A major divide exists in the United States between justice meted out to the poor and that which all too often eludes the rich and powerful. The result is an elite impunity, leading the wealthy toward contempt for the law and abetting the corrosion of American institutions.
As Vox’s Dylan Matthews wrote last year, “We don’t punish white-collar criminals in this country. Not really, and certainly not by comparison to how we punish poorer, less white people for less severe offenses.”
Case in point, the lone Wall Street executive to serve jail time for the 2008 financial crisis was former Credit Suisse CEO Kareem Serageldin.
Despite an extensive investigation “that could have unraveled the largest consumer fraud in American history” and “promised to involve nearly every major bank in the country,” just one individual was convicted after mortgage companies illegally forced millions of people from their homes following the crisis.
And how about the current President of the United States? Donald Trump has been “able to dodge any consequences for his routine collaborations with the Mafia, even though his relationship with (to give just one example among many) the mob-linked union official John Cody prompted the FBI to subpoena Trump.”
His real estate businesses engage in shady practices with corrupt officials the world over, “with the Trump International Hotel and Tower Baku in Azerbaijan and the Trump office towers in India looking particularly fishy,” Matthews noted.
And the apples did not fall far from the tree: Ivanka Trump and Donald Trump, Jr., two of the presidents children, came close to fraud charges of their own when it was discovered that their marketing of the Trump SoHo hotel and condo development in 2012 weren’t quite on the up and up.
Ivanka’s husband, Jared Kushner — now a senior White House adviser — faces lawsuits for “or his role as a slumlord in the Baltimore area and for overcharging rent from his New York City tenants; we know that his company falsified rent control paperwork in New York.”
These are examples of elite impunity in the private sector, but those in public service exemplify perhaps a more egregious impunity, Matthews wrote.
The ease with which President Trump and his senior campaign staff appear to have at the very least flirted with Russian collusion seemed shocking to many Americans, but it likely shouldn’t have — U.S. officials have been acting with impunity for decades, because they can.
In the summer of 1968, as biographer John A. Farrell has demonstrated, Republican nominee Richard Nixon and his aides actively sabotaged efforts by Lyndon Johnson’s administration to negotiate an end to the Vietnam War. They got away with it, prolonging a war that wound up killing more than a million people in the process. It’s barely even on the list of Nixonian wrongdoing that people remember. Henry Kissinger was at the time a Johnson adviser leaking information for Nixon to use in his efforts. Today he remains a broadly respected elder statesman, even in Democratic administrations.
Next came the Iran-Contra scandal, whereby the Reagan administration not only acted immorally but illegally as well.
Fourteen individuals were indicted and 11 convicted, but that was not the end of the story. Before he left office, President George H.W. Bush pardoned six of those people, and two more had their convictions tossed “due to a complication resulting from Congress giving them immunity to testify.”
The independent counsel appointed to investigate the scanda, Lawrence Walsh, later wrote: “What set Iran-Contra apart from previous political scandals was the fact that a cover-up engineered in the White House of one president and completed by his successor prevented the rule of law from being applied to the perpetrators of criminal activity of constitutional dimension.”
Many of the individuals involved went on to enjoy long careers in government, and some continue their good standing in Washington, Matthews noted.
In light of such history and with no major changes in the time since, is it any wonder that someone like Donald Trump would have zero qualms about looking into a television camera and asking Russia to find Hillary Clinton’s missing emails?
Or that his son, Donald Trump, Jr., would think meeting with Russians to secure political dirt on his father’s opponent would constitute a wrong?
When there are no consequences for wrongdoing, when money and power continuously prove enough to place individuals above the law, why should those in the corporate or political worlds believe they owe Americans any semblance of transparency or accountability regarding their actions?
Elite impunity rules the day.
Speaking of the Trumps, Matthews acknowledged that this particular president and family seem different. “They’re distinctly immoral, uniquely willing to fly in the face of decency and patriotic duty and basic morality to make money and gain power. They don’t need a culture of impunity to do horrible things,” he wrote.
Matthews agreed that this is who the Trumps are, but he also cautioned that while there will always be such people in the world, we only generate more so long as “we maintain a system that gives them total immunity from criminal or even professional consequences for their actions.”
His parting thoughts:
We’ve set up a system where the baseline assumption is that nothing short of, I don’t know, full-on in-person murder can disqualify an elite political or business figure from their posting. And that means that people like the Trumps will continue to believe that criminality and collusion are just fine. Unless we’re willing to break down that system, and interrogate the role that even Trump’s enemies have played in building it, we will get two, three, many Trumps in the future.