Supersonic Man

May 18, 2017

is bribery addictive?

Filed under: Rantation and Politicizing,thoughtful handwaving — Supersonic Man @ 7:06 pm

When I see politicians getting caught taking bribes, I have often been struck by how much they were willing to sell out for how little cash, and by how determined they seemed to stick by their bribers even when it was hopeless to defend them. And I’m beginning to think that for some politicians, taking bribes is about more than just the value of the money.

Consider the Keating Five scandal. Thirty years ago last month, Charles H. Keating, Jr. of the Lincoln Savings and Loan Association, which was insolvent and under investigation as part of the savings and loan crisis then occurring, bribed a bunch of senators from western states. He gave a total of $1.3 million in campaign contributions to Alan Cranston (D-CA), Dennis DeConcini (D-AZ), John Glenn (D-OH), John McCain (R-AZ — yep, the maverick himself), and Donald Riegle (D-MI). In return, they called off regulators for a while, which allowed his S&L to crash far more severely than it would have with earlier intervention, costing taxpayers $3 billion.

We could make some interesting speculations about the psychology of someone like Keating himself, whose attempts to pretend his bank was OK bought him nothing but a five year prison sentence, but I want to concentrate on the other end — the bribees. They reacted in some quite different ways.

It’s important to note that the bribes were not an immediate offer, like “Promise to do what I want and I’ll sign this check.” None of them were overtly selling their vote to the highest bidder like a Rod Blagojevich. Rather, they were spread out over several years. Keating had been making large campaign contributions to these and other politicians for some time, and also cultivating some of them as personal friends, particularly DeConcini and McCain, since he lived in Arizona. He would offer them his jet to fly their families to the Caribbean with, and things like that. And after a while, some of them started to think of Charlie Keating as a really great guy.

The key moment was when the five senators arranged a meeting with four bank regulators. Keating apparently intended the meeting as a show of force, to let the regulators know they were outgunned. But those boys were made of the right stuff, and did not back down when faced with five senators asking them to leave Charlie alone. The case the senators were making was about deregulation: they decried what a shame it was that a prosperous business could be ruined by overly strict rules and oversight. In response, the regulators told them that they were not going after Keating to manage his business for him, but to stick him with criminal charges as a predatory scumbag crook.

It was at this point that John McCain realized he’d made a mistake. He’d already felt dubious about the meeting, and when he heard this, he was chastened. He apparently decided then and there that he and Charlie Keating were through, and mostly kept his mouth shut for the rest of the meeting. The incident eventually inspired him to push the McCain-Feingold campaign finance reform law. In short, he responded rationally, choosing a more correct course of action on the basis of new information.

But Alan Cranston reacted quite differently. He ended up getting the strongest censure of any of the senators because he kept right on trying to defend Lincoln S&L until it went bust in ’89. He continued to make public displays of personal friendship toward Keating. Regulators continued to attest that members of Congress such as him were obstructing and hampering their work. Then, when finally being grilled about it by the senate, Cranston accused them all of being just as guilty of such practices as he was, which didn’t win him any popularity points. The mess would certainly have cost him re-election if he hadn’t already announced his retirement.

Why was Cranston so persistent in defending Keating, after he was informed that the man was crooked? It was not a rational action. One cannot logically expect a slipshod and corrupt bank to keep making further bribe payments year after year. Such a business model is not sustainable, at least not once criminal investigation is seriously under way, so if he’d given it one minute’s thought, he can’t have reasonably expected that the big payments would keep coming.

Sometimes people go into denial about their past habits of behavior being no longer viable. They refuse to admit that they could have made a mistake, and therefore insist that what they did before must still be correct. And sometimes people get caught up into a sunk cost fallacy, and believe that if they’ve put a bunch of effort into something which is not working, they need to see it through until it’s resolved, rather than write off the effort as wasted. Some people tell themselves that everyone is doing exactly what they are doing, and perhaps can’t imagine trying to choose another path, because then they would (they suppose) be alone and isolated. All of these psychological factors may play a part in why someone who’s taken bribes will sometimes keep trying to continue their corrupt behavior even after it can no longer do them any good. But I think for some people, there may be a much simpler explanation.

Charlie Keating knew that the way to get influence was not just to pay money, but to make powerful friends. He patted their backs, blew smoke up their asses, did them favors, and gifted them with luxuries. And of course, he helped them get re-elected. That was the purpose of the bribe money: it was paid to their campaign organizations, to help them stay in office after the next vote. He made them feel like he really cared about them and really wanted to help them. He validated their beliefs that America needed their leadership.

I think for some politicians, receiving a bribe has more meaning than just getting free money. It feels like friendship, even when not accompanied by back-slapping and smoke-blowing. It’s like getting ten “likes” on your social media post — it makes you feel appreciated and listened to. It lets you know that in a world full of criticism for everything you do, somebody’s on your side and supporting your beliefs.

When a politician starts out, he has regular friends. But if they ever ask anything of him legislatively, he often has to disappoint them. Things may grow more distant. I think it must be pretty easy for a politician, on a semi-conscious level, to start feeling like his true friends are the new crowd rather than the old — the people who support him, rather than asking him to support them. It must be easy to start feeling like “Now I know who my real friends are.”

I think it may be quite often that politicians end up standing by those who bribed them because they are misapplying the virtue of remaining loyal to their friends. They fail to separate the quid-pro-quo relationship from true friendship, and may even become genuinely willing to make personal sacrifices for the sake of another, because of that sense of loyalty.

Put all this together, and those who take bribes can, I suspect, become addicted to the experience of being paid for their influence, even when they don’t need the money. It feeds the parts of their brains that crave true friendship, even while cutting them off from the genuine experience.

Even when bribery is not exposed as such, I think this helps explain why many politicians will, when confronted with an ugly public controversy, double down on supporting the wealthy and powerful interests who are being protested. Sure, there may be gross abuses occurring, such as violent attacks on peacefully assembled environmental protesters, but the people who are building the oil pipeline or paper plant or nuclear reactor are their friends, dang it, and those smelly hippies are not. So even when the controversy reaches the point where the way to win the next election is to change sides, and the lies supporting the project have been thoroughly exposed (the Keystone XL would supposedly create 28,000 jobs, for instance), they would rather go down fighting for a crooked policy than betray those friendships.

And now to apply the theory. I think this may be why Donald John Trump so adamantly refuses to back away from Vladimir Putin. Clearly, if a rational person were in Trump’s position right now, or eight months ago for that matter, the logical course of action would be to distance himself from Putin and pretend to be very independent and skeptical of him. But Trump won’t do that, no matter how bad it looks to be seen publicly kissing Russian ass after what a stink has been raised over it.

Donald Trump probably has no true friends, and may never have had one. His personal philosophy, which he received from his dad, allows no room for genuine trust, and if he has never showed a sign of genuine caring for other human beings, it hasn’t been in public. I don’t know if you could call him a sociopath, but he is certainly a major narcissist, who views other people in terms of what he can get out of them for himself. So his definition of friendship is based on a simple criterion: if you help him and give him things and support his ego, you’re a friend, and if you thwart him or insult him, you’re an enemy. And based on this separation, he follows one simple rule: friends are to be buttered up and catered to and indulged, but enemies are to be viciously attacked, to make them regret crossing your path.

Though not a man known for any capacity to form intimate connections, many have spoken of how solicitous Trump is when relating one on one to someone he wants to be friendly toward. He’s attentive, he’s generous, he makes himself pleasant, he makes sure you get to enjoy the best of whatever is available where you are. In conversation, he may drift into bragging about himself, but he at least makes an effort at pretending to be interested in what you’re saying.

(This may help explain Trump’s success as a ladies’ man. In his youth he had quite a reputation for dating women who seemed to be out of his league. Part of it was that he didn’t care if he was shot down twenty times before finding one who’d say yes, but another part must be this habit of scrupulous attention to the other person’s wants. If he doesn’t know what it is to care about another person, he has worked out a pretty good system for faking it.)

Such an attitude is tailor-made for someone who both gives and accepts bribes, of course. He has even boasted of it, at least in cases where he’s the payer and not the recipient.

Trump, as far as I can tell, sees everything in terms of friends vs. enemies. Despite, or perhaps because of, the hollowness of his experience of what friendship should be, he allows the judgment of friend vs enemy to dominate all his decisions. If a friend does something awful or unpopular, he stands by that friend, and if an enemy does something admirable, he cuts them down for it. According to anonymous rumors, Trump was taken completely by surprise at the outrage which followed his firing of James Comey from the FBI. His logic was simple: Comey is not my friend because he refuses to tamp down the Russia investigation for me, and therefore he is also not the friend of my fellow Republicans. But he is also not the friend of Democrats, because of the way he undercut Hillary Clinton’s campaign. Therefore, since he is nobody’s friend, nobody will miss him or stand up for him. It apparently never occurred to him that people would be aghast at the firing for reasons having nothing to do with whose ass Comey did or did not kiss.

So, are the Russians his friends? Yes. In 2014 Eric Trump was talking to a golf reporter, and said “We don’t rely on American banks. We have all the funding we need out of Russia.” (He now denies saying it.) And Don Jr. said in 2008 Russian money was “pouring in” and constituting “a pretty disproportionate cross-section of a lot of our assets”. The Wall Street Journal recently revealed one such deal: a Trump Tower in Toronto which was financially bailed out by the Russian bank VEB, which has been described as “essentially controlled by Putin”. When a lawsuit embroiled the Trump Soho project, it came out in court that much of the funding was from Russia by way of an intermediary in Iceland. American banks haven’t been willing to lend to Trump for a long time, and Deutsche Bank, the last European holdout to treat him as an acceptable loan risk, wasn’t doing enough, so it makes sense that he would turn sharply toward Russia once the opportunity arose. (And even Deutsche Bank is now being implicated as a go-between for Putin, and accused of laundering money for Russian gangsters.) Trump and his family have now been traveling regularly to Russia for decades.

So the Russians have not just been friendly to the Trumps, they have been great friends indeed. The Trump financial empire might well have collapsed years ago if it weren’t for Putin’s cronies propping it up.

There are those who believe that the Russians have “kompromat” on Trump, and can blackmail him or threaten him with ruin, and this is why Trump is so steadfast toward them. I am not persuaded by this theory… I don’t see Trump being afraid of such a thing, or see him getting where he is now from a position of being intimidated or cowed. I don’t think he’s even scared of the idea of their banks cutting him off: he is now forging new business “friendships” every day all over the world, using the Presidency as an incentive for all sorts of wealthy interests to do him financial favors.

I think it really is just as simple as Trump viewing the Russians has his friends. He has lived by a code of “you scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours” all his life, and he can hardly change his habits now. After all, he’s seventy years old, and his brain may not be as sharp as it used to be. I doubt he can imagine any other way to go through life. What he’s done so far has brought him everything he ever wanted, so it would be impossible to believe it’s the wrong approach. I think he would view turning his back on the Russians as being untrue to himself. There’s a good chance he won’t ever be willing to do it, even if it costs him the Presidency.

After all, he doesn’t enjoy the job anyway.

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1 Comment »

  1. I received a private comment from a Washington insider who says he thinks I nailed it, at least as far as Trump goes. This is a bit surprising as I don’t have high confidence in my own analysis here and was basically just handwaving. He affirms that after typical politicians are in the game for a long time, they no longer have real friends and no longer see the difference between acting on principle and selling out.

    Comment by Supersonic Man — March 26, 2018 @ 5:15 pm | Reply


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