In the annals of government ethics, the year 2017 exists in a bygone era. That September, Donald Trump’s secretary of health and human services, Tom Price, resigned in disgrace. His unforgivable sin was chartering private jets funded by taxpayers, when he just as easily could have flown commercial. Compared with the abuses of power in the years that followed, the transgression was relatively picayune. But at that early moment, even Trump felt obliged to join the criticism of Price.
During Trump’s first months as president, it wasn’t yet clear how much concentrated corruption the nation, or his own party, would tolerate, which is why Trump was compelled to dispose of the occasional Cabinet secretary. Yet nearly everything about Trump’s history in real estate, where he greased palms and bullied officials, suggested that he regarded the government as a lucrative instrument for his own gain.
A week and a half before taking office, he held a press conference in front of towering piles of file folders, theatrically positioned to suggest rigorous legal analysis, and announced that he would not divest himself of his commercial interests. Instead, he became the first modern commander in chief to profit from a global network of businesses, branded in gilded letters blaring his own name.
It didn’t happen all at once. Trump spent the early days of his presidency testing boundaries. He used his bully pulpit to unabashedly promote his real-estate portfolio. His properties charged the Secret Service “exorbitant rates”—as much as $1,185 a night, per a House Oversight Committee report—for housing agents when Trump or his family members visited. By the time Trump and his cronies left the White House, they had slowly erased any compunction, both within the Republican Party and outside it, about their corruption. They left power having compiled a playbook for exploiting public office for private gain.
That know-how—that confidence in their own impunity, that savvy understanding of how to profitably deal with malignant interests—will inevitably be applied to plans for a second term. If the first Trump presidency was, for the most part, an improvised exercise in petty corruption, a second would likely consist of systematic abuse of the government. There’s a term to describe the sort of regime that might emerge on the other side: a Mafia state.
The term was popularized by Bálint Magyar, a Hungarian sociologist and a dissident during Communist times. He wanted to capture the kleptocracy emerging in his country, which was far more sophisticated than other recent examples of plunder. Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán didn’t need to rely on brute force. He operated with the legitimacy that comes from electoral victories. And he justified the enrichment of his inner circle in carefully crafted legalisms. His abuses of office were so deftly executed that Hungary remains a member of the European Union and a magnet for multinational corporations.
At the center of Orbán’s Mafia state is a system of patronage. When he finally won consolidated control of the government in 2010, he purged the nation’s civil service—a “bloodless liquidation,” as Magyar describes the tactic. In place of professionals and experts, Orbán installed party loyalists. This wasn’t a superficial shuffling of his cabinet, but a comprehensive remaking of the nation’s public sphere. It is testimony to the thoroughness of his conquest that his apparatchiks took control of the Hungarian Chess Federation and a state-funded project to develop dental tourism.
The party loyalists Orbán appointed became the capos of his crime family. Their job was to reward its friends (by sharing the spoils of government contracts) and to punish its vocal critics (with tax audits and denial of employment). The loyalists constituted, in Magyar’s memorable phrase, an “organized upperworld.”
The goal of the apparatus was to protect the apparatus. A small inner circle around Orbán guarded the spectacular wealth accrued through contracts to build infrastructure and the leasing of government-owned land on highly favorable terms. By 2017, a former gas-line repairman from Orbán’s home village had ascended to No. 8 on Forbes’s list of the richest Hungarians.
Orbán’s system is impressively sturdy. His loyalists need their patron to remain in power so that they can continue to enjoy their own ill-gotten gains. In pursuit of that goal, they have helped him slowly and subtly eliminate potential obstacles to his Mafia state, eroding the influence of local governments, replacing hostile judges, and smoothing the way for his allies to purchase influential media outlets.
Corruption in the Trump administration wasn’t nearly sophisticated or comprehensive enough to rival Hungary’s. Compared with its kleptocratic cousins in other countries, it was primitive. Companies and other interest groups simply pumped money into Trump properties. As they sought government support for a merger, executives at T-Mobile spent $195,000 at Trump’s Washington, D.C., hotel. When the Air-Conditioning, Heating, and Refrigeration Institute wanted the administration to support an international treaty that helped its member firms, it paid more than $700,000 to host an event at a Trump golf resort in Florida. The Qatari government bought an apartment in a Trump-branded building in New York for $6.5 million.
Such examples were so commonplace that they ceased to provoke much outrage, which was perhaps the gravest danger they posed. Ever since the founding of the republic, revulsion at the mere perception of public corruption had been a bedrock sentiment of American political culture, one of the few sources of bipartisan consensus. But fidelity to Trump required indifference to corruption. It was impossible to remain loyal to the president without forgiving his malfeasance. By the end of Trump’s term, Republicans had come to regard corruption as a purely instrumentalist concept—useful for besmirching rival Democrats, but never applicable to members of their own party.
With the confidence that it will never face opposition from within its own ranks, a second Trump administration would be emboldened to hatch more expansive schemes. The grandest of these plans, at least among those that have been announced by Trump’s allies, mimics Orbán’s “bloodless liquidation,” where loyalists replace nonpartisan professionals and career civil servants. By instituting a new personnel policy, called Schedule F, Trump could eliminate employment protections for thousands of tenured bureaucrats, allowing him to more easily fire a broad swath of civil servants.
The mass firing of bureaucrats may not seem like a monumental opportunity for self-enrichment, but that will be the effect. The old ethos of the civil service was neutrality: Tenure in government deliberately insulated its employees from politics. But the Trumpists have plotted a frontal assault on that ethos, which they consider a guise for liberal bureaucrats to subvert their beloved leader. It doesn’t require much imagination to see what this new class of bureaucrats might unleash. Picked for their loyalty, they will exploit the government in the spirit of that loyalty, handing government contracts to friendly firms, forcing companies who want favors from the state to pay tribute at Trump properties, using their power to punish critics.
The United States isn’t a post-Communist state like Hungary. It doesn’t have state-owned firms that can be lucratively privatized. But the Biden years have remade the contours of the government, unwittingly generating fresh possibilities for corruption. With the infrastructure bill, there are enormous contracts to be distributed. With proposed new guidelines for antitrust enforcement, which aim to empower the Justice Department to aggressively block mergers, the government can more easily penalize hostile firms. (While in office, Trump reportedly experimented with this by pressuring an official to block AT&T’s merger with Time Warner, out of his antipathy toward CNN, which would have been part of the new mega-firm.) These were policies designed to promote the national interest. In the hands of a corrupt administration, they can be exploited to enrich hackish officials and a governing clique.
Autocratic leaders of other countries will intuitively understand how to seek favor in such a system. To persuade the United States to overlook human-rights abuses, or to win approval for controversial arms sales, they will cultivate mid-level officials and steer development funds toward Trump-favored projects. Some might be so brazen as to co-develop Trump properties in their home countries. (According to an analysis of his tax returns, Trump’s foreign holdings earned him at least $160 million while in office.) Such buying of favors will not be particularly costly, by the standards of sovereign wealth. In aggregate, however, they could massively enrich Trump and his allies.
It was just such a scenario, in which the virus of foreign interests imperceptibly implants itself in the American government, that the Founders most feared. They designed a system of government intended to forestall such efforts. But Trump has no regard for that system, and every incentive to replace it with one that will line his own coffers. Having long used the language of the five families, decrying snitches and rats, Trump will now have a chance to build a state worthy of his discourse.
This article appears in the January/February 2024 print edition with the headline “Corruption Unbound.”