What is The Long-Term Price of Tolerating Corruption?

Matthew Whittaker, Trump’s acting attorney general, made a hefty six-figure sum from a non-profit supposedly devoted to public oversight of government, but which spent most of its efforts making partisan attacks on Democrats. He sat on the board of a company that the Federal Trade Commission has labelled a scam. He has also made statements that he doesn’t believe in the full independence of the judiciary branch, something which has been settled in America since the 18th Century, and which we all learn in school to be an unshakable foundation of our democracy. Because of his partisanship and questionable character, past attorneys general have gone so far as to sign a letter asking Mr. Whittaker not to politicize his office.

Is this a person we want running the United States Dept. of Justice? Mr. Trump, who has made no secret of his use of public office for personal gain, seems to think so. It could be tempting to see Mr. Whittaker as just another scandal of the last few years, to be despised but also tossed on the heap with all the others. But that’s an error. To let this pass would be to cross a line and let public confidence in yet another brand of government erode.

What’s the long-term cost when corruption is assumed? We need only look to Brazil, which has recently elected a far right-wing candidate to the presidency who has made public statements in support of dictatorship, rape jokes about his colleagues in government, and who has credibly threatened to put his political opponents in jail. He doesn’t believe in gay rights, and openly supports torture.

Yet it’s not because they agree with him that Brazilians elected Bolsonaro. It was a wave of mistrust in an openly corrupt government that propelled him to the presidency. Most Brazilians don’t even think he’s qualified, but they fear and mistrust the old ruling party so much that they are willing to tolerate his rhetoric. As conditions in Brazil have worsened, with the murder rate hitting 157 homicides per day, and the economy collapsing, trust in government has collapsed in turn. Bolsonaro won trust by making speeches in praise of the only institutions that Brazilians still trust, the army and the church.

We’re not there yet in the U.S. But every time we look the other way at contempt shown for the rule of law or the use of public trust for personal gain, we take a little step in that direction. The public institutions that Americans trust are not so different from the ones Brazilians trust most. We trust our news media more, at least for now.

It won’t be confidence in a demagogue that ends democracy in the U.S., but a long simmering mistrust in all our public institutions, kept going by the constant addition of new scandals.