With those claiming the “spoils” of Donald Trump’s “surprise” victory battling amongst each other for supremacy in formulating policy, there seems to be some “confusion” about the exact direction a Trump administration will go. This isn’t helped by the fact that Trump—apparently caught in the vice of his extreme campaign rhetoric and those who expect him to actually carry out his “promises”—is picking advisors and cabinet members who do not necessarily have the good of the country in mind. Trump may be an “outsider” not beholden to any interest group, but he is also a political novice in an office where his underlings can wield more power than he can control, and with it the prospect of corruption, lawbreaking and unethical and immoral activities.
We certainly saw this during the Reagan administration. Reagan put forward a conservative agenda, first made clear by his firing of striking air traffic controllers. But he was already losing control of his underlings, in part due to his gradual downward spiral into Alzheimer’s disease, which clearly became evident long before it was admitted to in 1994. Reagan’s “lucidity” was questioned even during his presidency, to the point where there were doubts he could put together a coherent sentence without a teleprompter before the 1984 presidential debates with Walter Mondale. Some people credit his subsequent landslide victory to the fact that he got through the first debate without appearing to be a bumbling, incoherent fool. Whether or not he actually based his decisions on astrology charts won't be addressed here.
Reagan’s “supply-side economics” is what crippled this country’s economic structure, his tax “reform” is what permanently locked-in the trend toward ever increasing income gaps between the rich and everyone else, and his antipathy toward labor rights led to the continuing destruction of unions. But it was his failure to control what was going on behind his back was where actual criminal activity was going on. It might not necessarily have been a “crime” how Interior Secretary James Watt was raping the land with his pro-business policies, but what he allowed his subordinates to do was. An EPA administrator, Rita Lavelle, was convicted of perjury and steering “business” toward her previous employer before she actually “quit” that job; of course Dick Cheney faced the same allegations with Halliburton, and Trump will face the same questions, but back then people held their public officials to “higher” standards.
Lavelle claimed that she was a “scapegoat,” but 20 years later she was convicted of fraud for forging documents purporting to do hazardous waste cleanup that was not actually done. Her superior at the EPA, Anne Gorsuch Burford—besides the “crime” of deliberately gutting the EPA in the name of “efficiency”—was accused of pro-business conflict of interest and mismanaging the Superfund program before “voluntarily” resigning. The Justice Department engaged in an investigated the EPA, and although no charges were filed, many other in the department were forced to resign or were fired.
However, all that was “nothing” compared to the Iran-Contra affair, which was initiated with the full knowledge of Reagan, but who was persuaded to believe it was merely a “weapons for hostages” deal, an “illegality” he could take “like a man.” Despite warnings that there were no “moderate” factions in the Iranian government to deal with, the administration went ahead with the none-dare-call-it-treason actions of selling arms to an “enemy” and terrorism sponsor that continues to this day to refer to the U.S. as the “great Satan.” But this “deal” went far beyond its original parameters when National Security Advisor John Poindexter and his chief operator, Oliver North, decided to go “patriotic rogue” and sell directly to the Iranians, bypassing “third parties” like the Israelis, and at a huge mark-up in order to pass on the profits to the Nicaraguan Contras fighting the Sandinista government. This was in clear violation of the Boland Amendment, after Congress had determined that the Contras were less “freedom fighters” than a criminal gang. In essence, this was a “shadow government” operating outside any law. Although many were eventually convicted of criminal acts in the affair, no one ever served time in prison, and most were pardoned by Reagan’s successor.
Reagan was like many presidents whose administrations were riven with corruption. He had only loose control of the proceedings, setting a “tone,” but letting business-compromised underlings with “radical” agendas run wild. Another was Ulysses S. Grant, who was said to be personally honest, but had no experience in political or civil administration. He was generally a failure in civilian life, often taking to drink, and distrusted people who were better educated than himself. The Civil War changed all of that, and Grant became seen after the war as the Republicans best asset to retain the presidency following Andrew Johnson’s disastrous term, after Abraham Lincoln’s assassination. Being a political novice was not necessarily a detraction if competent, responsible people were put in positions of authority, such as the case with the Eisenhower administration. But Grant depended on friends, family members, supporters and personal assistants to run the country, often overlooking or ignoring the advice of the better qualified. There were a dozen major scandals that originated in his presidency, and others that originated before but continued unabated. Most of these scandals took advantage of an utter failure to regulate rapidly expanding industrial and financial sectors, allowing many unscrupulous operators to enrich themselves illegally.
The Warren G. Harding administration was equally—and probably more so—infamous for its corruption. Harding was “genial” and likeable, read all his speeches from notes, and promised a return to “normalcy” after World War I. But unlike the moralistic Woodrow Wilson, Harding was hardly a man to keep tight control over the ethical behavior of his subordinates, dependent on them to act without being overseen like “children.” Nothing seemed amiss, at least to the public, until 1923, when it was revealed that the director of the Veterans Bureau was illegally selling government supplies for personal profit. Although Charles Forbes escaped prosecution by leaving the country, two of his associates committed suicide in the face of allegations of impropriety; one of them, Jesse Smith, was part of something much bigger as a member of the “Ohio Gang,” which was involved in numerous illegalities, the most infamous being the Teapot Dome scandal, in which government-owned oil reserves were transferred to the Interior Department and subsequently sold for to private contractors for massive personal profit.
Although Harding himself was not implicated in any illegalities, he came to be seen as less an “ideal American” as before, but as someone who was completely ill-equipped to be president. Like the administrations of Grant and Reagan, Harding’s was proof that less government oversight does not mean less corruption—in fact, just more of it. This doesn’t mean that administrations that “promote” government regulation are necessarily less corrupt; the Nixon and Clinton administrations were rife with scandal and corruption, and that corruption began at the very tippy top of the pyramid. I have little doubt that a Hillary Clinton administration would have joined the ranks of the most corrupt in the nation’s history, knowing how little the person occupying the top position viewed any law or regulation that got in the way of her freedom to do whatever she damned well pleased, a view which tended to be shared by her close aids.
But Trump is president. While I think he is too much the political novice to engage in the type of corruption that the Clintons are familiar with, there is the very real possibility that the “team” of social and economic reactionary radicals that he is putting together have little regard for any “regulation” to their activities, and I doubt that Trump has the moral or ethical qualifications to demand proper behavior with any personal credibility. It was incumbent on Trump not to install far-right extremists in top positions, but those who are actually qualified for their positions. The Right, without justification, called the Obama administration “socialist” when there is little evidence of that. But Trump’s “team” shows all the "hallmarks" of an administration prepared to move the country back into a time where robber-barons ruled the land, and corruption was the “law” of the land.