The title of the post may be really obvious to many observers of daily political life in America, but it is still worthwhile to flesh out how the election of Trump ushers in an era of illiberal democracy (Zakaria 1997), where “alternative facts” (or lies in the words of reasonable people not caught up in Orwell’s 1984) rule.
In reference to conflict of interest among politicians, I distinguish between a Kantian politician (very idealized, very rare to find), a normal politician and a Trumpian politician. These three brands of politicians can be distinguished based on the ideal they hold, the public statements about themselves they make and their real actions.
We do have a record of Trump saying that “[t]he law’s totally on my side, the president can’t have a conflict of interest” (Arnsdorf, 11/26/2016). A conflict of interest would be if the president used his presidential office to enrich himself or his family. Trump’s claim may be considered a statement, but it appeared to me that he was equating the law with what is ideal. Here Trump was referring to his many businesses that he refused to put into a blind trust to ensure that he could not continue making deals and enriching himself while being president.
The fact that presidential enrichment can happen is shown by the fact that the Argentinians had been holding up a building permit for a Trump Tower in Buenos Aires until Trump was elected president after which it was approved. At that point, the government of Argentina realized that it was inopportune for Argentina to offend the president of the United States by refusing a building permit to his organization (Stahl 2016). Even if his children are running the business, the fact that he is working closely together with his family means that business interests will still remain front-and-center while Trump runs the federal administration. In addition, the fact that foreign dignitaries prefer to stay in a Trump hotel enriches the president, while the guests hope they can curry favor with the US administration. Trump can claim that they prefer to stay in a Trump hotel because they like the quality of the hotel, but the fact that so many dignitaries now choose the Trump hotel cannot be considered a coincidence, for if they liked the Trump hotels so much why would they not sign up to it before he was elected president? (Carroll 2017)
As far as his statements are concerned, he noted in his press conference that he could have taken advantage of a very profitable deal but did not take the deal, even though, as he said, he could have, because the law did not prescribe anything. Don’t forget that as president, he now has the political clout to demand laws to close the Trump loophole by tightening up legislation on presidential conflicts of interest, but out of self-interest he will not demand such legislation such that it can be presumed that, according to Trump, the current conflict-of-interest law is ideal and shall not be changed. In the press conference, Trump stated,
Over the weekend, I was offered $2 billion to do a deal in Dubai with a very, very, very amazing man, a great, great developer from the Middle East, Hussein Damack, a friend of mine, great guy. And I was offered $2 billion to do a deal in Dubai — a number of deals and I turned it down.
I didn’t have to turn it down, because as you know, I have a no-conflict situation because I’m president, which is — I didn’t know about that until about three months ago, but it’s a nice thing to have. But I don’t want to take advantage of something.
Source: New York Times (Jan. 11, 2017)
As far as action is concerned, it is evident that Trump is engaged in conflicts of interest. We now have enough information to fill a table of the three types of politicians and interpret it.
Table 1: Conflicts of interest and the three types of politicians
|Kantian||“Conflicts-of-interest are unacceptable.”||“I don’t engage in conflicts of interest.”||Does not engage in conflict of interest|
|Normal||“Conflicts-of-interest are unacceptable.”||“I don’t engage in conflicts of interest.”||Engages in conflict of interest|
|Trumpian||“President can’t have conflicts of interest.”||“But I don’t want to take advantage of something [i.e. conflicts of interest].”||Engages in conflict of interest|
The Kantian politician will consider refraining from conflicts of interest as most ideal, will say that in public statements and act accordingly. A normal politician will also find conflicts of interest unacceptable, will make public statements to that effect, but unlike the Kantian politician, the normal politician preaches water and drinks wine. His/her action is driven by conflicts of interest. The list of politicians falling in that framework are too numerous to list, which is why I had called that group the “normal” politician.
As I stated before, Trump’s ideal may not be to explicitly endorse the statement that “conflicts of interest are acceptable” but implicitly he endorses it, because he accepts the current legal framework in which the law does not prescribe that the president has to divest from all his businesses, even though that has been the historic tradition of previous presidents. His statement of not wanting to “take advantage of something” (i.e. conflict of interest) is equivalent to that of the other two politician types, which means that he says of himself that he does not engage in conflicts of interest. His actions (foreign dignitaries staying in Trump hotels; foreign countries approving Trump projects; accepting donations from foreign governments or organizations etc.) indicate that he is engaged in conflict of interest, just like most other politicians.
(NB: One may think of a fourth type of politician, who finds conflicts of interest acceptable on all counts, even for statements. Perhaps there are mafia bosses, who say that conflicts of interest are okay, and that would be as far away from Kantian ethics as possible, or one could say it lines up the most neatly because of the consistency. I have trouble to think of the implications of such a fourth type.)
To state it even more simply, I evaluate the ethics of the three types of politicians. The premise hereby is that conflicts of interest are unethical and no conflicts of interest is ethical:
Table 2: Ethics of the three types of politicians
|Trumpian||Not ethical||Ethical||Not ethical|
Only the statements makes all three politicians the same, which should tell us that we should automatically be wary about anything any politician tells us even if there are a few Kantians among them. The normal politician is what we have come to expect. Great political power translates into great economic power as well. More troublesome in our age is that with Trump rejecting the ideal of the ethical he is getting away with the worst of all lies: “A president is legally allowed to have conflicts of interest, but because I am such a nice guy, I won’t partake in it, but, of course, I will really be engaged in conflicts of interest when the camera is not watching.” With that line of reasoning he is building himself a higher defense wall than he deserves. A normal politician would only be in a position to maintain an ethical stance for the statements, but not on the ideal.
The implication for the public that has the greatest interest in the least amount of conflict of interest and corruption among high officials is that it should challenge the unethical ideals and actions with all might. But with what Trump had denounced as “fake news” it would be difficult to accomplish. Not that I agree with Trump’s Orwellian reversion of the truth, but I do think that journalists (especially on cable news) have treated politics as if it were a soap opera rather than about issues that affect the real lives of people. There are some alternative sources of news media that hold the leaders accountable even during our transition to an administration run by a pathological liar and narcissist, and who can’t wait to diminish any role and influence of the fourth estate.
Steve Adler, the editor in chief of the Reuters news agency, informed his staff that given the anti-press sentiment of the new US administration, reporters should treat the Trump administration as if it were an authoritarian government.
“Get out into the country and learn more about how people live, what they think, what helps and hurts them, and how the government and its actions appear to them, not to us.”
The letter encouraged reporters to “never be intimidated” by the administration.
Source: Raw Story 2017
In very Orwellian times, when what is right is wrong and what is wrong is right, it matters more than ever for journalists to stick to what is right and demand politicians to idealize, speak and act more Kantian.