An election that lays bare America's soul — and the rot goes well beyond Trump

It's tempting to put all the blame on one man — but America's culture of political corruption goes back a long way

Published November 3, 2020 4:00PM (EST)

U.S. President Donald Trump speaks during his campaign event at Miami-Opa Locka Executive Airport on November 1, 2020 in Opa Locka, Florida. President Trump continues to campaign against Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden leading up to the November 3rd Election Day. (Joe Raedle/Getty Images)
U.S. President Donald Trump speaks during his campaign event at Miami-Opa Locka Executive Airport on November 1, 2020 in Opa Locka, Florida. President Trump continues to campaign against Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden leading up to the November 3rd Election Day. (Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

This article was originally published by InsiderNJ. Used by permission.

As we stand on the precipice of election night, with the shadows of yet another deadly wave of COVID looming over us, our sense of collective dread continues to build.

How did it come to be that our president is himself sowing the seeds of fear and division, turning red states against blue states as the virus' death toll mounts across them all?

Should we be surprised? He told us, before we gave him the nuclear codes, that he was so adored that he could get away with shooting someone on Fifth Avenue. Perhaps we didn't think big enough about just how big a body count he would rack up in order to cling to power.

He is protected around the clock by patriotic civil servants who are duty bound to offer their lives for his, even as he willfully puts their lives at risk with his traveling snake-oil sideshow disguised as a presidential campaign.

The Chicago Tribune reports that a "group of Stanford University economists, who created a statistical model, estimate that there have been at least 30,000 coronavirus infections and 700 deaths as a result of 18 campaign rallies President Donald Trump held from June to September."

Elections have consequences, but perhaps none so tragic as 2016, which gave rise to a megalomaniacal authoritarian who can ignore the loss of 1,000 Americans a day in a pandemic that his vanity forces him to deny. So we hold the thought of our cast ballots like candles in the wind, anxious about just how much we should fear our neighbors and fellow Americans. Just how durable is this democracy to which so many of us paid scant attention for so long?

'There is a great temptation to blame our deteriorated situation entirely on this one man. This strain of toxic self-regard, when held by leaders, has always been a scourge on humanity that can result in a Jonestown scenario, where one man's whim results in a mass suicide, or in poverty and disease in a failed state.

In ancient Roman times, it was seen as something to be strenuously resisted and correctly perceived as a dangerous character flaw, particularly if it afflicted military generals into whose hands the fates of so many had been entrusted.

As a seventh-grader struggling through Latin class, I recall textbook pictures of slaves accompanying victorious Roman generals in their chariots and whispering, "Remember, thou are but a mortal," to the conquering hero amidst the tumultuous adoration of a roaring crowd.

Embedded in that simple phrase was the implication of serving something greater than oneself — a psycho-social planetary alignment in which the celebrated general was not the sun.

Unfortunately for the Roman Empire, there were significant lapses in such humility with ruinous results, when a flesh-and-blood monarch demanded to be worshipped as a living god on earth. As the historian Suetonius tells us, the Emperor Caligula was fond of reminding his subjects often, "Remember that I have the right to do anything to anybody."

But a bullying autocrat can't rise to power or hold on to it without a cadre of supplicants and opportunists helping to make it so. Through their proximity to the tyrant, these mercenaries hope to improve their own circumstances by any means required, no matter how high the body count or how widespread the collateral damage.

In our own lifetimes, we have seen this with the 2013 Bridgegate scandal in my home state of New Jersey, where a still unknown number of government officials and law enforcement employees conspired to target a town of tens of thousands with lane closures that provoked crippling traffic jams on the George Washington Bridge during rush-hour. Why? Because that town, Fort Lee, had elected a Democratic mayor who refused to kiss Gov. Chris Christie's ring.

When the former U.S. attorney for New Jersey, Paul Fishman, decided to prosecute the Bridgegate scandal, his "pursuit" of the case was a fig leaf of sorts that obscured the true extent of the rot at the heart of New Jersey's political culture and, in the long run, actually reinforced it.

The manipulation of traffic on the GWB on the anniversary of 9/11 was the masterpiece of David Wildstein, who has gone on to prosper as editor-in-chief of the New Jersey Globe, which has been embraced by incumbents of both political parties.

Wildstein pled guilty as part as a deal with the Department of Justice to take a turn as the star witness in what ultimately turned out to be a very expensive and pointless show trial, thanks to the U.S. Supreme Court tossing out the two convictions it did yield.

Incidentally, in June of this year, Wildstein's conviction on two felony counts was overturned.

As it turns out, the only thing worse than no justice is feigned justice. Over time, those who evade accountability can become stronger, as they burnish their personal brands as can-do players who can take the heat and then can go on to dominate our kitchen.

Fishman's multi-million-dollar failed prosecution of public corruption gave the appearance of holding the Christie junta accountable. Yet with the way it was resolved, that architecture was left largely intact, including sealing from public view the identities of the "unindicted co-conspirators" — who were on the taxpayer-funded payroll.

And the names we do know, who are closely associated with that Roger Stone-style trans-Hudson dirty trick — Christie and Bill Stepien, now President Trump's campaign manager — are central figures in Trump's quest for re-election. Of course it's the Trump campaign that has sought to undermine Americans' faith in the democratic process itself, by refusing to commit to a peaceful transfer of power if former Vice President Joe Biden wins the election.

Some might hope that just by turning Trump out of office we can restore our national character. That is ahistorical and ignores our soft spot for the bullies and dirty tricksters who have been in our political soil since Watergate, helping to bring this presidency to fruition.

We can trace the rise of the Living Menace in the Oval Office to America's failure decades ago to hold Richard Nixon accountable for his crimes, thanks to President Gerald Ford's pardon, which must be re-evaluated in light of what historians have learned since then.

In addition to his Watergate cover-up, his use of the IRS to punish political opponents and his secret bombing campaign in Cambodia, Nixon had previously intervened as a presidential candidate to sabotage Lyndon Johnson's Paris peace talks with North Vietnam, so he could win the 1968 election.

And while several high-profile Watergate convictions did stick — unlike in Bridgegate — confessed Watergate-era dirty trickster Roger Stone used his proximity to that 1970s betrayal of America to build his own brand and portfolio.

"Using a pseudonym, he made political contributions from the Young Socialist Alliance to the Republican challenging Mr. Nixon for the party's nomination in 1972, Pete McCloskey," reported the New York Times. "He then presented the campaign donation to a newspaper as proof that Mr. Nixon's opponent was a puppet of the left. He also hired an operative to try to infiltrate the campaign of George McGovern, the Democratic nominee."

After Nixon left office, Stone served as a kind of media concierge for the disgraced former president, who was still important enough to hold court from his comfortable exile in Saddle River, New Jersey, and wield influence.

Stone's "can and will do anything to win" approach helped him to get campaign work on behalf of former New Jersey Gov. Tom Kean and Republican Senate candidate Jeff Bell, who knocked off Sen. Clifford Case in a 1978 primary.

"It was Stone's years in New Jersey where he tempered his craft and libertarian ideology that defined his career," wrote Ian Shearn for NJ Spotlight this summer, after Stone's sentence on federal criminal charges was commuted by President Trump. "It is no coincidence that his time in New Jersey — throughout the 1980s — overlapped the rise and fall of Donald Trump's casino empire in Atlantic City. It was then that Stone formed a lasting though volatile codependent relationship with The Donald. This was the period when the rising GOP hit man transformed into The Prince of Darkness."

Through Stone's role in Ronald Reagan's 1980 campaign, he was given access to Michael Deaver's rolodex, which included Roy Cohn's contact information. Cohn, the notoriously ruthless right-wing lawyer who was once chief counsel to Sen. Joseph McCarthy, had gone into private practice with a dark-side power client list that included Fred and Donald Trump, as well as several reputed mobsters.

"When Stone arrived at Cohn's Manhattan apartment, the lawyer was sitting with one of his clients, Anthony 'Fat Tony' Salerno of the Genovese mob family," the Washington Post reported, based on an interview with Stone. "Cohn suggested Stone go meet a friend: Donald Trump. The dashing young real estate developer, still in his early 30s and building his empire both in business and as a tabloid celebrity, was also busy conjuring the legend that he was a self-made success story, rather than the son of a wealthy man who set him up in business. In Stone, he encountered a bon vivant with a similar gift for grand illusion."

Stone was also a partner in Black, Manafort & Stone, an infamous Washington lobbying firm that was the public face for dictatorships around the world who received U.S. taxpayer aid, despite well documented systemic human rights abuses.

In 1992, the nonprofit Center for Public Integrity published "The Torturers' Lobby," which chronicled the role of Black, Manafort & Stone in block-and-tackling for the governments of Kenya and Nigeria, with their "widely criticized human rights records." The previous year, "Kenya [had] received $38 million in U.S. foreign aid, and spent over $1.4 million on Washington lobbyists to get it. Nigeria received $8.3 million and expended in excess of $2.5 million. Whom did both countries call upon to do their bidding before the U.S. government? The lobbying firm of Black. Manafort, Stone and Kelly Public Affairs Company, which received $660,000 from Kenya in 1992-1993 and $1 million from Nigeria in 1991."

The white paper continued, "Former Reagan political operative, Paul Manafort, oversees foreign accounts; his partner, Charles R. Black, was a senior political strategist in the 1992 Bush-Quayle campaign. Their firm's fees to represent Nigeria, Kenya, the Philippines and Angola's UNITA rebel group in 1991, totaled more than $3 million. All four receive U.S. aid and abuse human rights."

The white paper was prefaced with a quote from Elie Wiesel.

"The greatest evil is indifference," wrote Wiesel. "To know and not to act is a way of consent to these injustices. The planet has become a very small place. What happens in other countries affects us."

Now, thanks to the intercession of President Trump, Stone is a free man and back in the trenches, bayoneting for the president.

In a recent interview with Alex Jones' Infowars, Stone suggested that Trump should actually declare "martial law" to seize power if he loses what, as the Huffington Post reported, "Stone characterized as an already corrupt election. The results will only be legitimate if the 'real winner' — Trump — takes office, regardless of what the votes say, Stone declared. A loss would apparently be justification for Trump to use force to take over the nation."

While the outcome of our election may be blurred by the fog of a civil war that Trump, Stone and their allies are all too eager to foment, let's never forget the names of the Republicans, in New Jersey and elsewhere, who had a choice of where to stand and stood with them.

And please, this time no pardons.

By Bob Hennelly

Bob Hennelly has written and reported for the Village Voice, Pacifica Radio, WNYC, CBS MoneyWatch and other outlets. His book, "Stuck Nation: Can the United States Change Course on Our History of Choosing Profits Over People?" was published in 2021 by Democracy@Work. He is now a reporter for the Chief-Leader, covering public unions and the civil service in New York City. Follow him on Twitter: @stucknation

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