Bloombergview
Politics

How Trump Is Like Woodrow Wilson

The country might be better off if the president-to-be had more Tammany Hall in him.

His ribbon-cuttings will be special.

Photographer: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

It would be really nice if Donald Trump's current and potential conflicts of interest could be justified as good for America, after all. As a political scientist who is generally skeptical of "good government" crusades and of broad definitions of public corruption, I'd love to be able to offer a defense of Trump on those grounds -- just as I can offer a defense of old political machines.

Alas, no dice.

Trump isn't building a party machine. Why does that matter? With everything else going on, why would we want a Tammany Hall in addition to Trump Tower? Because Trump's conflicts of interest aren't justified even by the democratic theory most open to politicians enriching themselves. A weaker version of democracy could lead him and his followers to ignore or excuse what can't be justified.

The best defense of public officials who pocket money for themselves came from a Tammany Hall politician, George Washington Plunkitt, in 1905. Plunkitt, as the Atlantic's Yoni Appelbaum points out, argued that graft can be beneficial if the incentives are correctly aligned so that politicians seek to profit personally from those things their constituents like. But Appelbaum is wrong to see some connection here to Trump, who isn't promising a Plunkitt-style bargain at all.

Plunkitt's famous distinction is between what he calls "honest graft" and the dishonest variety.  Honest graft, he wrote, consisted of profiting from inside information about what the government was going to do anyway:

My party's in power in the city, and it's goin' to undertake a lot of public improvements. Well, I'm tipped off, say, that they're going to lay out a new park at a certain place ... I go to that place and I buy up all the land I can in the neighborhood.

For Plunkitt, everyone is better off. The public is well-served because it gets the improvements it wants. The politicians make money off the deal. And because there's money in politics, people who will be good at providing constituents with what they want will go into public service. Yes, there's an expense (Plunkitt naturally charges the city more for the land than it would have had to pay its previous owners), but it beats having a polity run either by noble-minded but incompetent reformers or by bureaucrats who have little connection to citizens. 

So why can't Trump fit into this mold? The answer boils down to parties and the electoral incentive. 

In the Plunkitt model, the system works overall because the political party organizes it. The people who run the party know their place, and contribute back to the party if they succeed. Ambition is channeled through the party, which can reward the talented and ensure their success.

The talented are defined by their ability to win votes -- and not just in the short run. The party, as an institution, cares about its long-term success, too. 

So a politician who profited from public-works projects that hurt the party -- a park located in the wrong place, or a bridge that fell down -- wouldn't last long in Plunkitt's Tammany. Without those tangible benefits, the graft would do neither the party nor the politician, who needed both renomination and reelection, any good. 

Trump's situation is entirely different. Trump's properties aren't strategically placed to capitalize on what the government would be doing anyway to benefit citizens. They are, from this perspective, randomly placed, without any reason to believe that what's good for the nation will be good for Trump's bottom line. His foreign holdings in particular appear to be quite unconnected with any possible benefit for voters back home.

So, for example, if Trump decides to move ahead with closer ties to Cuba and, in anticipation of doing so, he buys a location for a casino, that might fit Plunkitt's "honest graft." But if he chooses to make a country an ally based on how it will affect his existing holdings, that would not be fine -- because there's no reason to believe the incentives between Trump's pocketbook and the interests of the U.S. are aligned.

Instead of reflecting Plunkitt, Trump evinces political attitudes that are more a bizarre offshoot of Woodrow Wilson's ideas about democracy. Wilson was an enemy of machine-style parties. He had disdain for the idea that a thick layer of party, press and groups of all sorts have an important place between politicians and rank-and-file voters.

Instead, Wilsonian politicians, and especially Wilsonian presidents, believe they have an almost mystical bond with "the people." The danger is that since the mystical connection is a myth, Wilsonian presidents tend to believe that "the people" are demanding whatever the president wants.

Most, or perhaps all, of the modern presidents have had at least some Wilsonian tendencies. Recent presidents, from Ronald Reagan through Barack Obama, were nevertheless anchored by their political parties. Trump is not. Nor does he appear to draw from any other democratic tradition (putting aside whatever non-democratic influences he draws on). 

Trump's rallies (and he is scheduling new ones now) appear to work for him as the way of tuning in to that connection, just as Wilson barnstormed to build support, in his own mind at least, for the changes in policy he would seek. In my view, it is quite Wilsonian to crusade against corruption ("Drain the swamp!") without even recognizing the possibility of one's own ethical issues. 1

The Wilsonians have won the argument in our popular culture, and to a fair extent in our political institutions. I wish someone prominent would speak up for Plunkitt-style politics -- but that's going to be a hard sell in the time of Trump.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

  1. Richard Nixon, with his belief in a "silent majority," was as Wilsonian as anyone. Jimmy Carter was, too, but for all his faults he did not have ethics challenges. So Wilsonian politicians can be corrupt or not (Wilson himself was not). What matters is that they believe -- as Trump seems to -- that they have a direct connection with "the people." 

To contact the author of this story:
Jonathan Bernstein at jbernstein62@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Katy Roberts at kroberts29@bloomberg.net

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.
LEARN MORE