Donald Trump Jr. laid into Hunter Biden for taking advantage of his famous father’s connections during a Wednesday night appearance on Fox News, leading to a justifiable amount of ridicule of a man with seemingly no self-awareness whatsoever.
But the truth is, Trump Jr. is far from the only one who seems inclined to ignore the fact that U.S. political offspring have a bipartisan tradition of benefiting from their family members’ prominence.
Take Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul's comments ahead of the Democratic presidential primary debate on Tuesday afternoon. MSNBC's Stephanie Ruhle had asked Paul why Jared Kushner and Ivanka Trump shouldn't be investigated for their ties to foreign money if Republicans believed Joe Biden's son Hunter should for his business dealings in Ukraine.
Paul scoffed and waved the question away, saying this was the "politics of self-destruction." Nobody really wants to go down that road, Paul seemed be saying. That's not how the game works.
It is not so difficult to imagine why the scions of famous political families, as both Paul and Trump Jr. happen to be, might be reticent about drawing attention to nepotism in Washington D.C. Still, by calling for an investigation of the Bidens and not the Trumps, Paul was not just being hypocritical in the routine way of partisans who pop up on cable news; he was, quite by accident, telling the truth. When it comes to politicians and their less-competent relatives making money off the fame and power, both sides really do do it.
Let’s take a look at a few ruling clans to illustrate the point.
By most accounts, Joe Biden has done his best to keep his nose clean of the most egregious self-dealing that some in his class cannot help but pursue. Still, even an assiduously (read: fake) "blue-collar" family like the Bidens cannot escape its class nature: Joe’s son Hunter, simply by virtue of being the son of a vice president, has been showered with wealth and opportunity. As the president has been relentlessly saying, Hunter sat on the board of a Ukrainian oil company for five years, receiving about $50,000 a month for his services, despite having no relevant experience.
His attempts to offer his father plausible deniability are surely well-intentioned, but this is immaterial—not because, as the Trumpian conspiracy theory has it, foreign officials were actually able to influence the Vice President through his son, but because they believed they'd be able to do so. As Hunter himself somewhat awkwardly put it, "I don't think that there's a lot of things that would have happened in my life if my last name wasn't Biden." He's not the only one: Joe's brother James has gotten loans and lobbyist gigs because of his connection to the former Delaware senator.
This is a landlord family that has not only leveraged its rent-seeking into political power but has continued that rent-seeking in office. The president himself would likely have been little more than an outer-borough slumlord—if that!—were it not for his family’s generational wealth, built partially on racism, partially on tax evasion. As he pulls at the threads of the country’s already unraveling social fabric, his children carry on the family business, often in ways that capitalize on his presidency. Since taking office, Forbes reports, the president's two oldest sons, Don Jr. and Eric, have sold off more than $100 million worth of the Trump Organization's holdings, including Jared and Ivanka's former home, the $15.8 million penthouse at Trump Park Avenue, for rather significantly more than market value. Meanwhile, foreign diplomats and trade associations are paying for rooms in Trump hotels, sometimes not even bothering to stay in them, presumably or at least possibly in hopes of currying favor or influence in the White House.
Trump also gave his elder daughter Ivanka a cushy White House gig, where she has engaged in the same kind of improper emailing practices that her father denounced Hillary Clinton for, and won trademarks from the Chinese government, months after she announced that she was closing her fashion brand to focus on her political work. Meanwhile, Donald Trump, Jr. seems to have inherited his dad's talent for riling up the Republican base, as well as his thirst for power, suggesting the Trumps may be angling to become a political dynasty.
Jared Kusher's lack of talent as a businessman—remember the time the Qatari government bailed him out of his $1.4 billion mortgage?—has been compensated for by his supreme ability to first be born into, then marry into, the right family. Like his wife, he was hired for an ill-defined White House role and is now making peace in the Middle East and embarrassing his venture-capitalist brother Joshua, who co-founded a health insurance company and is married to Karlie Kloss.
While the liberal Joshua and Karlie are reportedly out of favor in the Kushner family, Cadre, a real-estate investment company that the brothers co-founded and in which Jared retains an ownership stake, has received $90 million since 2017 in funding from what the Guardian describes as "an opaque offshore vehicle" in the Cayman Islands run by Goldman Sachs. Cadre was not listed on Jared's first ethics disclosure when he went to work for the White House—he had to revise that disclosure form dozens of times and was nearly denied a security clearance until the president reportedly stepped in. None of this has led to his dismissal from the White House, of course.
It's never going to happen, but when Democrats consider Biden and his family, they would do well to remember that they've been down this road before. Setting aside all the hysterical right-wing conspiracy theorizing about them, the Clinton Foundation, which controversially accepted money from foreign governments while Hillary Clinton was secretary of state, is quite clearly a vehicle for influence-peddling—at the very least, it seems likely that some of the foreign governments who donated to it were under the impression they were buying influence.
Similarly, maybe it didn't really influence Hillary Clinton at all when she got paid $675,000 by Goldman Sachs for three speeches, but it surely doesn't say a lot of great things about our democracy when politicians spend the years between presidential runs cashing in by giving talks to bankers. Nor does it look awesome that NBC News paid Chelsea Clinton $600,000 to pretend to be a journalist.
Rand Paul is right that to apply this kind of scrutiny to our country's ruling families would lead to self-destruction; he's also right that that is why neither Democratic nor Republican party leaders would allow this to happen. To do so would be to reveal that both parties serve a single class—one that contains its own factions and divisions, to be sure, but a single class nonetheless—that uses political power to reproduce itself and serve its own interests. This is not corruption; it's capitalism.
In the popular imagination, accusations of corruption imply a deviation from the norm—corrupt behavior is that which exploits loopholes, gaps, and flaws in the public sphere in order to serve private interests. But if a whole swathe of people are pursuing "corruption" in more or less the same way, how deviant is it? "Corruption is the symptom, not the disease," J.L.S. Girling writes in Corruption, Capitalism, and Democracy. "The 'disease' is the predicament of our time: the frustrated popular yearning for 'the good society,' to be achieved by democratic means, yet confronting an economic system that may well contribute materially but does not contribute morally… to that desired social end: an economic system, moreover, that substantially escapes democratic control."
In other words, what we perceive as corruption is really just how power works in this country, refracted through the lens of contemporary party politics. Conspiracy theories like those spread by Trump obscure the true functioning of the ruling class just as readily as the corporate partisanship of MSNBC or the studied impartiality of the New York Times. But if we are being honest with ourselves, it is hard to consider the behavior of our ruling families and conclude that we live in anything like a just society. The politics of self-destruction are sounding better every day.
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