nullify the results of elections if they don’t like the outcome.
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Why are more Americans not sounding the alarm like I am? People have a lot on their collective plate. We just experienced a pandemic, people are struggling financially, there is extreme weather and disasters. It takes a great deal of effort to be engaged and active in the fight for American democracy and even to stay current with the news, given all that is happening every day. Some people just have a hard time finding the bandwidth.
Many Americans will not see much change in their day-to-day lives when Trumpism or some other form of neofascism takes over. It will not be like in a movie, with tanks and soldiers marching in the street. America will likely be ruled by a system of fake democracy, the type of “competitive authoritarianism” we see in countries like Hungary and Russia.
It is indeed possible that we may see right-wing political violence all over the country. But it is also very possible that no such thing happens. We could have a scenario where our democratic rights just drift away, diminished in small ways that many people barely even notice. That is something that we need to work hard to ensure does not happen.
Did Donald Trump and his movement give the Republican Party permission to be its true self? Or did Trump somehow “conquer” the Republican Party and the conservative movement?
In my opinion, it is both. There has been a movement on the right to move away from an inclusive and democratic society where the public has real power and to replace that with tyranny of the minority, where a small number of Republican voters — predominantly white voters — are in control. That’s not new. Donald Trump just capitalized on what was there in that regard. Donald Trump is not an ideologue. Trump is first and foremost an opportunist. The right wing saw Trump as a demagogue they could use to gain more power.
Before Donald Trump was taking bold steps to attack democracy, he was using the government to enrich himself. He was doing that even before he was president. His anti-democratic attacks and his corruption are entirely intertwined.
I also believe that many people on the right would say they don’t subscribe to the specific anti-democratic beliefs that Donald Trump has espoused and has put into practice. But many of these same people go along with these attacks on democracy and with Trumpism because it has been politically and economically to their advantage. There are those on the right who have been willing to look the other way or even quietly support Trump and his anti-democracy attacks, even if they would not have done the same things themselves.
How did that story of corruption and criminality and lawbreaking come together, on Jan. 6 and beyond? As CREW has extensively documented, the corruption story is not somehow separate from Trump’s attack on American democracy.
Before Donald Trump was taking bold steps to attack democracy, he was using the government to enrich himself. He was doing that even before he was president. His anti-democratic attacks and his corruption are entirely intertwined. What happens with corruption, and particularly with the kind of pervasive corruption you saw with Donald Trump, is that on a daily basis he used the federal government and the Republican Party and political campaigns to bring money to him through his businesses. This sends the message that if you want to influence Trump, you achieve that by patronizing his businesses.
For Trump and his inner circle, the message is clear: The purpose of government is not to serve the interests of the American people, but to serve Trump’s personal, financial and other interests. When government becomes about promoting the interests of the person in charge, it’s a very small step to go from corruption to authoritarianism. By this logic, if the government exists to serve the personal interests of the leader, then the purpose of the government in turn is to keep that person in power. Period. For authoritarians and other demagogues, the ultimate purpose of government and of public office and power is to attack their enemies and help their friends. We saw all these things with Donald Trump and his administration.
After Jan. 6, many companies pledged to support democracy and not to support Republicans in Congress who backed the coup and the Big Lie. What has happened since then?
In the aftermath of that day, about 250 corporations made a public commitment to preserving the country’s democracy. These corporations claimed they would not support members of Congress who voted against certifying the 2020 election or otherwise undermined the peaceful transfer of power and free and fair elections. Within weeks, some of those same companies started to quietly reverse course. In the spring of 2021, CREW started tracking corporate donations to the 147 members of Congress who voted against certifying the 2020 election. Of those 250 companies, about two-thirds of them have now gone back on their word and started supporting some of those members of Congress.
If the government exists to serve the personal interests of the leader, then the purpose of the government in turn is to keep that person in power. Period.
There are other companies that never pledged to support democracy, hundreds of them, that have donated money to those members of Congress. They have also made campaign donations to candidates for secretary of state and attorney general in various states who also undermined the 2020 election. It is alarming, because these companies are putting their short-term financial interests ahead of the continued viability of our democracy. There’s a flip side to that. Approximately 70 out of those original 250 companies have not changed course: They are not donating to the “sedition caucus.” This includes such companies as Microsoft, Pepsi and Target.
Donald Trump and this crisis of democracy are a function of a broken political system, one full of dirty money, self-dealing and conflicts of interest that is viewed, for good reason, as illegitimate and not responsive to the needs and concerns of the average citizen. We cannot defeat Trumpism without fixing the broken political system, can we?
America’s campaign finance system is broken. Not only is there a virtually unlimited amount of money being spent on campaigns, but the vast majority of it comes from very wealthy individuals and corporations, and an increasing amount of that money is secret. Not only are a relatively small number of people pouring vast sums of money into determining what campaign commercials we see and how campaigns work, but a lot of the time we don’t even know who they are.
Our political system is also one where there’s too much influence on people in government — whether in federal agencies, the administration or Congress — from industries, through lobbyists or direct relationships, or through a revolving door where people go back and forth between government and private industry. Even basic, blatant corruption is not being dealt with. Over the last three decades the Supreme Court has tremendously weakened America’s anti-corruption laws.
The result is that the public looks at a system which is corrupt and not working properly, and then they start looking for alternatives, such as “populists” who will shake things up. That’s one of the reasons someone like Donald Trump was able to become president. The dark irony is that someone like Trump or another autocrat is actually going to be more corrupt and make the government even more unresponsive and illegitimate. It is a vicious feedback loop.
Why is Donald Trump not in jail?
Trump has been a master throughout his life of avoiding consequences and accountability. He has been able to do that because he has lots of money and uses the law in an aggressive way to stop anyone from trying to hold him accountable. Add to that the reality that it is a difficult thing to prosecute a former president. Such a thing should never be done lightly. You certainly don’t want to be a country where one candidate wins and then goes after his or her predecessor. Somebody like Merrick Garland, coming in and trying to restore credibility to a Justice Department that had been badly politicized, is going to be reluctant to investigate a former president. Garland is going to be very careful to not make the Justice Department appear political and therefore illegitimate.
The other challenge is that Trump is a potential defendant who is popular with a lot of the country. This means the Department of Justice and other law enforcement will have to have a very strong case. But at the end of the day, I think it is more important for a democracy to hold accountable leaders who are corrupt and who break the law, than it is to avoid looking political by not going after those folks.
The public looks at a system which is corrupt and not working properly, and starts looking for alternatives. The dark irony is that an autocrat like Trump is actually going to be more corrupt and make the government even more unresponsive and illegitimate.
CREW has been making the case that when you have such strong evidence of crimes, and when those crimes go to the very heart of the viability of democracy going forward, it becomes a political act to do nothing about them. Yes, accountability for Donald Trump has been painfully slow. But the American people should not lose hope. I believe we have turned a corner where it looks like the DOJ will prosecute him. It also looks reasonably likely that the district attorney in Fulton County, Georgia, will also prosecute Trump and other high-ranking people who committed crimes connected to trying to steal the 2020 election.
What happens to American democracy and society if Donald Trump is not held accountable? Or if he is put on trial and somehow escapes justice?
It’s a major question. Do you try to prosecute Donald Trump, given that it might be worse if he’s prosecuted and then acquitted? I think that can never be the deciding factor. If the evidence is there, and it’s an offense for which there should be accountability, you have to move forward.
The reality of the situation is that if the Department of Justice does not prosecute Trump, he will claim victory and announce that he was exonerated. That will be as bad as an acquittal, because Trump will say it means the same thing. There will be no deterrence going forward. If nobody’s willing to charge Trump for his alleged crimes because they’re afraid of losing, such an outcome will give complete impunity not just to Trump but to future aspiring demagogues and other enemies of democracy.
It would not be great for American democracy if Trump is tried and acquitted. But I believe these potential cases against Donald Trump are strong enough that they could be successful.
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