The horizon is not so far as we can see, but as far as we can imagine

Trump Has Been A Fraudster All His Career, So What’s Changed?

Trump was found guilty in a very interesting suit.

Judge Arthur Engoron, ruling in a civil lawsuit brought by New York Attorney General Letitia James, found that Trump and his company deceived banks, insurers and others by massively overvaluing his assets and exaggerating his net worth on paperwork used in making deals and securing loans.

Engoron ordered that some of Trump’s business licenses be rescinded as punishment, making it difficult or impossible for them to do business in New York, and said he would continue to have an independent monitor oversee Trump Organization operations.

There are a few interesting things about this case.

  1. It’s was brought by the New York Attorney General, not any of the people Trump defrauded.
  2. It was a civil and not criminal case. The Attorney General first considered criminal charges, but then decided on a civil case. Guilt is found in civil cases on the “preponderance of evidence”, where criminal cases are decides on “reasonable doubt.” Guilt is a lot easier to find in civil cases.
  3. Everyone has known, for decades, that Trump was a fraudster and pulling various shenanigans. He wasn’t charged. Why? Because the sort of fraud he committed is endemic in the real estate industry: it is normal. So while it’s against the law, it isn’t usually enforced.
  4. This means Trump is being charged for something most real-estate developers are being allowed to slide on.
  5. The end effect here is to remove Trump’s control of a big chunk of his own empire, thus reducing his power and ability to fund his own campaign. (That isn’t likely to matter, he will be able to fund it with donations, unlike the first time.)

Obviously what has changed is that Democrats, and the cases are being brought by Democrats, don’t want him to be president again. This isn’t necessarily unreasonable: he did try and launch a coup, after all.

But as I’ve written before, it’s a change in elite consensus. This sort of thing used to be done rarely, and not at the Presidential level. It’s going to lead to a situation where both parties go after the other party’s leaders in jurisdictions they control.

In a sense, this is bipartisan. Republicans are using this mostly to challenge laws they hate, like those allowing abortion or trans-therapy. They do it in a jurisdiction they control, then count on the Supreme Court (under Republican control) backing them up in the end. Most, but not all of the time, the Supreme Court does.

Which leads to the question, what happens when all of these cases against Trump make it to the Supremes? All the Republicans aren’t Trumpists, some aren’t fans.

But a judicial hit policy is dangerous when you don’t control the supreme court.

Something to think about.

And, overall, this indicates a new era in American politics: the gloves are coming off, even more, on both sides and previous elite norms are changing.

This makes some sense when you consider that the US, in certain terms, is in decline. In the old days, there was plenty for everyone. But with the US is relative decline (and arguably absolute decline), and with elites having taken so much from the poor and middle class that there’s little more to loot, any further gains must come from each other.

Welcome to decline.

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  1. Feral Finster

    The criminal laws in the United States are far-reaching enough and broad enough in scope that an aggressive prosecutor can always find a pretext to indict anyone at any time. That goes double for a target who is involved in higher-level business or politics.

    This is entirely intentional. If people of influence and authority vote someone off the island, there is always a means of doing so, and entirely in accordance with the laws as written.

    Of course, the prosecutor can’t prosecute everyone, so the decision of whom to prosecute and whom to ignore is itself most telling. This also keeps people from doing things that might attract the wrong sort of attention, which is one of the other goals of the Trump prosecution. The last thing the establishment wants is a competent populist to rise up.

    In the case of Trump, several prosecutors were voted into office on a specific promise of finding a pretext to prosecute Trump. Whether or not what Trump does or did is worse than what any garden-variety real estate developer, huckster and reality TV personality does is irrelevant.

  2. someofparts

    I read that in his recent talk before the plenary session of the Duma, Putin mocked Washington over this. He cited it as a sign of decline that Americans are now deciding elections in the courts.

    Must say I am shocked by the magnitude and disproportion of the judgement against Trump. Sounds like they are trying to seize control of Mar-a-Lago and sell it for a 10th of it’s actual worth.

  3. Willy

    elites having taken so much from the poor and middle class that there’s little more to loot, any further gains must come from each other.

    Seems a good trend, better than nothing. Elite norms used to be to never rat on your friends and always keep your mouth shut. Now they’re starting to whack each other. How does a left take advantage?

    But we still have a large mob herd of what should be informed citizens who think that they’re the cool ones, the correct ones, the pure and chaste ones, who can still be led to attack “the other” if their five families elites ever had a sit down and colluded to give a go-ahead. Can they be re-directed to attack elites instead?

  4. Daniel Lynch

    I assume the Trump case will be appealed, the appeals may drag out for years, by the time the case is resolved the election will be over and Trump may be in the grave. In the meantime, it makes Trumps look bad, and that’s the whole point.

    Obviously the elites — not just Democrats — have decided that they don’t want Trump back in the White House. Even though he gave the elites tax cuts, Trump is a loose cannon. Much better, the elites think, to have someone compliant and conventional, who will do as he is told without rocking the boat.

    As for Democrats, all they have to do to win fairly is run a candidate who is better than Trump or the other GOP losers, but the problem is that today’s Democrats aren’t better than Trump or the other GOP losers. Democrats are still trying to run on FDR’s legacy, but today’s Democrats have no more in common with FDR than today’s Republicans have in common with Abe Lincoln. F’em all.

  5. Soredemos

    Two things can be simultaneously true: 1. Trump can be a comically corrupt businessman and politician. Of course he is; he’s a rich guy, and a rich guy in modern America on top of that.

    But 2. he can also be the victim of a years long coordinated slow-motion coup attempt by a broad alliance of political, media, and ‘intelligence community’ figures.

    That Trump is corrupt in one or a dozen ways goes without saying. But so are essentially all US politicians and business figures. That so much effort has gone into trying to get Trump for something, anything, will legitimize the GOP doing the same in reverse.

    And it’s blatantly transparent too. No one, on either side of this, has any real pretense that this isn’t political. It’s not about moral or legal principles. For Liberals Hair Furher is a threat to ‘our’ (their) ‘democracy’ and needs to be stopped by any means. And Republicans fully understand this.

    That the law will be selectively invoked against elites only when it’s clearly politically convenient will only further delegitimize legal and political institutions.

    I’ll add also, by the way, that the original central claim against Trump was that he was a witting or unwitting evil Rooskie foreign agent. That was a blatant falsehood, a conspiracy theory based on total lies. We’ve now drifted far from anything even remotely related to those original claims, but many Liberals, as dumb as any strawman Republican, remain oblivious to this fact.

  6. StewartM

    I see Trump being convicted and losing his shirt/going to jail (if it happens) would be a possible first step to fixing everything wrong in the US. These laws, you might say, aren’t being enforced against the ‘big boys’ (as the other Trump cases have made abundantly clear) but they are routinely enforced, often without proper due process, against the little people.

    If we’re going to have a rule of law, let the people at the top start risking their money and their freedom. Like you have said about RICO, a bad law, the first step of getting it repealed is to start applying it to people who are rich and powerful and hearing them scream.

  7. Ricardo2000

    H. Rap Brown: “Violence is a part of America’s culture. It is as American as cherry pie. Americans taught the black people to be violent. We will use that violence to rid ourselves of oppression if necessary. We will be free, by any means necessary.”

    Homer: “Hateful to me as the gates of Hades is that man who hides one thing in his heart and speaks another.”

    Just cause “real estate” yahoos haven’t been prosecuted for their frauds, their crimes, doesn’t mean they can’t be prosecuted. Every one assumes that Trump has some sort of immunity, but he doesn’t have any such privilege.

    H. L. Mencken (1880 – 1956): “As democracy is perfected, the office of president represents… the inner soul of the people. On some great and glorious day the plain folks of the land will reach their heart’s desire at last and the White House will be adorned by a downright moron.”

    Frank Wilhoit (The travesty of liberalism by Henry Farrell): “Conservatism consists of exactly one proposition, to wit: There must be in-groups whom the law protects but does not bind, alongside out-groups whom the law binds but does not protect.”

    Trump has committed many crimes, among them sexual assault. So he should face the public and pay for his crimes. The problem is that CONservatives think they are above the law. They have thought this since they committed their first genocidal murders of slaves and First Nations. Since the Pilgrims thought they recognized witches among their community.

    Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis, 1933: “We must make our choice. We may have democracy, or we may have wealth concentrated in the hands of a few, but we can’t have both.”

    Frantz Fanon: “Wealth is not the fruit of labor but the result of organized protected robbery.”

  8. Mark Pontin

    There’s arguably no stronger force in world affairs than elite conflict — intra-elite conflict — when it comes to breaking and making social orders. As Ian notes, this is specially in the context of a rapidly shrinking pie — which is what the US is — for all the would-be predators.

    (Not incidentally, I got out. I’ve been living in London for the last year, watching the US at a distance from a balcony seat.)

    Richard Lachmann is a worthwhile read on elite conflict theory —

  9. Trinity

    “elites having taken so much from the poor and middle class that there’s little more to loot, any further gains must come from each other.”

    They aren’t after Trump for his money so they can take it, they are after him for his power, which they can reduce by separating him from his financial resources.

    I wish this were true, but the rentier economy is still alive and well. They’ve also managed to insert themselves in some fashion as middle men between so many transactions, increasing the cost of everything in every aspect of our lives, while simultaneously increasing their control of profits through monopolies and other types of corruption.

    They have hedged everything for themselves, especially including privacy and risk. We have no privacy and must absorb all the risk.

    One discussion about the differences between rentier and capitalism is here:

  10. Ian Welsh

    No, they aren’t after Trump for his money, he’s not that rich.

    But the elite consensus is breaking down in part because they now need to feed on their peers.

    And while Trump doesn’t have a lot of money in their terms, if he’s Pres again he’ll have a lot of power and be a threat to some people.

  11. Bullweather

    Great framing Ian, and I feel @Soredemos nailed it. I interact with a lot of Republicans through family and work relations, and NONE of them are swayed by any prosecution of Trump. Jan 6th was kind of the point where you’re either on the ride or you’re off the ride. Everything subsequent that are just volleys against the enemy on way or the other.

    Regarding intra elite conflict, the self cannibalization will end being worse for the common folk I think. Instability usually leaves a power vacuum and internal conflict where the last consideration is for the well being of ordinary people. I can only see them being useful tools to ascendant nuevo-elites.

  12. Soredemos


    It’s pretty wild to me to see someone try to portray all of American history, right back to the pilgrims, through a Conservative vs Liberal lens, and where every bad thing is solely the domain of the right, as if things like Manifest Destiny weren’t political mainstream with few if any dissenters.

    Also, Mencken was a Nazi. Not sure if you should be citing him in your support.

  13. Creigh Gordon

    If Trump hadn’t run for President and somehow won, he would still be a two bit con man and nobody would be prosecuting him. Is it political? Of course, but he chose that option.

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