Connecting Clarence Thomas and Donald Trump: Tied together by a mutual worship of corrupt power

Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas operates by the same underlying principles of corrupt power as Donald Trump

By Chauncey DeVega

Senior Writer

Published April 17, 2023 7:02AM (EDT)

US President Donald Trump applauds next to Supreme Court Associate Justice Clarence Thomas during a ceremony on the South Lawn of the White House October 26, 2020, in Washington, DC. (NICHOLAS KAMM/AFP via Getty Images)
US President Donald Trump applauds next to Supreme Court Associate Justice Clarence Thomas during a ceremony on the South Lawn of the White House October 26, 2020, in Washington, DC. (NICHOLAS KAMM/AFP via Getty Images)

At its core, fascism is corrupt power where there is one set of rules for the Great Leader and their followers and allies and another set of rules and laws and expectations for everyone else. Unrestrained and corrupt power is both the means and ends of the fascist and other anti-democracy projects. That same corrupt power is a type of unifying energy field for today's Republican Party and the "conservative" movement more broadly.

Donald Trump participated in a decades-long crime spree. The presidency was but an opportunity for him to continue with those crimes on a historic and unprecedented scale and level. Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas operates by the same underlying principles of corrupt power as Donald Trump.

For several decades, Thomas has been violating ethics rules by receiving gifts and favors from individuals and groups who have interests before the Supreme Court. As revealed in a new report by the ethics watchdog group ProPublica, Thomas has been receiving the equivalent of tribute payments -- including real estate -- from his best friend, right-wing billionaire financier and power broker Harlan Crow. 

As Max Moran notes in The American Prospect, "This is not even the first time he has been caught in this exact scandal," pointing to a 2004 Los Angeles Times report. "Thomas's fix for the ethical violation," Moran writes, "was to try to make it harder to track."

Much attention has been focused on how Thomas' sponsor and benefactor is an apparent Nazi fetishist. Crow's attraction to such evil objects and the vile politics they represent and endorse – however he (and his defenders) tries to excuse-make and rationalize it with pretzel-twisted logic – is critically important for understanding the agenda to end multiracial pluralistic democracy that Thomas and the other right-wing Supreme Court justices and today's "conservative" movement are imposing on the country. Other observers have focused on how Thomas's corruption is indicative of larger problems with the U.S. Supreme Court and how it is now a nakedly partisan institution that does not view the law in a neutral way, but instead, as something to be bent and weaponized in service to the Republican-fascist and "conservative" revolutionary project.

While critically important on their own merits, these concerns and interventions point to a much larger cultural and political problem: corrupt power dominates the American elite class, and this has had extremely deleterious consequences for the American people and their well-being.

How have Trump and his allies and followers responded to his being held accountable under the law for his obvious crimes? Quite predictably: With threats of violence and civil unrest, lies, and false claims that Trump is some type of innocent "victim." Even more absurdly, Trump's cultists are even claiming that he is some type of divinely commanded Jesus Christ-like figure who is being "martyred" and "persecuted" by the Democrats and "the deep state."

Corrupt power dominates the American elite class, and this has had extremely deleterious consequences for the American people and their well-being.

Through their broken reasoning the Great Leader and his or her followers are, by definition, above and outside of the law. For Donald Trump the private citizen to be treated the same way as other Americans – even though he has been granted far more latitude of action and freedom from consequences – is deemed unacceptable for the Republican fascists and those who share their beliefs about and commitment to corrupt right-wing power.

In a conversation last week with Salon, author and investigative journalist David Neiwert offered these insights about Trump's arrest and arraignment:

A central element of any kind of autocratic rule is a degraded and corrupt, two-tiered version of the rule of law, in which the authoritarian rulers are by nature exempt from all legal constraints, while the people they rule over are subject to draconian and often discriminatory enforcement of laws. That's what Donald Trump's defenders have been working toward since the day of his election in 2016, and it's what they're battling for in court now.

Like all good authoritarians, they're trying to convince the public that this kind of de facto immunity from accountability, legal and otherwise, is the birthright of powerful men like Trump, the natural state of things. And until the advent of democratic rule, that probably was more or less the case.

This is what we'll hear from the neofascists who are out there preparing once again to man barricades on Trump's behalf—and not just the Proud Boys and Three Percenter types, but the Tucker Carlsons and the Jim Jordans as well. This is about undermining and ultimately demolishing our democratic institutions—among which the rule of law is probably the most fundamental.

Not to be overlooked, Clarence Thomas's wife, Ginni, who is a right-wing attorney and operative, played a central role in the Trump regime's Jan. 6 coup attempt. If Trump and his cabal's coup plot had developed according to plan, the 2020 Election would have been decided in part by Justice Thomas. Thomas telegraphed what his decision in such a case would be when he was the only member of the Supreme Court to decide in favor of Trump's petition to stop the House of Representatives from accessing documents about the traitor president's Jan. 6 coup attempt. Thomas' embrace of corrupt power represents a larger pattern of ethically compromised if not outright corrupt behavior by the right-wing justices on the Supreme Court.

The American people know from experience that there is a double standard where the rich and the powerful are routinely able to violate the law without serious consequences while everyday people enjoy no such privileges. The result is a legitimacy crisis for American democracy, its social institutions, and elites including the news media and the courts. One of the few American institutions to consistently be held in high regard by the American people is the military. That is a mark of a failing democracy that could potentially succumb to military rule.

Max Moran summarizes this horrible state of affairs:

If the highest justices in the country regularly violate the laws they interpret, then they do not deserve to be arbiters of legality. Failing to act on something this clear means Democrats accept that regular people have no guaranteed rights, and those with power and prestige can do no wrong. Refusing to create 'a big circus' might maintain congressional Democrats' personal delusions of bipartisan comity, which has never been reciprocated. The cost of this self-serving fantasy, though, would be any fleeting claim that the United States government has legitimacy in the first place.

Corrupt power is the driving force behind "too big to fail" and how the moneyed classes and corporations can make selfish, grossly irresponsible, and in many cases illegal decisions that cause financial ruin and misery for the American people. Yet, those same actors are never held accountable and are instead rescued with public money and other support. The average American has no such protections or safety net.

From pollution and environmental disaster as seen with the recent train derailment in Ohio, the opioid crisis, mass shootings, and other examples of corporate crime and malfeasance, corrupt power motivates such behavior and its underlying belief that the rich and powerful are immune from being held responsible for their crimes and the societal and personal harm they cause the American people.

America is sick with extreme wealth and income inequality, where the moneyed classes and plutocrats literally do not live in the same society as everyone else. Corrupt power helps to create, sustain, and expand such an unjust and anti-democratic arrangement.

In many ways, corrupt power and its inherently fascist attributes are the root of America's democracy crisis and the Age of Trump and what it has wrought. Healing America's democracy crisis and stopping the ascendant neofascist movement(s) in its various forms demands a moral reckoning where 1) corrupt power is exposed as not being "the natural order of things" but instead a perversion of it and 2) the rule of law in service to justice is applied equally to both the rich and powerful as well as everyday people.

Ultimately, the moral reckoning that American society needs will necessitate very difficult questions about the collective character of the American people and the leaders they put in power.

In a profile at the New Statesman, political scientist Brian Klaas explained this great challenge in the following way:

Our modern society has made it extremely unattractive to normal, decent human beings to end up in positions of power…. I don't think I'm alone in that. I think there's lots of people who think: I could make the world a little better, but the cost might be enormous to me.

I conducted 500 interviews with some of the worst people around – and they weren't normal….There are quirks about them, there's something wrong with some of them, but they're all very, very good at getting into power. And that's not an accident. There are ways you can counteract that tendency or amplify it, and I think we're unfortunately amplifying it quite a lot."

Power is a relational thing, you can't be a leader if you don't have followers. So as much as we complain about the leaders we have, we have to acknowledge, at least in a democratic society, that we put them there.

That's not about the bad people, that's not about systems. That's about us.

Unfortunately, that isn't as easy to correct.

By Chauncey DeVega

Chauncey DeVega is a senior politics writer for Salon. His essays can also be found at He also hosts a weekly podcast, The Chauncey DeVega Show. Chauncey can be followed on Twitter and Facebook.

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Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Clarence Thomas Commentary Corruption Democracy Crisis Donald Trump Fascism Ginni Thomas Harlan Crow Jan. 6