Scoundrel Time

Trump and the Criminal Culture

The photograph showed a new kind of behavior in the Oval Office: Donald Trump was using the body in a way that was unusual for a U.S. president. On his second day in office, the new Commander in Chief was demonstrating his physical domination of the Director of the FBI, James Comey. He was making Comey bow to the new boss.James Comey is considerably taller than Trump, so in order to make this happen Trump would have to force Comey to lower his head and expose an intimate body part. But Trump knew how.

As Comey approached, Trump took Comey’s right hand in his as though to shake it, but instead of shaking it he held it tight. This is a Judo move: with his left hand Trump seized Comey’s right elbow, holding him immobile. Then Trump raised his head and pulled down Comey’s elbow, forcing Comey to bow. Then Trump leaned in. Holding Comey by both hand and elbow, Trump set his lips beside Comey’s ear, whispering into that tender, intimate orifice. Comey was seized physically by Trump’s hands; he was held immobile by decorum and respect. It looked like a scene from The Sopranos.

We’ve all seen the picture. We can’t keep from watching him: the fact is that Trump has extraordinary charisma. It comes in part from his physical presence, which has a kind of horrifying magnetism (by which I mean you can’t look away), and in part from his psychotic energy. You have no idea what he’ll do next, and you can sense that he doesn’t either. That unpredictability gives him a kind of electrical charge and makes him hypnotically appealing, like any madman. Because we know that he’s constrained by nothing, we are in a state of constant suspense to see what he’ll do. Decorum, tradition, courtesy, the law, the facts, the truth—nothing hampers him. He’s an ignoble savage, and we’ve given him the keys to the kingdom.

Nowhere is this more painfully apparent than now, when the entire population is at risk from a virulent pandemic. Trump’s response to his country’s crisis suggests his close connection to a criminal culture.


Our democracy was founded by northern Europeans, mostly WASPs, who brought with them a style of physical behavior that has remained an unspoken part of our protocols. Until the last generation, and even now in public, physical touch among this group is rare. They don’t hug or kiss or put their arms around each other. Bodies are considered private precincts, a tradition that’s particularly true for high officials. At any formal occasion, people hold themselves carefully erect and keep their hands to themselves. They use titles to show respect for the office, the position, and the process. They behave with courtesy and decorum, in accordance with tradition.

So this abrupt departure was striking. Trump was publicly invading someone else’s personal space, seizing control of Comey’s body, touching his skin, pulling him off-balance and breathing into that private opening.

Of course this was not the first behavior unusual for a high official that Donald Trump had demonstrated. Since he first appeared on the political scene we’d been aware of his violation of the rules of decorum, his insults and lewd comments, his lawsuits. We could have seen that he represented a culture entirely different from the one we knew: the criminal culture. The physical behavior is a part of it, and maybe the most obvious, evident to anyone who has merely watched The Sopranos. He refuses to dignify his peers by using their titles or honorifics. Instead, he infantilizes them by using their first names. He touches their bodies to demonstrate his power over them.

The physical aspect is minor, of course. Trump’s deeper commitment to criminal culture is revealed through his attitudes toward rule of law, morality, stewardship, science, and civic responsibility. He reveals it in all aspects of the relationships between the citizen and the law.

This is not the first time we’ve had a president who lied to us, or who has benefited financially from his office. But it may be the first time that we’ve had a president who is a real representative of the criminal culture.

This country was founded on a set of democratic ideals, impersonal abstractions that concern human rights, and freedom, and dignity. They are noble concepts, based on integrity, altruism, and civic duty. As the Constitution declares, the purpose of the new democracy is to: “establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity.”

None of these are part of the culture of organized crime that informed Donald Trump. His mentor was the Mob-related lawyer, Roy Cohn, and as Trump’s history shows, he has adhered to Mob values. Trump has consistently flouted the law. He has lied, cheated, and defrauded. His tactics are bullying, threats, and evasion. This was the criminal culture in which he grew up and flourished. It’s closer to feudalism than democracy, a system in which the lord—or don—holds absolute power over the vassals and serfs who are bound to serve him for life. Favors, obligations, threats and violence are its methods.

At the core of our democracy is the idea of our government’s responsibility for its citizens. This is a key difference between an ethical and a criminal culture. The criminal system takes no responsibility for its citizens: it has none. There is no one whose rights must be protected or whose welfare must be promoted. Those people who work within the criminal system may be protected, but those outside or below it are not citizens, but victims to be ignored or exploited. So Trump doesn’t understand the idea of protecting his citizens. He doesn’t understand the idea of leadership, or what it might mean.

After breathing his secrets into Comey’s lowered ear, Trump asked him into the Oval Office for a private meeting. This, too, was unusual: protocol requires a third person to be present at such a meeting in order to record what is said. But Trump didn’t want anyone to hear him ask Comey for a promise of loyalty. However, like an honorable government servant, Comey refused the request. He said he would promise honesty. From that moment on, Comey was on the way out.

Honesty is irrelevant in the criminal culture; Trump doesn’t really know what it means. He believes that he can make public declarations unfettered by facts. He doesn’t think lies matter, because he’s never been held accountable for them.

What matters to the criminal culture is loyalty. We all saw Trump assemble his Cabinet around a long mahogany table, we listened to their fervent declarations of fealty. This was another remarkable deviation from the norm—the Cabinet usually confers about issues of policy—but a public ceremony of ring-kissing was what Trump demanded, swearing fealty.

One of the foundations of our democracy is the rule of law, but Trump rejects the very notion. He sees himself as outside the law. Not above it, just outside it. He feels no connection to it.

One of his first acts, after his inauguration, was to try to evade his own Secret Service detail. Of course he did. This was instinctive: he’d grown up around people who evaded police surveillance. He’s culturally opposed to law enforcement. Once in office, he derided his own intelligence agencies, scoffing at the information they provided, and declaring that he trusted Russia more than the CIA on the matter of election interference. He derides his military leaders as well: they represent official government entities, which by their nature exist in opposition to the criminal culture. He feels a cultural repulsion for any kind of law enforcement. His tribe is the Mob, not the FBI. He can’t bring himself to trust them. His entire adult life has been spent breaking and evading laws.

Trump uses the phrase “Deep State,” to refer to members of the government whom he doesn’t trust. Actually, these people are dedicated representatives of the country itself. He feels threatened by members of the State Department, the Treasury, the IRS, the FBI, the CIA, the DOD. The idea of public service is unfathomable to Trump. In a criminal culture, it doesn’t exist.

The government itself is an alien construct to him. He actively opposes legal precedents, historical record, and the restrictions that comprise an orderly democracy. Because he only sees himself as an individual, not as the head of an international power, he is heedless of the might he carries. He feels entitled to take whatever power he can and carry out any act he can get away with. He is indifferent to the idea of responsibility toward those who depend on him. He will sacrifice anyone to his own interests: everyone else is a victim, to be exploited.

In an ethical culture, laws are imposed through legal sanctions. These are impersonal actions carried out through due process; cruel and unusual punishments are forbidden. In a criminal culture, laws are imposed through deliberate punitive acts of personal cruelty. Trump uses cruelty as a tool. He uses it on immigrant children, widows, grieving parents—anyone without power. Trump doesn’t believe in the rule of law but in the strategy of gangsters: create chaos, cause fear, and do harm. He uses harm as a negotiating tool, as a way to spread fear throughout the community. If families try to cross the border, he says, raising his voice to a lascivious whisper, “You have to take away the children.” Then he takes away the children. This is the way a criminal institution rules, not through the rule of law, but through fraud, deception, violence, and cruelty.

Because Trump comes from a criminal culture, his sole intent is to make money. He is wholly venal. This is why, on the international front, Trump is only interested in trade agreements, and forcing other nations to pay their shares of treaty obligations and wars. He has no interest in creating peacetime alliances, promoting stability, sharing scientific knowledge, or setting up networks of support. He isn’t interested in public health or the environment. He is only interested in balance of payments. Instead of fair trade agreements, he creates trade wars. On the national front he wants for-profit schools and colleges, for-profit prisons and detainment centers. He sees every transaction as financial.

He wants a system based on obligation and loyalty and dependence. He would rather distribute largesse to the people whom he has damaged economically, like sending checks to the farmers, instead of making strong trade agreements that ensure that farmers can make their own living. He’d rather keep them dependent on him: largesse is a part of the criminal culture. It functions on favors and obligations, and demands loyalty and dependence. Trump is uninterested in the larger initiatives, like public health, education, or the environment, that would benefit the public good. He has no interest in the public good. It does not exist in the criminal culture.

Greed is the principle on which the criminal culture is based, and it governs all parts of it. This is why a criminal culture can create an empire but not a nation. A criminal enterprise consists of a network of allegiance and dependence, but since its sole mission is to make money, it has no obligation to provide the things a nation would provide. It takes no part in the well-being of its citizens: it has no citizens.

So Trump is never working for the nation. He is always working for the financial gain of himself and his criminal allies. He has successfully made an international connection to another criminal system—Russia—and he revels in this high-level alliance. The culture of Russia is driven by greed, it’s brutally contemptuous of the rule of law, and it’s devoid of a sense of moral obligation to its citizens. All of this is familiar to Trump.

A criminal culture resists documentation: written records show proof of culpability. In an ethical community, records are proof of legal actions. Documentation means accountability. Records create a transcript of behavior. James Comey took notes after his private meeting with Trump, in order to create a record. Trump later denied his account, but the notes were there. In Helsinki, Trump insisted on a private meeting with Putin, without observers, violating rules and protocol. A translator had to be present, but afterward Trump demanded even his notes, to ensure there was no written record of their conversation. Criminals depend on the lack of written evidence, even of spoken evidence. As Michael Cohen testified in court, “He’d say, ‘Nothing’s going on in Moscow!’ Then he’d ask, ‘What’s going on in Moscow?’ I knew what he meant.” Criminal culture depends on two narratives, the spoken and the unspoken, the open and the covert. The ambiguous innuendo, the implication. The nod, the lifted chin, the frown. Trump’s foreign policy, instead of being made through clear public statements, may be carried out in private, through oblique, secret asides. “Talk to Rudy.” “Do us a favor.” “They’ll see.”

Trump is careful not to be specific. He won’t provide a date or a price or a number. He says things will happen “very soon,” or “in a short period of time,” or they took place “a very long time ago.” Instead of stating his plan he says, “We’ll see what happens.” He speaks in generalities, and rarely uses facts.

Now that he has been forced to address the issue of the coronavirus, he’s been reluctant to use specifics. He won’t say the number of people who have contracted the virus, or when it began to spread. During investigations of his associates, he doesn’t remember when he first met someone, or how long the man worked for him. He barely knows the man. These lacunae are deliberate. They protect him from liability. If he never says anything specific it’s hard to make him accountable for anything.

Years ago, a NYC official was accused of a fraud and bribery scheme. An associate turned against him, and testified in court. “We met in his office,” he said. “He sat at his desk and said, ‘This is what we’ll use.’ On a piece of paper he wrote “$.” Then he took out his lighter and set the paper on fire and dropped it in the ashtray.” At the end of the meeting there was no written evidence, no physical proof, and hardly even a spoken conversation to use against him.

An ethical culture keeps written records. The purpose of these is to reify knowledge. To make it objective. To make actions transparent. To make facts provable. The criminal culture is oral. Nothing is written down, nothing is specific, and no-one is held accountable.


Years ago an article in the New York Times chronicled the account of certain priests in eastern Europe, after the communist takeover. At first these priests had spoken out against the regime, but they had slowly been silenced. One priest described his experience of walking through the city streets at night, listening to the footsteps of the booted thugs behind him. They caught up to him and beat him, leaving him alone and broken in the darkness. After that he was afraid to speak out. He said he was ashamed of his fear, but he could not conquer it. He kept remembering those footsteps. He was a man of conscience, silenced by fear.

A criminal culture rules by fear: our Republican legislators have been silenced. Over and over we hear that lawmakers deplore Trump’s actions in private, but none dare speak out: the fear of retribution is too great. Trump will stop at nothing. He’ll openly incite illegal violence, as when he suggested that gun-owners, “you Second Amendment people,” might consider their options toward Hillary Clinton. The suggestion of assassination comes easily to Trump. These Republican legislators walk in fear. They claim to speak from principle, but they walk in fear. They fear for their elections, they fear for their careers, they fear for their families. The criminal culture takes revenge. Everyone knows what those threats mean: “She’s going to go through some things.” “He hasn’t paid the price.” “They’ll see.” “You did a job on her.” Everyone knows those threats are real. Everyone understands what it means to see rallies of masked men carrying automatic weapons. These things are meant to evoke fear. In a criminal culture, fear imposes obedience. Among the Republican legislators, this tactic has proved successful.


In a criminal culture there are few specialized jobs, because everyone is there only to make money. They do this through intimidation, threats or harm, stealing or extortion, not through legitimate jobs. So there are no outside specialists who are simply good at what they do, as there are in an ethical culture. A criminal culture has no wood-carvers or pianists or climatologists, no experts in surgery or medieval scholarship. The only people within a criminal culture are criminals.

So the head of a criminal community is mistrustful of outsiders, because they won’t provide loyalty. Trump is mistrustful of anyone skilled in his own profession—a diplomat, or security advisor, or military advisor, or public-health advisor: anyone with legitimate credentials. All those people are threats. The criminal boss can’t risk putting power into the hands of any outsider. He must prevent outsiders from access to the inner circle of loyalists. He must cast doubt upon their expertise, demean their capabilities, and condemn them as human beings. Their very existence threatens the criminal structure.


During the coronavirus pandemic, Trump has resisted advice from anyone qualified to deal with it, because he believes this would mean ceding some of his personal power. He prefers to control his own power by withholding it, as he has with the Defense Production Act. Once he has deployed this Act, he no longer has power over the people who are begging him to do so. He never wants to yield any power: withholding it maintains his dominance over people in need. Threats are more useful than actions: once he has used his power to help people, they are less needy, less subservient, less subordinate. This act of withholding an essential commodity from the public is a kind of extortion. It’s a means of cruelty, and cruelty is a useful tool. The more they need it, the more power he has over the people he “leads.”

Trump doesn’t really lead anyone, instead, he extorts, bullies, and terrorizes. He hasn’t earned their loyalty through his own acts of bravery, or integrity, or sacrifice. Instead, Trump demands fealty, obedience through fear and submission, or he incites a gleeful sense of unity through oppression of the weaker. He has no interest in doing anything to provide relief to others.

The coronavirus crisis has revealed Trump’s essential nature as an x-ray reveals a skeleton. His first response was to deny the facts, since it is his habit to lie. Since he feels no responsibility for his citizens, he felt no need to learn about the situation from experts. He doesn’t like experts: their very existence implies his lack of knowledge, and Trump sees himself as an absolute authority on everything. The presence of an expert diminishes his power, so he rejects experts, unless he can control everything they say. He refuses to take their advice.

In a criminal culture, making money is the sole objective, so during a global pandemic Trump focuses on commerce. He pretends that the federal government has no responsibility for the states. He pretends that the national stockpile of equipment is not intended to be sent immediately to those in need, but instead is to be used as largesse, doled out as favors in exchange for fealty. He values commerce more than health. He urged his citizens to ignore scientific warnings and to leave the safety of their homes in order to bolster the faltering economy. He wanted them to re-enter the marketplaces by Easter.

In a criminal culture loyalty is paramount, because criminals are constantly at risk of discovery. This is why Trump trusts only his inner circle, and has put loyalists instead of experts in charge of this crisis. Vice President Pence, who knows nothing about pandemics, is given responsibility for this one, as well as Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, who is an unsuccessful real-estate owner and failed diplomatic negotiator. Instead of approaching this professionally, using government resources to draw on a network of experienced public servants who are trained for just such situations, Kushner uses standard Mob tactics. He uses personal connections—a friend in the hospital world—to get information. Like Trump, Kushner rejects the experts. He thinks the governors are wrong about what they need; he’ll decide for them. He calls the federal supply of medical equipment, “our stock,” as though it is largesse, and his to hoard or distribute. This property is not his, of course: it belongs to the United States of America and exists solely for the benefit of its people. But, coming from a criminal culture, Trump’s son-in-law sees everything in terms of personal power: punishment or reward. Neither he nor Trump understands or cares that the concept of democracy depends on shared responsibility.

Trump’s rule is to obfuscate, deflect, and deny. His moral position is nonexistent; his tactics are to threaten, harm, and punish. He has no regard for his fellow-citizens, no sense of responsibility for them. He doesn’t see himself as a citizen of the United States, nor does he think of himself as a civil leader. He takes no responsibility for anyone but himself. He has no goals but to make money. There are no criminal philanthropies.

Trump is a product of the criminal culture. We have given him the position of  ultimate authority and welcomed him into our inner sanctum, where he has reveled in his power. We stand on the brink of giving him four more years in which to rampage through our democracy, violating our laws and trampling on our traditions of decency and decorum and integrity, punishing his enemies and rewarding his faithful.

The people whom he thinks of as his enemies are in fact the loyal servants of our republic. What he loots and plunders is our democracy. He will never lead us except into a state of moral confusion. Our traditions have served us well until now, when we have put someone into the Oval Office  who sees our government, our Constitution, our rule of law, and our nation as his sworn, born enemy.





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