I’ve been in countries where literally everything is for sale. America could become one.
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Donald Trump and his fellow rightwing billionaires have a plan for America. They want to turn the United States from a prosperous, middle-class nation into a country of paupers, where bribery is common and the wealthy can get away with anything.
The latest example of this comes from the House Oversight Committee’s report last week documenting how Donald Trump took at least $7 million in bribes in exchange for changes to US foreign policy when he was president.
Much of the world already operates the way Republicans are pushing our country: no social safety net, corrupt regulatory and police agencies, politicians and legislation for sale, and absolute immunity for the morbidly rich.
It was 1980 when I first really discovered what it’s like doing business or just living life in countries that are the models for how this nation’s right-wing billionaires are trying to remake America.
I was a volunteer on behalf of an international relief organization out of Germany and had flown into Kenya, on my way to Uganda. Tanzania had recently evicted Uganda’s exiled murderous dictator Idi Amin (who was welcomed, along with his bevy of wives, by Saudi Arabia, where he lived like a king in his own palace to the day he died). Famine was creeping across the northern part of the country. (I wrote about this trip in The Prophet’s Way and published that chapter on my website.)
Three days in a row I’d gone to the Ugandan embassy to try to get an entry visa into the country; each time I was told, after waiting a few hours and without explanation, to come back the next day.
I was staying at the New Stanley Hotel in Nairobi, and they had an outdoor bar called the Thorntree Café, where Ernest Hemmingway used to stay and where he popularized the Swahili word “safari” and wrote The Snows of Kilimanjaro. I’d gotten to know an old British expat who lived in the hotel and we shared a couple of gin and tonics every afternoon in the café. When I told him about my frustration, he said: “When you go in tomorrow, slip a $20 bill into your passport when you hand it to the official. You’ll get your visa.”
There were a couple of other regulars sitting with us and they all agreed; so the next day, with some trepidation, I tried the bribe. It worked: The Ugandan diplomat lifted the bill out of my passport, it vanished into the top drawer of his desk, and I had the visa stamp in my passport in 30 seconds.
When I got to the airport and the Ugandan Airlines check-in desk, I was told that my plane reservation, which I’d booked and paid for over the phone, “can’t be found.” The agent shrugged, like it was an everyday occurrence. I slid another $20 across the counter and he broke into a huge smile, scratched out a line on the flight manifest with his pencil, and said, “Give me your name again?” I did and he wrote it in and an hour later I was on the plane to Entebbe.
A few months later I was in Haiti, meeting with the government official in charge of licensing foreign charities to operate in the country. He was less subtle than the Ugandans; he told me right up front that I’d have to give him a substantial down payment (I’m remembering $5,000, but could be in error) and an annual smaller payment, all in cash and all handed over directly to him.
While I was successful in starting a program in Uganda that’s still running to this day (among others), when the level of bribery got as high and as naked as it was in Haiti, we chose to pull the plug on our plans to operate in that Caribbean country.
Later that year I was pulled over by a Mexican police officer while driving with a vice president of Scientific Atlanta from the Acapulco airport to our hotel; the cop told me — even though I’d been traveling the same speed as every other car on the highway — that I’d have to stay in town for a week to show up in court unless I gave him $50 cash on the spot. He got his bribe, and, on reflection of some legal peril, I listed it as such on my expense report.
You may be shaking your head right now, thinking all of this bribery to do business or even travel in foreign countries is terrible. America would never tolerate such corruption, right?
We’re already there on one level; it’s just that there’s only one class of Americans who can legally bribe the system to get what they want, and they blow through every obstacle in front of them by simply paying people off.
That group is America’s right-wing billionaires. And they damn well want to keep things that way. As long as they can bribe their way into or out of things, they’re very happy with the status quo and will continue to fund efforts to keep things this way.
Look, for example, at how they spiffed Clarence Thomas to get him to agree to be the deciding vote in Citizens United, which legalized bribery of both American politicians and Supreme Court justices. Multiple right-wing billionaires spent literally millions of dollars buying Thomas’s and his wife’s loyalty and rewarding their behavior on the billionaires’ behalf.
The fossil fuel industry showers millions every year on Republican politicians, both in direct bribes campaign contributions and through the political cover they get from the right-wing media and think tanks they underwrite. As a result, you won’t find a single Republican politician who’s willing to do anything whatsoever about climate change, and most won’t even acknowledge it exists so long as the money keeps flowing.
Ditto for Big Pharma, Big Insurance, and Big Banks: All three routinely rip off Americans, and the Republican answer is to gut the regulatory agencies that might hold them to account.
While Uganda was in chaos in 1980 and the people I paid off were probably just freelancing because they weren’t even getting paid, when I was in Haiti I heard from other people operating in the country that part of the bribe money they’d paid was going all the way to the top: “Baby Doc” Jean-Claude Duvalier ran that country like his own personal corrupt little fiefdom until he was deposed in 1986.
Donald Trump aspires to Baby Doc (or even “Papa Doc”) status, and showed us — during the one-term presidency that Vladimir Putin helped him secure — how he and his billionaire buddies want to reshape our country in Duvalier’s image. This is how a country travels the path from functioning democracy to corrupt oligarchy.
Trump came into office echoing a widespread public freak-out about the 20 million or so jobs that had been offshored to China by Reaganomics. Trash-talking China worked really well on the campaign trail for Trump, but when he became president he began acting like that Mexican cop who’d pulled over me and my client.
— The Chinese embassy and one of the country’s largest banks (that helps North Korea evade US sanctions) shoveled $5.5 million into Trump’s corporate checking accounts; within months he hopped on a plane, flew to China, and told Chinese dictator Xi, “my feeling toward you is an incredibly warm one.”
— Trump was trash-talking Qatar, calling them a “funder of terrorism”; so, as Mary Trump notes in her excellent newsletter:
In April of 2018, the Qatari Permanent Mission to the United Nations bought a fourth apartment at Trump World Tower for $6.5 million, and then in the SAME MONTH, Donald welcomed its monarch to the Oval Office and labeled Qatar as a partner in “stopping the funding of terrorism.”
Not only that, Qatar went on to backstop a billion-dollar buyout of Jared Kushner’s terrible 666 Fifth Avenue building purchase.
— Trump was ignoring Kuwait’s desire to buy an air force worth of F18 Hornet fighter jets, so, like my sticking a $20 bill into my passport in Nairobi, they moved their Christmas party to his DC hotel, putting hundreds of thousands of dollars in Trump’s pocket; he promptly approved the sale of the weapons systems.
— Saudi Arabia was reeling under international condemnation for murdering and dismembering Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi, so they gave Trump well over a half-million dollars cash by renting entire floors in his properties; he immediately went against his own policy advisers’ advice and began selling them billions of dollars worth of high-tech weapons without congressional authorization.
And this is just the tip of the iceberg, the little bit that Democrats on the House Oversight Committee were able to discover before Republicans took control of the House and put Trump toady Rep. James Comer (R-KY) in charge of the committee. Comer immediately ended the investigations into the Trump family and redirected their efforts to investigating Hunter Biden. (There’s a great summary of the House Democrats’ report, with a link to the report itself, here.)
This is the America that our country’s right-wing billionaires want. Where everything is for sale, but the price is usually so high that only the morbidly rich can afford it.
— Want $600 billion a year in fossil fuel subsidies that help destroy our children’s future? Give Republican politicians a few hundred million over the years.
— Want to own a private island and run an underage sex ring? Just buy off or blackmail enough politicians and a guy who ends up in Trump’s cabinet will, himself, arrange sweetheart deals for you to avoid prison or liability (until it all comes unraveled years later).
— Want such massive tax cuts that they will leave the nation $34 trillion in debt and siphon a full $50 trillion out of the homes and savings of working class people, reducing the middle class income from two-thirds of us to 43 percent? Just recycle a few billion of those trillions to fund a few hundred Republicans’ campaigns.
America has become a nation increasingly run by right-wing grifters and greedy corporations:
— Want to sell pesticides that are neurotoxic to children?
— Dump toxic waste from mining operations into our rivers, where it will poison downstream water supplies?
— Gut workers’ rights?
— Sell off and ruin public parklands for pennies on the dollar?
— Steal from working people’s retirement plans without consequence?
Every one of those five things (and more) happened in the first months of Trump’s administration, and in every case there was big money paying off Trump and congressional Republicans for taking those actions.
We’re seeing a similar embrace of corruption in Republican-controlled states across the country. Texas’s Attorney General Ken Paxton (R), for example, has been facing securities fraud charges for eight years now; the trial is finally scheduled for next year, but don’t hold your breath. Meanwhile, he’s suing to prevent women with crisis pregnancies from getting life-saving abortions.
In Virginia, that state’s Republican attorney general went after “good government” as soon as he took office. As Radley Balko notes in his Substack newsletter, The Watch:
Jason Miyares made his priorities clear the moment he took office. Shortly after the Virginia Republican was sworn in as the state’s new attorney general in 2022, he abruptly fired everyone in the conviction integrity unit (CIU), the office charged with investigating and rectifying wrongful convictions. …
Miyares fired 17 attorneys and 30 total employees, including many attorneys in the civil rights division, as well as the general counsel for the University of Virginia — who at the time had taken leave to serve as lead investigator for the special congressional committee investigating January 6th. Miyares insisted the attorney’s termination had nothing to do with his work on the attempted insurrection.
And it’s not just American billionaires who are paying off Republican politicians (and apparently one Democrat in the Senate). A foreign billionaire, who may be the richest man in the world, controls a massive social media operation that can build up or tear down any Republican who doesn’t dance to his tune.
Vladimir Putin, a billionaire who makes his friends into billionaires, has invested heavily in social media troll farms, now that billionaires Mark Zuckerberg and Elon Musk have dialed back on content moderation, leaving Nazis, Russian agents, and their Republican fellow travelers to flourish on their platforms.
Putin’s social media operations have been so successful that he’s managed to bring a few dozen Republican politicians under his control, most notably Sen. Tommy Tuberville (R-AL) and Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-GA). As the Byline Supplement substack newsletter noted last week:
Among Republican politicians, Marjorie Taylor Greene of Georgia has led the way in normalizing extremist pro-Russian propaganda, making a public appearance at a pro-Putin rally and floating Putin’s peace plan which cedes all occupied territory to Russia. Greene calls the defense of Ukraine a corrupt scheme, citing as her source a Russian propaganda outlet that was sanctioned by the US Treasury Department over alleged interference in the 2020 presidential elections.
On the US Senate side, Tommy Tuberville of Alabama blames Democrats, claiming Democrats “created” the war in Ukraine — exactly parroting the Kremlin influence operation as reported by the declassified US intelligence assessment. Tuberville has gone so far as to green-light a Russian takeover of Ukraine, opining against all contrary evidence that he sees no risk of further Russian aggression once Ukraine is subdued. Tuberville is a close ally of Donald Trump, who claims he has a plan for an immediate end to the war.
And, of course, Putin was able to buy Trump’s loyalty by running an online influence operation, outed by Robert Mueller’s investigation, that helped Trump win the Electoral College and occupy the White House even though he lost to Hillary Clinton by about 3 million votes.
This is the America our right-wing billionaires have been working to create ever since the Reagan Revolution: a nation where everything’s for sale and everyone’s on the take. After all, when everybody’s a criminal, nobody’s a criminal.
And it all really started in a big way when five corrupt Republicans on the Supreme Court legalized political bribery by billionaires (1976) and corporations (1978), most recently overturning hundreds of good government laws nationwide with their bizarre Citizens United (2010) decision declaring that corporations are persons and money is “First Amendment-protected ‘free speech.’”
For two decades now, we’ve had Republican justices who’ve been put on the bench through millions of dollars from a handful of right-wing billionaires and the institutions they fund. They’re then groomed with first-class and private jet travel, homes, travel trailers, speaking gigs, entrance to billionaire-only private events, and millions in “pay” opportunities for justices’ spouses.
They’re backstopped by billionaires who own media operations like Fox “News,” and the CEOs of industries that want to continue making money while exploiting or even killing us and our children.
The simple reality is that today in America right-wing billionaires can buy just about anything, including tax breaks, new laws that protect them and their businesses, and immunity from prosecution for anything they say or do. They can even buy henchmen who will take down university presidents who offend them.
Widespread Republican victories this November will make the situation far worse, and, if Trump keeps his promises, will finish the job Reagan began of gutting the middle class and fully handing control of America over to the GOP’s billionaire overlords. Then Ken Paxton, Clarence Thomas, and Ron DeSantis types of politicians will rule the nation, always bowing to the demands of their rich benefactors.
Democrats (Sen. Bob Menendez of New Jersey notwithstanding) have been fighting this corruption and promise to end the culture of bribery and impunity that Citizens United established. They tried with the For The People Act, but the GOP filibuster prevailed.
The choice has never been starker: Do we want America to sink further into the GOP’s version of Uganda or Mexico? Or do we want to become a nation where we all have opportunity and prosperity, and all Americans are both bound and protected equally by the law?
What kind of country do we want to leave to our children? A functioning democracy or a corrupt kleptocracy run by the toadies of a handful of right-wing billionaires?
The stakes this November are huge. Pass it along.
Reprinted from The Hartmann Report with the author’s permission.
Thom Hartmann is a four-time Project Censored-award-winning, New York Times best-selling author of 34 books in print and the #1 progressive talk show host in America for more than a decade.