“Power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely.”—Lord Acton
The remarkable thing about this last grotesque chapter of Donald Trump’s presidency is how much he has proved Acton both wrong and right.
Few axioms are more popular among pompously earnest pundits and politicians than Lord Acton’s line about power. Acton surely believed that power corrupts. His real indictment, however, wasn’t of the wielders of power, but of those who enabled them. He decried those who exempted the powerful from the rules that bind the rest of us. “There is no worse heresy than that the office sanctifies the holder of it,” Acton wrote in the same letter.
In one sense Trump proved Acton wrong. Power didn’t corrupt Trump. It merely gave his corruption room to run, like handing an inveterate drunk driver a bottle of Jack Daniels and a monster truck to play with.
The phone call to the president of Ukraine that got him impeached was simply Trump being Trump, only on a global scale instead of in the more fetid backwaters of real estate, entertainment and general hucksterism where he made his name. And the sore loser—already the greatest sore loser in American history—who called the Georgia secretary of state on Saturday is the same man we saw descend the escalator in 2015.
“I do whine,” Trump said on CNN shortly after announcing his candidacy, “because I want to win, and I’m not happy about not winning, and I am a whiner, and I keep whining and whining until I win.” His postelection whining spree is a testament to his consistency.
So while power didn’t corrupt Trump, he has vindicated Acton’s larger point about how power invites corruption in others. Corruption means more than bribery and self-aggrandizement; it means rot, decay, the erosion of standards and principles and their replacement with baser motives.
And in this sense, Trump’s corruption has been infectious. Conservatives who once prided themselves on old-fashioned notions of good character now think whining and deceit are manly while graciousness and honesty are for “cucks.”
Worse, conservatives, who not long ago all but defined conservatism as fidelity to the Constitution, now think constitutionalism is whatever allows a losing president to steal an election.
I have no doubt some of the politicians supporting Trump actually believe the lies and conspiracy theories he has peddled. Some probably even think their constitutional schemes are legitimate: Of course the Founding Fathers intended for the vice president to be able to unilaterally void the election results and install the loser!
But sincere belief in transparent lies is even more a symptom of the Trumpian rot. Five years ago, no one who knew Sens. Ron Johnson, Josh Hawley, or even Ted Cruz would believe they’d go along with such assaults on the Constitution, democracy, and common sense. Such is the extent of the corruption; it is somehow more reassuring to think they’re simply lying. At least lies are a concession that the truth matters.
But truth is no longer defined by the factual. Trump has set the truth free to mean whatever delivers a win.
This rot extends far outside of Washington. How could it not? The politicians are merely responding to market incentives the way weathervanes respond to the wind (even if they helped manufacture the very gales they’re responding to). The consumers—i.e., voters, viewers, donors, and subscribers—want the lies.
A whole industry has grown up around the idea that what is good for Trump—or simply what Trump thinks is good for him—is the premise and conclusion of every argument. From pastors and “constitutional scholars” to journalists and right-wing activists, all the conservative yardsticks—of good character, decency, statesmanship, constitutionalism—have been shaved down and bent to fit the crooked timber of the man.
These are the people Trump surrounds himself with. Some were already corrupt, which is why they fluttered mothlike to his flame in the first place. But others were not always this way. The American right is now littered with Actonian cautionary tales, people trading their reputations for one last bit of relevance.
No wonder Trump was so vexed with the uncorrupted Georgia officials who refused to ratify his lies. He pleaded for investigators who “want to find” the evidence he needs, because for Trump and his apologists the truth is defined by his wants and needs.
He won’t stop whining until he gets what he wants, which means he’ll be whining for the rest of his life, and some will call it leadership.