Among the many distressing aspects of the presidential impeachment now underway is the perception that extorting a foreign leader to investigate the President’s rivals is unsavory but not important enough to merit impeachment. The President’s defenders are pushing this specious line unrelentingly presumably because they think a lot of people will accept it.
This totally outrages me, but paradoxically, our era of far less crime—and far less crime committed by public officials—may have led people to think extorting a political favor, unsuccessfully at that, is a minor thing.
From clean to dirty
I grew up in Seattle where the politics had been relatively corruption-free for a long time. In 1977 I arrived in New York City to get my Masters in Architecture at Columbia University as the city was hitting bottom. Government was corrupt and regarded as largely irredeemable. Cops were on the take; political influence was available for purchase. Contractors and architects paid kickbacks to politicians to secure plum jobs.
As a young architect I began to see the price of official corruption. I hadn’t understood it at first. It was a time when the city was struggling to avoid bankruptcy, abandoned buildings were ubiquitous, and landlords burned buildings to collect the insurance.
City of quid pro quos
Then I saw public buildings—ones I hoped one day to design—where construction was abandoned because criminal payoffs depleted the budget. The amateurish concrete pours I would see on every building site turned out to be due to Mob control of the concrete industry, which set prices and didn’t care about quality. If you wanted a building permit you had to hire an “expeditor,” whose advertised task was expertise in moving documents faster through the process. Their real job was to deliver cash to a code official in return for quick approval.
When the Latin phrase quid pro quo comes up, this is what they are talking about. If you didn’t play the expeditor game your plans would languish for months or mysteriously disappear.
Endemic crime and corruption were important reasons many people who loved New York City gave up on it at that time. It lost more than 800,000 people in the 1980s. But Donald Trump stayed and prospered in that climate, as his father had in earlier years.
The consequences of the tolerance of corruption became everywhere visible, from dilapidated libraries to potholed streets, selective law enforcement to city agencies impervious to citizen complaints.
This kind of thing rarely happened in Seattle and people who came from places where corruption was a daily experience were amazed. It’s how Seattle gained a lot of newcomers at that time, and those newcomers bonded with the place and made their commitments and investments in Seattle’s growth not New York’s.
No one today would call New York City and State corruption-free, but the difference between now and then is like night and day. It took a long time and sustained effort. People who had had their wrists slapped got thrown in jail. Machine politics faded allowing fed-up New Yorkers the power to vote-out crooked politicians. Government became more transparent and the vetting of people seeking public work more systematic. Kickbacks were prosecuted. Contributions to political campaigns were limited and (generally) public.
The city now enjoys extraordinarily low levels of crime and government malfeasance. The streets are safe and whistleblowers are more often listened to, their accusations acted upon.
We have to understand what will happen if the President is permitted to extort another head of state to secure his re-election. (Neither the President nor his defenders are disputing the facts of the extortion, by the way. They are just saying the facts don’t matter. They matter so little that the President need not even agree his behavior was wrong nor that Americans even deserve an apology.)
What form of government corruption will then be impermissable?
We’re already seeing rampant conflicts of interest which will inevitably lead to more quid pro quos, if not outright bribery and extortion. We’re already seeing pay-to-play (extortion tidied up in the form of jobs in the administration awarded on the basis of campaign contributions—a favored technique in New York and New Jersey).
None of the numerous authoritarians causing so much trouble in the world will feel constrained by an America that permits extortion. (They call it bribery in the impeachment proceedings because that word is in the Constitution, but the difference is largely semantic.) Even the President cloaks his actions in a professed interest in fighting corruption in Ukraine—while engaging in corruption. Ukranians, experienced in the ways of crooks, knew a con when they saw it.
How can you prosecute lower-level officials for conduct the President is somehow above? If one kind of corruption is OK, it’a all OK. That’s why we’re having an impeachment. That’s why Republicans need to grow a conscience and convict.