On Monday, the first in what are likely to be a series of indictments naming Trump cronies came down, sweeping up Paul Manafort and his former business partner, Richard Gates. The 31-page document reads like a laundry list of corruption, greed, and profiteering, and it shook the nation — one that’s already been struggling with an extremely turbulent political establishment for the last year, ever since the election of Donald Trump.
For me, there was an odd familiarity and comfort in this moment, a deep throwback to my childhood in Greece, where corruption and naked greed were simply a way of life; what was remarkable was that every now and then, officials known for being transparently mired in graft would get caught at it, and there would be a brief kerfuffle in the newspapers until it faded into the background to make way for the next scandal. That government was hopelessly corrupt, with most politicians serving multiple masters and pocketing the proceeds all the while, was an accepted fact. There were no honest politicians because everyone understood that they didn’t exist, that the phrase ‘honest politician’ was a contradiction in terms.
It was well understood that on the local level, regulations and procedures were more vague and polite suggestions of guidance that could be easily overlooked with a fistful of drachmae in hand. It was in fact much faster to cut to the chase and pull out your purse when trying to accomplish something related to local government, something that perplexed the other foreigners, who looked on aghast when we coolly handed out money to buy our way through whatever bureaucratic nightmare was presenting itself — the shipment stuck for weeks in customs, or the argument over a construction permit.
On our return to the US, I learned that this wasn’t how things were done, and I, like many in the collective of the white US, bought into the myth of American exceptionalism, which is pervasive, and wound through many aspects of life. I took it for granted that government here was fundamentally more organised, that checks and balances were respected, that we didn’t live in a nation rife with corrupt officials and snarled relationships between oligarchs and lawmakers. Oh, sure, money plays a huge role in US politics, and certainly, lobbyists should be viewed with suspicion, but I swallowed the belief that there was a line that wouldn’t be crossed.
I can’t tell you why I bought in so thoroughly — perhaps there was a part of me that craved a restoration of order and a sense that there were policies and procedures and right ways of doing things. Certainly a cursory look at local, state, and federal government would suggest otherwise, but even as someone who was politically engaged, I maintained the attitude that there were lines, and things that Were Not Done.
With the rise of Trump, this notion has been disrupted. At least once a day, I see someone commenting on Twitter that now they understand those countries they used to make fun of, and that someone is almost always white, from a deeply white community in the US. Race here is important because US attitudes about corrupt governments are heavily informed by racial attitudes; look to US pop culture, for example, where the comically corrupt and ridiculously inept nation is usually a fictionalised version of an African or South American country, or where a not-so-fictional version of a real-world nation is turned into a cartoonish exaggeration.
When people in the US take in pop culture, the lesson that corruption, greed, graft, ineptitude, and chaos in government is only something that ‘those people’ over there experience — you know, the ones with black and brown skin — is everywhere. It’s so easy to internalise this that if you ask someone in the US to conjure up a dictator, they’ll give you a dark-skinned man with dark, greasy hair, dripping with gold chains, dressed in a parody of a military uniform, sitting on stacks of drug money and surrounded by cronies and a slim, surgically-enhanced wife draped in furs and jewels. Because this is what pop culture has taught them a ‘dictator’ looks like. American exceptionalism isn’t just about a misplaced sense of national superiority — the USA is number one! — but also racial superiority. This is a (white) orderly country where people observe basic rules of (white) civilization.
But the money, the corruption, the greed, the hatred, they were all there, and quite transparent for anyone who cared to acknowledge them. They were there in politicians shoveling pork barrel funding into their mouths with both hands, in $5,000-a-plate DNC fundraisers, in legislation deliberately calculated to keep some people wealthy at the expense of others, in every aspect of government from the ‘justice system’ to the people appointing the justices. Trump has simply shed sunlight on a known issue, has casually wrenched down the polite curtain that used to keep these things hidden.
Every week there’s a new corruption scandal that seems even worse than the one last week, with seemingly no traction on addressing the problem — there’s such a firehose of absurdity that it’s impossible to keep pace. People ask why ‘those people’ can’t fix their horribly corrupt and debased governments, and now they understand why; because it happens so comprehensively and so publicly and so swiftly that it’s nearly impossible to intervene. The polite kleptocracy that was the United States for hundreds of years has given up on pretense, and the members of marginalised groups who already knew the truth must bite their tongues to keep themselves from saying: ‘I told you so.’
But at the same time, life goes on. Walk down any street in the United States and you’ll see people driving their cars, going to the grocery store, buying shoes, eating dinner in nice restaurants. For the vast majority of people in the US the vast majority of the time, daily life continues as it ever has, though sometimes the tenor of the conversation around the dinner table veers in a different direction than expected, or government meetings are slightly more well attended. I don’t blame people for this — in Greece, it was much the same. Life had to go on because without it, society would grind to a halt — even as federal officials are colluding with foreign governments, you still have to put food on the table, and go to work.
The reckoning for the United States will come not when the government’s misdeeds are exposed even as civilians try to maintain some semblance of normalcy, doing the things they’ve always done because they don’t know how to do anything else. The reckoning, instead, will come when it is no longer possible to do those things, and when an entire nation rises against itself because the government’s misdeeds have finally terminated all hope of pretending that everything is normal.
The rest of the world may well be wondering why the US hasn’t taken to the streets after years of being dismissive about those living under dictatorships and smugly pronouncing that ‘this kind of thing would never happen in America.’ Marginalised people in the US who have already been out in the streets for years know exactly why — because white America hasn’t reached its tipping point.
Photo: Benjamin Applebaum | The White House/Creative Commons