Clarence Thomas, Ken Paxton and Donald Trump: The corrupting influence of oligarchy

Clarence Thomas and Ken Paxton's high-end corruption isn't about a few "bad apples." It's how our system works

Published June 2, 2023 5:45AM (EDT)

Ken Paxton and Clarence Thomas (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)
Ken Paxton and Clarence Thomas (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)

It is tempting to attribute the scandals now enveloping two right wing icons — Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas and Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton — to both men's lack of an ethical compass. Resisting that temptation is necessary if we are to learn a larger lesson about the roots of much political corruption in this country.

The through-line in those headline-grabbing events involves massive wealth, domestic and foreign, seeking to buy power and knowing how to cultivate those who have it as well as those who have had it and might regain it. Simply put, people with great wealth often seek to enlist the powerful to help them keep things as they are.

This story is as old as the Republic itself. From America's early days, as bestselling author Thom Hartmann writes in "The Hidden History of American Oligarchy," our history has played out in periods of back-and-forth between democracy and oligarchy, between "rule of, by and for the people" and "rule of, by and for the rich."

Indeed, Alexander Hamilton and his Federalist contemporaries exhibited what the political scientist Jay Cost labels "a shocking naiveté regarding the greed and small-mindedness of the speculator class" which, with insider information, made a killing by buying Revolutionary War bonds from veterans. Such naiveté allowed members of that class to enrich themselves, fostering the rise of an oligarchy that sought to corrupt the government, and periodically succeeded.

That Harlan Crow lavished private jet flights and free vacations on Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas — not to mention paying tuition for Thomas' adopted son and buying his mother's house, so neither Thomas nor his mother had to pay rent or a mortgage — is just the latest example of oligarchy at work.  

The oligarchs buying influence today are not just American citizens.

In a sophisticated purchase of power that repays past favors and looks to the future, the Saudi monarchy, which happens to run one of the world's most reactionary regimes, sponsors a breakaway pro golf tour (through its sovereign wealth fund) that has held several tournaments at Donald Trump's courses. That comes just a few years after the then-president vetoed a congressionally approved cutoff of American military aid for the Saudi war against Yemen. (The same Saudi wealth fund also invested $2 billion in a business venture run by Jared Kushner, Trump's son-in-law.)

The Saudis were also, at least arguably, rewarding Trump for declining to sanction Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the desert kingdom's de facto ruler, after Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi was murdered and dismembered by Saudi operatives. There's also the potential investment in future influence if Trump returns to power.

The wealth-corruption-right-wing-politics connection also plays out at the state level in this country, as came to light during the May 27 impeachment of Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton for taking bribes.  

He allegedly did so in return for helping donor Nate Paul, a wealthy Austin real estate developer, by appointing special counsels, one to look into a court-approved FBI search of Paul's house and the other to question a local district attorney's investigation of Paul.

Corruption, the abuse of the political system by those with the means to abuse it, is certainly not limited to elected officials on the right. But it tends to hover more heavily on the conservative side of government, both here and internationally.

German economist and social scientist Zohal Hessami's empirical analysis of 106 countries over a 24-year period suggests that "the extent of corruption is about 10% larger when right-wing parties are in power rather than left-wing or centrist parties."

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There are at least two reasons for that. First, those with great wealth and power tend to support the status-quo politics favored by conservative politicians. They are willing to pay to keep things as they are.

Second, and in parallel, there is a clear association between corruption and efforts to preserve or increase economic inequality and disparity in the distribution of wealth. A 2014 report by Oxfam, "Working for the Few," put it this way: "Extreme economic inequality and political capture are too often interdependent. Left unchecked, political institutions become undermined and governments overwhelmingly serve the interests of economic elites to the detriment of ordinary people."

Of course corruption can be camouflaged. Think about the Saudis and Trump. Or consider the classic deployed by Crow, who maintains that he never talks to Justice Thomas about "cases."

In all likelihood, he doesn't have to. Socializing with powerful people, as Crow does, builds trust and friendship. Hassami's research shows that "trust and reciprocity are essential when people are involved in illegal activities such as corruption."

Harlan Crow maintains that he never talks to Justice Thomas about "cases." In all likelihood, he doesn't have to. Socializing with powerful people builds trust, friendship and a sense of reciprocity.

What often unites those on the right, particularly those whose purpose in life is to accumulate greater and greater wealth, is opposition to democratizing measures that protect voting rights, restrict money in politics or expand the rights of underrepresented groups. Those who have "gotten theirs" prefer to keep their club exclusive.

As Finn Heinrich, an expert in governance, democracy and civil society issues, notes, the "data show a strong correlation between corruption and social exclusion."

Let's return for a moment to the first reason why corruption is so frequently an instinct among oligarchs. It's not only that they like the way things are right now. They often love the past even more and seek to roll back progressive reforms toward the conditions of earlier decades, or even earlier centuries

Take billionaire Richard Uihlein, heir to the Schlitz brewing family fortune, and his wife, Liz, whom the New York Times describes as "the most powerful conservative couple you've never heard of." 

They're funding a right-wing campaign in Ohio to neuter perhaps the greatest democratic reform that the Progressive Era brought, the initiative process. That device gave citizens the right to adopt laws by a majority vote and circumvent legislatures that were often bought, sold and paid for by the robber barons of the 19th century's "Gilded Age."

There are lessons to be learned from the examination of this wealth-right wing politics-corruption story. One of the most important comes from Harvard anti-corruption expert Matthew Stephenson: "The fight against corruption in the U.S. was a long slow slog, one that unfolded over generations."

Indeed, it has unfolded in the many instances where determined Americans wrested back their power, whether it was the Jacksonian Democrats who brought down the Second Bank of the United States for its corrupt influence, the abolitionists who defeated an arrogant aristocracy of enslavers who dominated poor whites along with enslaved African Americans, or early 20th-century workers who fought for their rights to organize and strike.

Today we have legislation that needs to be fought for, including bills that would impose ethical accountability on the Supreme Court, or limit the role of dark money in elections. To succeed, we all need to avoid treating the corruption of people like Clarence Thomas or Ken Paxton as a problem of a few "bad apples" and see it as symptomatic of oligarchs' efforts to subvert democracy and equal opportunity.

To protect those things, citizens have to speak out against corruption and the oligarchs who seek to destroy government by and for the people. The moral arc of the universe bends toward justice, but getting it there requires taking action to curb the power of public officials whose strings are pulled by the likes of Harlan Crow, Richard Uihlein and Mohammed bin Salman.

By Austin Sarat

Austin Sarat is William Nelson Cromwell Professor of Jurisprudence and Political Science at Amherst College. His most recent book is "Lethal Injection and the False Promise of Humane Execution." His opinion articles have appeared in USA Today, Slate, the Guardian, the Washington Post and elsewhere.

MORE FROM Austin Sarat

By Dennis Aftergut

Dennis Aftergut, a former federal prosecutor, is currently of counsel to Lawyers Defending American Democracy.

MORE FROM Dennis Aftergut

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

Clarence Thomas Commentary Corruption Donald Trump Harlan Crow Ken Paxton Mohammed Bin Salman Oligarchy