Many American administrations have featured acts of venal corruption, and Trump’s will likely feature more than most. The larger risk, however, is that Trump’s lack of grounding in ideological principles or party networks will create a systemically corrupt government. Such governments, Wallis writes, “are rent creating, not rent seeking, governments” that operate by “limiting access to markets and resources in order to create rents that bind the interests of the ruling coalition together.”
This is how Vladimir Putin governs Russia, and how the Mubarak/Sisi regime rules Egypt. To be a successful businessman in a systemically corrupt regime and to be a close supporter of the regime are one and the same thing.
Those who support the regime will receive favorable treatment from regulators, and those who oppose it will not. Because businesses do business with each other, the network becomes self-reinforcing. Regime-friendly banks receive a light regulatory touch while their rivals are crushed. In exchange, they offer friendly lending terms to regime-friendly businesses while choking capital to rivals. Such a system, once in place, is extremely difficult to dislodge precisely because, unlike a fascist or communist regime, it is glued together by no ideology beyond basic human greed, insecurity, and love of family.
All is not lost, but the situation is genuinely quite grave. As attention focuses on transition gossip and congressional machinations, it’s important not to let our eyes off the ball. It is entirely possible that eight years from now we’ll be looking at an entrenched kleptocracy preparing to install a chosen successor whose only real mission is to preserve the web of parasitical oligarchy that has replaced the federal government as we know it. One can, of course, always hope that the worst does not come to pass. But hope is not a plan. And while the impulse to “wait and see” what really happens is understandable, the cold, hard reality is that the most crucial decisions will be the early ones.
Trump’s first 100 days could also be the last 100 days in which America’s system of republican government can be saved.