The exposure of Clarence Thomas’s corruption raises a troubling question: How many billionaire benefactors are out there, and what do they want for their money?
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The revelation that Harlan Crow, a billionaire with a Nazi fetish, has been showering Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas with gifts (and that Thomas did not disclose receiving them) has caused quite a stir in Washington, DC.
Perhaps the clearest sign of how bad this looks is that even 40 percent of Republicans disapprove of Thomas’s behavior. Sure, some of that might be due to the fact that he is Black, but Donald Trump could literally defecate on the Constitution and only about 20 percent of his voters would have a problem with that.
By the way, the most insane finding of that poll is that 12 percent of Republicans “strongly approve” of Thomas receiving expensive gifts and vacations without disclosing them. It would be understandable if they didn’t have an opinion or didn’t want to say anything bad about one of their own, but how do you strongly approve of a justice hiding his corruption???
It’s pretty clear that Thomas’s behavior is odious. However, it’s not as though he needs an incentive to rubberstamp whatever position the court’s right-wing majority takes. He’s doing that without the luxury trips and the Third Reich-themed dinners. Bribing Thomas to vote the “right” way is like bribing a child to stay up a little later to play video games and eat ice cream.
So that’s not the most disconcerting part of this story. What’s really troubling, apart from how long this went unnoticed, is that there are probably lots of Harlan Crows out there. And we’re not talking about Hitler fanboys, although that isn’t great either, but rather people with way too much money who want to invest a portion of their wealth toward turning the country into whatever they want it to be.
And nobody is talking about it. Admittedly, Hakenkreuz napkins are a juicy detail, but they are not nearly as much of a threat to democracy as ultrarich dudes with a God complex.
Here is why they are so dangerous: First of all, the US’s system of unrestrained, predatory capitalism without fair taxation has created too many people for whom money is no object. Equally problematic is that they operate in a justice system that lets them get away with just about anything. And, finally, with regard to the rules for influencing politics with money… well, there are no rules.
It’s not difficult to figure out how we got to this place: Rich people gave money to lawmakers, who then shredded the safeguards of a more restrained form of capitalism, blocked any attempts to tax the richest of the rich (and corporations) more, and then made sure the same people could pump as much money into politics as they wanted.
Whenever attempts were made to change this system, the courts saw to it that these were short-lived. Corporations are, after all, people, and money is speech.
That last bit, by the way, shows how ridiculous Thomas’s statement on the scandal was.
Early in my tenure at the court, I sought guidance from my colleagues and others in the judiciary, and was advised that this sort of personal hospitality from close personal friends, who did not have business before the court, was not reportable.
First of all, it would be interesting to know who these “colleagues and others in the judiciary” were who advised him to blatantly violate ethics rules. Probably not Anita Hill, so let’s hear some names.
Even more ridiculous is the assertion that Crow did not have “business before the court.” It is impossible for a billionaire to not have business before the Supreme Court.
For example, anything having to do with campaign finance rules, i.e., the kind of laws that would prevent billionaires and their companies from pumping untold millions into political campaigns, constitutes “business before the court.”
And, because disclosure rules and their enforcement are lax, we simply don’t know how many more Harlan Crows are out there right now — lavishing gifts on lawmakers and judges from the shadows or influencing politics in other ways.
It is important to note that, while undemocratic behavior is predominantly something we see from the GOP, this billionaire problem is bipartisan.
Both sides have their ultrarich bogeymen. On the left, that’s predominantly George Soros, who spent $128 million on last year’s midterms alone. On the right, it’s high-profile villains like the remaining Koch brother and Peter Thiel, as well as any number of other rich dudes who want to get even richer. There are also more obscure figures like Richard Uihlein, whom WhoWhatWhy profiled five years ago but who has otherwise managed to fly under the radar, in spite of shelling out $100 million or so for his conservative causes and candidates.
Then there are the media moguls who have found other ways to shape politics. First and foremost, there is Rupert Murdoch, who has single-handedly created a right-wing fantasyland for millions of Americans and may be more responsible for the hyperpolarization in the US than any other person.
Finally, there is Elon Musk. While his politics may be a mystery to The New York Times, it’s pretty clear that he is another right-winger who is using his business to shape the country as he sees fit. It remains to be seen how decisive this will be in the 2024 election.
These levels of influence, and the staggering amounts of money being spent by a few individuals, are a great argument for why there shouldn’t be billionaires in the first place.
Or, if there are, then the only way they should be allowed to use their riches to change things is the Bruce Wayne model: Bulk up, build themselves some high-tech toys, and fight crime and corruption in a costume.
And maybe start with Harlan Crow and Clarence Thomas.
The cartoon above was created by DonkeyHotey for WhoWhatWhy from these images: Ginni Thomas caricature (DonkeyHotey / Flickr – CC BY-SA 2.0), body (Antonio Friedemann / Pexels), table setting (Thomas Quine / Wikimedia – CC BY 2.0), GOP logo (GOP / Wikimedia), parteiadler (Wolfmann / Wikimedia – CC BY-SA 4.0), and room (Adrian Grycuk / Wikimedia – CC BY-SA 3.0 PL).