Among the many depredations of American politics in the 21st century, President Donald Trump’s abortive decision to goose the finances of one of his tacky golf clubs by holding the next meeting of the Group of 7 or G7 — a costly and useless international confab, in the best of times, of the world’s strongest economies — ranks very low. As an easily digestible bit of public corruption, on the other hand, it may have had its uses.
Over the last month or so, the gears of an actual impeachment inquiry have finally caught the chain, but the byzantine and at times almost farcical nature of this conspiracy of foreign favor-trading are no easier to summarize or process than the late Russiagate conspiracy, which kept the hope of successful independent counsel investigation by Robert Mueller turning for almost two years. In September, news of a July phone call between Trump and the newly elected president of Ukraine leaked, in which our president appeared to ask for assistance in investigating the business dealings of the Biden family in Ukraine. Then a series of increasingly farcical back-door dealings involving Rudy Giuliani, a Trump-supporting hotel magnate-turned-EU ambassador, and a series of chummy Ukanian influence-peddlers who were arrested trying to flee the U.S. broke.
It is all very funny, very sordid, and very confusing. The Democrats and much of the so-called National Security community have so far preferred to hang their impeachment efforts on this amateurish espionage by Trump’s hilariously corrupt and inept circle of fund-bundlers, lawyers, and half-wit foreign operatives. But while I have no doubt that whatever it is he and his buddies were trying to do in Ukraine — if they even knew themselves — was just as criminal, unethical, immoral, and dumb as its expanding cast of hacks and hangers-on, I am not convinced it makes the best public case.
Straight political self-dealing is more familiar and easier to understand. Most of us have lived in communities where the last name of the public works director is curiously the same as the name of the contractor who paves the roads, or where the nephew of a guy on the school board somehow gets the contract to service the district’s vending machines (the irony here being that this is the exact thing that Trump tried to exploit in Ukraine, where the former vice president’s son was, for no discernible reason other than his family ties, on the board of an energy company). Petty local corruption is a universal quality of American life; it is easy for us to understand.
I am not sure if this helps or hurts our big corrupt president. It is a simpler and more obvious attempted crime, and it reflects a sordid history of naked personal enrichment at the very heart of the entire Trump political project. And yet, in this moment when political opposition — “resistance,” as it is still popularly styled — still pumps itself up with the refrain, “this is not normal,” I do wonder if in the end this, too, will finally elicit a resigned shrug: they all do it.
Petty local corruption is a universal quality of American life.
The plainness of the attempted crime, the gleeful “I-did-it” quality of Trump’s original announcement via Twitter that he would award the giant G7 conference to himself, followed by the petulant incredulity that he would have to reverse himself, suggests that both he and the embarrassed sycophants who rushed to defend him before he threw them under the bus by abruptly reversing himself, had not considered — could not even imagine — that it would hurt him.
Long before he became president, Trump loved to brag openly about his connections with the mafia. This was mostly bluster and exaggeration, just another blustering, wannabe tough guy who imagined himself into the glamorous criminality of The Godfather; it is the ur-phantasy of every boneheaded straight man in America. But if Trump was never actually a connected guy, then he nevertheless adopted a certain mafioso style of management and business, running everything on verbal deals, eschewing ordinary structures of finance and government in favor of an essentially un-auditable and centerless set of cash businesses, bailing on debts after he’d extracted whatever cash flow he could from a property or enterprise.
So the audacity of his decision to drop the G7 on his own resort like a sweaty wad of hundred-dollar bills is somewhat less striking if you allow yourself to intuit your way into the underlying mentality: who wouldn’t hold a conference at their own club, if in fact they had their own club?
When I was a boy, we moved to a small town in southwestern Pennsylvania. My father had gotten a very good job at one of the few large and, at the time, healthy institutions in that town and that county, and when we arrived, we joined the country club, the hub of professional and upper-class life in the community.
We had been a perfectly comfortable family before — a neat split-level house with a nice back yard, summer vacations at the Outer Banks, all the material trappings of a family on an upward track through the American middle class — but this represented a new economic station for me and my family. I remember very distinctly walking across the country club golf course on one of my first days in that new town, from the small house we were renting while the big house we’d soon move into was finished, across the fifth fairway and up the hill to the club itself, and thinking with both pride and trepidation that I would soon learn to golf.
Who wouldn’t hold a conference at their own club, if in fact they had their own club?
My efforts to enjoy golf, or to be even passably proficient at it, failed, and then I became a sarcastic teenager who considered the whole affair of a private club to be gaudy and sordid, its population of alcoholic aspiring aristocrats an appalling example of people who could not recognize their extraordinary good fortune and didn’t know what to do with it. Why would a person who could afford a pair of Mercedes and a five-bedroom house content themselves with bad steaks and worse wine? Why would these men — doctors and lawyers and brokers and entrepreneurs — spend so many hours drinking too-strong cocktails at a laminate bar in a building that, beneath a very easily scratched patina of luxury, looked mostly like a suburban chain restaurant?
Yet because even those of us who despise Trump and dismiss his accomplishments in business as so much puffery and self-promotion have, despite our best intentions, absorbed and internalized his own self-presentation, and because it is hard to escape the saturating media fascination with “foreign influence,” it’s become very easy to let oneself be swept along in a story that creates a Trump who is a kind of master-criminal savant, a genius, a prodigy of crime.
I think this is wrong. I think he is still a man most comfortable at a club at which he is already a member, where the waiters know his name and bring him his Coke without being asked, which he views, in an almost shockingly naïve way, as a mark of power and respect, just as he has always giddily enjoyed the moniker of “Mr. Trump,” which he views as regal rather than tacky. I do believe that he wanted in some inchoate way to use Doral to enrich himself, but I also think it was a secondary consideration to the fact that he really did believe it was the “best” place, that collection of over-fertilized lawns and bad restaurants under the rumbling skies of a nearby airport.
It is almost dismayingly ordinary, and it has been going on for his entire term now, the petty thievery of his Washington hotel, his daughter’s chintzy brands, his sons’, well, whatever it is that those boys do precisely. The brief flirtation with Doral seemed to hold the potential to refocus some of the impeachment inquiry’s energy on this open, American criminality and away from the world’s worst Graham Greene novel.
For once, enough of political Washington seemed to at least agree that it looked bad. Why it looked worse than, say, renting 500 Trump hotel rooms to the Saudis is a point of D.C. protocol and politesse that I’ll never be able to parse. But if we are to hope for a true Nixonian reckoning for this terrible administration, I still think, despite some misgivings, that it is less likely to come from a spy store, more likely to come from forcing him to declare, over and over again, “I am not a crook.”