Will Donald Trump Turn America into a Kleptocracy?

December 2nd 2016

One of the words being thrown around the most to describe what a Trump administration might become is "kleptocracy."

The term is derived from "kleptō," the ancient Greek word for "steal."

It is generally defined as "government by those who seek chiefly status and personal gain at the expense of the governed." Or, if one is being less generous, "rule by thieves."

The Washington Post portrayed the incoming administration in an op-ed titled "Welcome to the Trump Kleptocracy" — and the Trump children in particular — as about to unleash a term full of dodgy deals with foreign dictators, unresolved conflicts of interest, tax avoidance, and plundering of America's treasury for personal enrichment.

For his part, Trump has changed his stance a number of times on what he was going to do with his business.

At issue is the perception of a conflict of interest.

Trump first spoke of putting his assets in a blind trust run by his three oldest children (which would not make it a blind trust). He later bragged that he could "perfectly" run both his business and the country at the same time, and that we really don't need to be talking about this.

Trump finally declared he'd be "leaving" his business — but not selling it.

It remains to be seen what exactly will happen with President-elect Trump's potential conflicts of interest.

If the U.S. does go down the road of kleptocracy, it would be far from the first major power to do so.

But it would be a precipitous fall, and one unlikely to take place in just a few years.

Kleptocracy usually takes root in developing countries with extensive natural resources but little in the way of proper governance.

A kleptocracy is almost always the province of an autocratic dictatorship installed by a coup or military junta, which brutally rules through repression and the killing of opponents.

The bulk of the population lives in poverty, helpless to stop their labor being converted by the ruler into largesse for him, his family, and their cronies.

Kleptocrats control the vast majority of the money going in and out of a country.

At its worst, a kleptocracy simply prints more money and uses it to fuel the ruling family's personality cult.

A kleptocracy is nearly impossible to get out of power by any means other than assassination or coup — often by another kleptocrat.

Kleptocrats make their money in a variety of innovative ways.

  • Indonesian strongman Suharto pilfered as much as $30 billion primarily through a massive network of fake charities that solicited and laundered "donations" from both domestic and foreign companies.
  • Philippine dictator Ferdinand Marcos stole $10 billion using schemes so complicated that, even 30 years later, investigators are still trying to recover the money.
  • A host of other despots plundered countless billions in loans and resources from their nations, while keeping them virtually under their thumbs. They include the rulers of Nigeria, Albania, Iraq, Peru, Haiti, the Congo, Libya, Cuba, and Romania.

Most of these tyrants and their successors were eventually (and violently) deposed.

But a new generation of kleptocrats took their places.

The United States has struggled to rebuild Afghanistan while its leaders simultaneously plunder the billions of dollars the U.S. has spent on half-finished construction and infrastructure projects.

A number of Eastern European nations, formerly satellite states of the Soviet Union, are all considered kleptocracies — particularly Ukraine and Kazakhstan.

The former Soviet Union is likely the world's biggest kleptocracy.

Under the leadership of former KGB agent Vladimir Putin, Russia has become what leaked diplomatic cables call a "mafia state."

  • Criminal cronies of high-powered officials are given top jobs.
  • The government funds massive no-bid construction contracts held by friends of Putin for projects that never come to fruition.
  • Bribery functions as a parallel economy.
  • Organized crime is totally entwined with law enforcement.

It's believed that Putin has amassed a fortune of more than $200 billion — a claim impossible to prove, because there's no evidence of what he actually owns.

Meanwhile, the average Russian makes $558 per month — a number that's steadily decreasing.

It's important to note that most of these countries have been deeply corrupt for decades, have no tradition of democratic elections, and lack the time-tested set of checks and balances that the U.S. government has.

But President-elect Trump has already shown disturbing signs of being willing to use the presidency to enrich himself.

Even a few years of kleptocratic rule could leave the U.S. financially damaged and in diminished standing in the world.

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