What Worries Me Most About a Trump Presidency

There are almost daily headlines now describing what Donald Trump would do if elected: the mass deportations, the pardons handed out to his friends and golf buddies, the Justice Department settling scores and waging personal vendettas. The former president has even promised violence if the election goes against him, warning that it could be a “blood bath.”

But as worrying as these prospects are, they are far from the biggest threats he poses. What we should fear most is Mr. Trump transforming our government into a modern-day Tammany Hall, installing a kleptocratic leadership that will be difficult if not impossible to dislodge.

I do not discount the possibility of state-sponsored violence, and I worry deeply about the politicization of the civil service. But those are, for the most part, threats and theories, and while they need to be taken seriously, people should be paying more attention to a far more likely reality: that Mr. Trump would spend much of his time in office enriching himself. He failed spectacularly as an insurrectionist and as a disrupter of the civil service, and his clownish and chaotic style may well lead to failure again — but he has succeeded time and time again in the art of the steal. If his grift continues into a second term, it will not only contribute to the fraying trust Americans have in their institutions, but also impair our ability to lead the world through a series of escalating crises.

Recall how Mr. Trump operated in his first term. Not only did he keep his stake in more than a hundred businesses, he made it a practice to visit his properties around the country, forcing taxpayers to pay for rooms and amenities at Trump hotels for the Secret Service and other staff members who accompanied him — money that went straight into his bank accounts and those of his business partners. Those interested in currying favor with the president, from foreign governments to would-be government contractors, knew to spend money at his hotels and golf clubs. According to internal Trump hotel documents, T-Mobile executives spent over $195,000 at the Trump Washington Hotel after announcing a planned merger with Sprint in April 2018. Two years later, the merger was approved.

Government, like fish, rots from the head down. Mr. Trump’s example freed up cabinet members to award huge contracts to their friends, business associates and political allies, while others ran their departments like personal fiefs. After the State Department’s inspector general was fired, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s use of official trips for clandestine meetings with conservative donors and his family’s alleged misuse of staff members for tasks like walking his dog, picking up his wife from the airport and fetching his takeout came to light. And, in addition to being accused of improperly accepting gifts from those seeking influence, several other cabinet members were alleged to have used government funds for private travel. These may seem like banal infractions, but taken together, they are a reflection of who Mr. Trump is and how he governs.

Throughout his life, through Trump-branded wine, chocolate bars, sneakers, NFTs, ties, MAGA paraphernalia, a $59.99 Bible (of all things) and, most recently, his Truth Social meme stock ploy, he has shown an unstoppable drive to enrich himself at all costs. He sees politics, like business, as a zero-sum game in which he wins only if someone else loses. These are the instincts that drive corruption, kleptocracy and grift. And, if past is prologue, we’re looking at a much more damaging sequel.

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